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Invasion of the Genre Metaphors

I’m back after a break (and thanks to Mike Hale for handling the column in my absence) with an account of two of the most famous political allegories of the 1950s, Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon” (1952) and Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956). Conveniently enough, both are coming out this week as the first offerings from the Republic Pictures collection to be published (in standard def and Blu-ray) by Olive Films. As it happens, neither film is a Republic production, but rather are among the many titles that have accrued to the Republic library as it has been bought, sold and bartered over several decades. I hope Olive will eventually get around to burrowing deeper into the actual Republic output — they do have Blu-ray releases scheduled for four of the George Sherman/John Wayne “Three Mesquiteer” westerns for later this year — but that will probably depend on what masters are being made available for licensing by Paramount, the studio where the Republic library currently resides.

It would be comforting to know what kind of shape the Republic films are in (they include quite a few important late titles by directors like Frank Borzage, Allan Dwan, John Ford, William A. Seiter, Alfred Santell and other major studio veterans) as well as a storehouse of delights from homegrown Republic directors like Sherman, William Witney, Joe Kane, John Auer, John English, Philip Ford and others yet to be discovered. A lot of these titles were severely recut for television release in the 50s and 60s, and on those occasions when Republic films do turn up on cable or streaming video, they are almost always the mangled versions. Does decent 35-millimeter material exist on these films? So far, Paramount has not been terribly forthcoming, but now that Olive is mixing in as a sub-licencor, maybe we’ll see some action on that front.

As the half-sheet poster above suggests, “Invasion” seems ripe for revival as a Broadway musical. I can already hear the Alan Menken score, with Miles’s power pop ballad “I Never Knew Fear Until I Kissed Becky,” Dr. Kauffman’s second act soliloquy, ” Love, Desire, Ambition, Faith (Without Them, Life’s So Simple),” and of course, the grand finale, “You’re Next! You’re Next! You’re Next!” performed by a chorus line of dancing pods (perhaps they could coax the bananas from “The Gang’s All Here” out of retirement, and give them a quick makeover).

The possibilities are endless and my column, before I get too carried away, is here.

118 comments to Invasion of the Genre Metaphors

  • david hare

    Nic, I agree and it’s an even more daunting problem trying to find, (apart from Tony and me) ,see and discuss movies made in France from the Occupation to Truffaut’s “Politique” ( in far too many ways, I fear) des Auteurs”. This was an era when someone as ignnored as Gremillon for instance could flourish as a working director with a finally bedded down studio and (vertical) distribution system during the war. Or a usually mediocre director like Delannoy who could become attached to at least one fabulous project like Eternel Retour and Cocteau. And realize them superbly. Not to mention two of Maurice Tourneur’s best films.

    I think, like France the US film auteurist canon of the 50s is also basically poisoned (my word) by apparent dispositions to “left” or “right”. This is I guess why McCarey loses his cred suddenly when he makes My Son John, a film still totally misunderstood today. As though American Communists weren’t sometimes total bastards and killers. As if that was all there was to the film.

    As for the young. I now feel so old I leave them happily to their dreams, if they can have them that is, with this awful, crap TV impoverished culture.

  • Oliver_C

    “Genre films [Zinnemann] wanted to elevate way above their genres.”

    Couldn’t the same be said about any number of films by any number of directors, auteur or otherwise — Barry Lyndon, Casino, High and Low (even more emphatic in its original Japanese, Heaven and Hell), Once Upon a Time in the West, The Thin Red Line..?

  • Alex

    Barry P,

    I had shift to a yet more timely time frame and was referring to Christian Marclay’s THE CLOCK.

  • Tony Williams

    Robert, I remember being seated next to Jerry Fielding at the 1979 Athens, Ohio Film Festival where they screened THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES and heard him remark on Vernon’s diction.

    I also think Eastwood’s brief, but very interesting prologue, is the most accurate cinematic representation yet of the Border Ruffians and Red Legs guerillas. John Russell is far to old to play Bloody Bill Anderson but Clint was probably giving work to an old friend. Yet, Tobey Maguire is too nice to be a “border ruffian” participating in the St. Lawrence 1863 massacre in Ang Lee’s RIDE WITH THE DEVIL. A good film still remains to be made of this era rather than ones featuring middle-aged versions of Quantrill played by Walter Pidgeon and Brian Donlvey in several films since Quantrill never reached middle-age himself.

