Violent Saturday (1955)

“It’s so stupid and pointless to be alive in the morning and dead in the afternoon.”

There’s a lovely contradiction in crafting a De Luxe noir in Cinemascope. It’s visually luscious and still shot on the kind of cheapo budget Richard Fleischer was able to make sing early in his career. This fits its ambitions as a bit of a genre hybrid.

The town of Bradenville is butted up against the mountains with a prominent mining industry. They also happen to represent everything that’s good and decent about an American town in the 1950s. Stephen McNally appears to be one of their ilk, just returned to town on business by bus. He chats up the desk clerk at the hotel and settles into his room.

However, anyone with any familiarity with McNally, knows he must have an angle. True to form, he will shortly be joined by two accomplices as they plan out their robbery of the local bank. The train goes hurtling down the tracks toward town with Lee Marvin and J. Carroll Naish.

It’s a visual cue that feels rather reminiscent of Bad Day at Black Rock, and in some general sense, the comparison is not too far off base. For one, we have the return of both Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. The former is a sickly thug in gray, who doesn’t go anywhere without his inhaler, while still burning with that typical sadism. Borgnine, for his part, has a rather twee role as the patriarch of an Amish family. It’s true the crucial element of the plot revolves around these three criminals convening in the hotel to case the local bank and lay out their plans to break in.

However, there’s also this sprawling, rather unnerving gravitas to the whole scenario. The story introduces a number of key figures throughout the town, and it does a fine job of building out the world from there to make it feel alive and expansive beyond just a handful of main players.

Bespectacled Mr. Reeves at the bank (Tommy Noonan) holds down a reliable job. Like much of the local male population, Nurse Linda Sherman (Virginia Leith) has his heart all aflutter. It doesn’t matter much what she’s doing. Sylvia Sidney is a librarian who has fallen on hard times with the bank threatening her with punitive action.

Victor Mature is a family man who helps run the copper mines alongside the company manager (Richard Egan), who has a troubled marriage. He spends more time with a bottle than with his wife. She in turn can be found on the golf course with a dashing gigolo (Brad Dexter). It seems ridiculously easy for such a patchwork to feel convoluted and yet it rarely loses itself.

Because the pieces always feel attached and deeply entwined in the town’s buried indiscretions. And I’m not just speaking of the clandestine heist. You have the moment when a thief and a peeping tom out walking his dog meet on the street late at night outing one another.

In another scene, the local siren and the equally alluring wife have it out over the man who now lies in sleepy inebriation on the couch of his gorgeous mansion. These mini-conflicts aren’t the point of the movie in so many terms, but they leave an impression adding up to a kind of tableau that’s ripe with all sorts of sordid bits of drama. It’s a world where children get into fights in the streets and small-town love feels tainted.

In one of its most sublime moments it takes a drugstore, that beacon of Middle America you often see represented in pictures like The Best Years of Our Lives and It’s a Wonderful Life. They’re a local watering hole of sorts and in this film, it serves to tie all the movie’s various strands together in one moment of choreographed synthesis.

From thenceforward we see it all unfold. The tension is a bit like watching all the plates spinning and not wanting them to fall while at the same time realizing a bank robbery is about to take place. The moment arrives and it gives off all the alarms. However, there are other moments built into it. Take how one of the bank robbers — the bookish one — hands a feisty kid a piece of candy, and it quiets him down. He performed the same act on a train with a group of Amish. These are the types of touches allowing you to recognize the humanity and something beyond the mere cookie-cutter objectives of a movie script.

It’s a horrible thing to realize lives we’ve come to understand if not totally appreciate are not sacred. They too can be snuffed out like any of us. Nor does it desist with the violence. In its day, it was probably deemed graphic. Whether or not that remains entirely true now, Violent Saturday is another one of the old movies that actually lives up to its name as much as can be expected.

Victor Mature and the meek Amish patriarch played by Borgnine must hold their own against the three bank robbers after being locked away in a barn silo. In a different time and place, they might throw out the key that the bandits needed and then they would go their separate ways. However, the very sinews of the characters whether its their religious sentiments or moral fibers, make it imperative that they stand up against this evil even if it’s not the devil himself and only a group of man overtaken by avarice and human corruption. In some small way, they redeem or at least preserve the American ideal. They are projected as heroes to the awe of the neighborhood kids.

The only perceivable letdown with the picture might be the way it wraps up. In some sense, it gives us more than we need in terms of denouement. In others, it leaves us guessing, but even in this, there’s something apropos about the movie sinking back into this status quo of post-war America. It gives the illusion of everything being patched back together like all those folks in the hospital, but you never know what future threats will present themselves. Until then, some men get to live as heroes and others have to grieve irreplaceable losses. It doesn’t seem fair.

4/5 Stars