    David, the more one sees formerly inaccessible post-war French films, the more one becoes appalled at how they became ignored despite the fact that they contained some very interesting features like Clouzot’s iconoclastic version of MANON (1949) or Becker’s FALABAS (1946) set in 1943 which deals with the very egotistic and narcissistic obsessions of the fashion world. My one question about the latter is how did French upp-er class citizens have money to spend on fashions especially since their most elegant represetatives (Micheline Presle) use bicycles to get around Paris?

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘“Genre films [Zinnemann] wanted to elevate way above their genres.” Couldn’t the same be said about any number of films by any number of directors’

    If meaning is Zinneman had superior attitude to genre movie then I do not agree about TENGOKU TO JIGOKU. I do not think Kurosawa have superior attitude to genre movie.

  • David Cohen

    Oliver, I always had the sense that HIGH NOON was meant to be a Western for people who don’t like Westerns or DAY OF THE JACKAL a thriller for people who don’t ordinarily liked to be thrilled. That was I meant, in my own obscure way. I certainly don’t get a similar feel with HIGH AND LOW or ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST / ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, for instance.

  • Ah, Junko, David, now things are clearer, thanks. I myself would include Wolf (1994) and Unbreakable (2000) in the ‘X films by and for people who don’t really care about X films’ category you describe.

  • David Cohen

    Agreed, Oliver.

    DANCES WITH WOLVES – I don’t think you can’t beat DANCES WITH WOLVES when it comes to finding a Western that’s made for people who don’t much like Westerns.

  • nicolas saada

    David, I agree with you. But I have to make a point: the pantheon works, and by all means, I can live without HIGH NOON but not without THE SEARCHERS or RIO BRAVO. On the other hand, I cannot ignore the great works of directors who for a time were perhaps overhyped. Tey help me as a filmmmaker, mainly. Some Frnch films have been dramatically ignored abroad, but they were films supported by the new wave too : Gremillon, Becker, to name just a few. The lack of circulation is sometimes due to big studios or companies policies. The Ophuls films were available in the US on dvdlong before they were in France. And the Criterion box of Gremillon films groups two titles unavailable in France over the past 20 years. And still not available. It gives you an idea of how neglectful our industry can sometimes be with its film history. But it wil change, hopefully. Also, there is a Sautet series planned in august in New York at the LCFF, thanks to Scott Foundas, and those who can attnd it should see MAX ET LES FERAILLEURS, one of the best French crimefilms ever made, a pure gem.

  • Tony Williams

    Thanks to a contact I was able to get a subtitled copy of MAX ET LES FERAILLEURS some months back and it is a gem. Lack of contemporary appreciation can be a problem as seen in the condemnation of most of British cinema some decades ago. This led to the ignroing of the very different, but interesting genre of British film noir as well as some of the excellent examples of the B film (as documented by Steve Chibnall in his recent book) now back in circulation.

  • Noel Vera

    Oh wow, I can actually say something about Zinneman. What does that say about my moviegoing?

    “The same might be claimed for A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS and (is it?) Robert Bolt.”

    I’d say the movie is a lot dryer than the play. Zinneman–or Bolt, I wouldn’t know–cut out the character of the Common Man, who put a lot of humor and juice into the original play. What’s left is dessicated, to put it kindly.

    And I’m thinking it’s Bolt who softpedaled More’s character, mainly because he had a point he wanted to make: how a man has to make peace between his conscience and his realpolitik survival instincts, and where the limit of that compromise might be. Of course More might be a poor choice–but he did have a kind of integrity. It’s his fanaticism (hand in hand with his integrity) that led him to do morally repugnant things. It can be argued Bolt opted for the less complex but easier to digest attack.

    For all that I do enjoy the way Zinneman makes all the kilometric lines lucid, even enjoyable. If anything, that’s probably the best way to enjoy Man–as a display of verbal dexterity and longwindedness.

    Possibly the most enjoyable Zinneman is Day of the Jackal. There he went the opposite tack–took Forsythe’s clumsy prose and made a taut thriller out of it. Not Richard Fleischer taut, but enjoyable enough. If Zinneman had a bit more trashiness in him we might actually take him seriously.

  • Alex Hicks

    No discussion this morning about the broad tradition of vigilante justice in the American Cinema, if not necessarily at the American Cineplex?

  • Barry Putterman

    Interestingly enough Noel, “a man has to make peace between his conscience and his realpolitik survival instincts” might also be said to be the point being made in HIGH NOON. So maybe we have a theme here for Mr. Zinnemann regardless of whether Bolt or Foreman or whoever is writing with sledgehammers or not.

  • Well, “a man has to make peace between his conscience and his realpolitik survival instincts” is the theme that runs through pretty much all of Zinnemann’s career. Beside HIGH NOON and A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS it’s also, for example, in THE NUN’S STORY, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, BEHOLD A PALE HORSE, THE DAY OF THE JACKAL. The thematic consistency is one reason why Zinnemann is definitely an auteur.

    Zinnemann once said “A man’s character is his destiny.” and that might sum up his films pretty well. (It wasn’t his words actually, he claimed to be quoting Robert Louis Stevenson but it was originally Heraclius who said it.)

  • Barry Putterman

    Fredrik, I’ve been hoping that you would expand a bit on the reasons for your enthusiasm for Zinnemann. Comments, both positive and negative have been made about how FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, BEHOLD A PALE HORSE and THE DAY OF THE JACKAL were adapted to the screen. Have you thought through how you believe the choices were made along Zinnemann’s thematic lines? Or is that a subject for further research?

    By the way, I think that Heraclius once admitted that he overheard some guy saying that at the marketplace.

  • “The thematic consistency is one reason why Zinnemann is definitely an auteur.”

    True enough Fredrik, but Zinneman’s visual style is serviceable at best. I believe it was Junko who made a case for his mies-en-scene in “High Noon,” and I know what she’s talking about here, but it’s not consistently interesting from film to film.

  • Barry, I’m sorry to have let you down! There’s been so much going on here. It is a subject for further research, in fact, there’s a book project here that has been brewing for some time now. But for now I’ll give you these points as to why I like him:

    He was a meticulous craftsman, and simultaneously fascinated by rituals. Just look at THE NUN’S STORY or FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. THE DAY OF THE JACKAL is not so much about whether the assassination will succeed but the thrill of watching a true professional working with complete dedication (there’s a Hawksian aspect to this of course). He put his films together with the same precision and dedication. He knew exactly when to cut, when to hold a shot, when to move the camera, when to keep it still, when to use a close-up, when to use a medium shot and so on.

    I like the way he tells his stories, at a measured pace yet with a strong pull, and how he often inserts shots of buildings, statues, trees, clocks and so on that pauses the action, like Ozu’s “pillow shots”.

    He was great with actors, and had a knack for handling actors with different styles and temperament, in one film.

    I like his commitment to use his art to say something about society, but not succumbing to false hope. The number of sad or open endings in his films is impressive.

    So those were some reasons why I like him. He also had weaknesses of course, mainly on a visual level, but those are for another day. For a more thorough and insightful analysis you’ll have to wait for the book (or edited collection to be specific) I hope will eventually see the light of day.

    Actually, it was Heraclitus’ wife’s second cousin who said it first.

  • Alex

    One person’s “servicable” style is another’s Classical Hollywood Cinema craft.

    Two styles comparable in kind are those of Hawks and Wyler (when Toland isn’t teaming up with Wyler), though Wyler is yet sharper and Hawks is far more richly inspired working within the CHC style.

  • “One person’s ‘servicable’ style is another’s Classical Hollywood Cinema craft.”

    They’re synonymous for me. Hawks has a vision that’s embodied in his style that takes it beyond Hollywood Cinema craft; the mise en scene and dramaturgy are inseparable and create a Hawksian universe. A serviceable style delivers the story without being organic to it. So the great auteurs have more than a consistent theme going for them, more than sincere engagement with the stories their telling, they evoke a world through that style.

  • Barry Putterman

    That’s allright Fredrik. I wouldn’t want you to endanger sales by giving away the plot. It is possible that Zinnemann does indeed evoke a singular, defined world through an organic style, but that X and I simply would rather not live in it.

  • Barry, I promise to send you a copy for free. And the only cinematic world I’d want to live in is Hatari!’s.

    I’d say that Zinnemann’s style is often organic to the story he is telling, and much more than serviceable. But not always.

    But what, pray, is CHC? Is that the style of any Hollywood filmmaker we don’t happen to like? Or is for example Cukor CHC? Gregory La Cava? Raoul Walsh?

  • A strength of Zinnemann’s is his sense of place. He is at his best when shooting on location, whether in Bavaria (THE SEARCH), Hawaii (FROM HERE TO ETERNITY), Congo (THE NUN’S STORY), Australia (THE SUNDOWNERS), the Pyrenees (BEHOLD A PALE HORSE), several European locations (THE DAY OF THE JACKAL), or the Swiss Alps (FIVE DAYS ONE SUMMER). Those locations are not just picturesque backdrops but essential to the stories.

  • Alex

    I can’t think of any conceptual contribution to cinematic discussion during the last 40 years more useful than Bordwell’s Classical Hollywood Cinema; and I used the concept in defense of Zinnemann, not for negative criticism.

    The Classical Hollywood Cinema is, in a nut shell, a mode of film making that centers on narrative, roots narrative in the initiatives of manifestly goal oriented characters, subordinates the portayal of space and the movement through time to clear narrative, stresses tidy closure, relies on genre-based expectations and is cinematographically unobstrusive (e.g., without distracting authorial touches).

    Yes Cukor, La Cava and Walsh — like Zinnemann and Hawks– all work withingthe confines and possiblities of the CHC (the often strongly expressionistic Welles, strongly imagistic Ford and very styliticall wideranging Hitchcock less so). Eisenstein Ozu, and Bresson –as well as non- narrative film maker generally (e.g., Michael Snow, Dali)– are some explicit examples of non-CHC; and much “art film” (e.g., New Wave film) is analyzed in terms of its divergence from the CHC (like modern jazz relative to show tune melodic structure or the modernist symphony in relation to the classical form of Hadyn).

  • Dave prefers Rio Bravo to any of Zinnemann’s films and he’s perfectly within his rights. I might prefer it too, if I saw any reason to compare. To do so is to play Hawks’ game, and I don’t think Hawks’ comments on High Noon are particularly insightful as film criticism, though they do reveal a lot of useful stuff about Hawks’ own attitudes. Since he’s a filmmaker with a personal view of the world which he expresses in his films, that’s all good stuff to hear about. But it’s probably a barrier to actually getting anything out of High Noon.

    As for defensiveness when discussing Wyler, Stevens and Zinnemann, it’s probably something to do with the regular attack those filmmakers’ work comes under. But I’d agree that it’s better to discuss the actual qualities of the films than to defend their reputation. True, the films are still well known and available (and enjoyed by audiences) so they might not seem to need defending. But if one is writing for a particular kind of cinephile, the movies’ lowered reputations amongst that audience do sometimes prompt musings.

    To take the case of High Noon, I think it may be that the film is improved if you don’t go in saying to yourself that it’s a metaphor for the blacklist. If you watch it simply as a taut story about a character in a given situation, you will find that the story does resonate in certain directions, but at no time will you find this being forced upon you. Maybe because I first saw the film innocently, as a child, this seems important to me.

    I don’t find the same inconsistency in Zinnemann’s visual style as some do. He’s not absolutely consistent, and his last couple of films are a bit rusty. But Rio Lobo is pretty rusty too.

    I point to the chair in High Noon. At the height of a montage of figures waiting for the train to arrive (from a dramatic low angle vanishing point), Zinnemann cuts to an empty chair, previously pointed out as the chair the villain sat in when he was sentenced to prison. Zinnemann tracks in on the empty chair. This strikes me as superb – others may disagree. But it is certainly imaginative, creating a dramatic effect which is powerful and quite lucid, out of an apparently empty shot. It makes you see a memory of a previous action that occurred before the film started, and it associates the menace of the coming train with an empty seat on chair that’s growing closer also. Anybody can decide whether they think the effect is good or bad, but it’s a kind of poetry, and it has nothing to do with the prosaic reputation Zinnemann is saddled with.

  • Alex

    As to how one might use the claim that Zinnemann hews close to the Classical Hollywood Cinemain in defense of Zinnemann’s style, well, most simply, one might do so by claiming that he implements each element of the style –acting (as posture, projection, gesture, dialogue delivery, social warmth and dramatic charge, compositional and choreographic element), choerography, set (as realistic grounding, metaphor, spectacle), camera placement and shot framimg and movement, and so on) with expert craft, even in the absence of striking distinctiveness directorial touches in the use of any of these elements.

    A good case of Classical Hollywood direction of this sort is Huston’s direction of “The Maltese Falcon,” a great novel ready made as a great script, a great script powerfully rendered by “mere” representation, unadorned by anything embellishments (unless we want to consider the remarkable casting as one, especially if Huston could be said to have had a hand in it). Huston at what I regard at his best –FALCON, SIERRA MADRE, CONCRETE JUNGLE, MAN WHO WOULD BE KING– seems to me a very unobtrusive implementer of the CHC, aided by great luck, or skill, in the acquisition of shooting-ready, personably congenial material and wonderfully casts –except perhaps in the case of THE DEAD, in which the cinematography transcends the CHC with its radiant imagry.

  • Nice photos on the website of the Academy / Margaret Herrick Library / The Fred Zinnemann papers

  • Barry Putterman

    I’ve never completely understood why it is so, but I imagine that it is that “particular kind of cinephile” rub that keeps otherwise sane people from enjoying life as they should.

    It doesn’t seem to me that auteurists spend much time attacking Zinnemann-Stevens-Wyler et al. anymore. They just kind of wish that these directors and their films would go away and leave them alone. Only they don’t. Apparently all of the awards and the popularity rankings and continual showings at museums and retrospectives and on television isn’t enough unless auturists join it as well. Which is something like going to the Democratic Convention and saying “Ronald Reagan is an extremely popular figure who accomplished many things and has had an enormous impact on American history. So why don’t you like him?”

    But the Democratic Convention isn’t any more the entire country than auteurist web sites is the entirety of the film world. If it were, THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER would be easier to see today than GIANT is.

    So if you like Zinnemann, why not just do as Fredrik is doing. Put in the time, make the case for the films, and don’t look over your shoulder at what any other particular kind of cinephile might be thinking.

    Personally, I like George Roy Hill, Claude Binyon and much of William Wellman. They aren’t going to win any life achievement awards from auteurists, but c’est what you call your la vie.

  • Well, I spent a week posting about Zinnemann on my blog, something new every day. My last paragraph above was an example of the kind of thing I find interesting in Zinnemann.

    The “particular kind of cinephile” I mentioned is the people I write for, whose taste I respect. And some of them don’t like Zinnemann. Which is fine. But when writing about ANY filmmaker, all one can really do of value is say, “I think there might be something interesting here, and here’s why.”

    The difference with Zinnemann is that, if I were making a case for Pierre Chenal, say, somebody might very well say “Interesting. I had a look and it didn’t impress me, here are some problems I had with it.” They’re happy for there to be a debate. Whereas with Zinnemann, as you say, Barry, there can be an attitude of “They just kind of wish that these directors and their films would go away and leave them alone.”

    It’s as if the very act of saying “I think this is worth looking at, talking about,” is offensive. And I don’t think the Reagan analogy really holds up, since my objection to liking Reagan is moral and political. In fact, Zinnemann is unpopular with lots of people who probably share his liberal views, but prefer the films of Eastwood or Walter Hill. Which is fine.

    What’s kind of distasteful is this idea that these filmmakers shouldn’t be discussed anymore because hey, they had their day, they won their Oscars, and some of us don’t like their films. Nobody’s saying you have to like them. But what we seem to have is a scenario where it’s somehow not OK to defend these filmmakers.

  • Thanks Barry, and I like George Roy Hill too. I’m not ashamed to admit it. (People should read Barry’s chapter about Hill in American Directors: Volume 2)

    Alex, my question was in jest. I’ve read Bordwell, and Bordwell/Thompson/Staiger, but I’m still not sure about the concept. Your apt summary was:

    The Classical Hollywood Cinema is, in a nut shell, a mode of film making that centers on narrative, roots narrative in the initiatives of manifestly goal oriented characters, subordinates the portayal of space and the movement through time to clear narrative, stresses tidy closure, relies on genre-based expectations and is cinematographically unobstrusive (e.g., without distracting authorial touches).

    But why is that particularly for Hollywood cinema, and are not in fact an impressive number of films made in Hollywood not like that at all?

    Thanks for the photo Antti! Here’s another one, a really great photo of Gary Cooper:

  • patrick henry

    I recently looked at the 1936 version of FALCON, Dieterle’s SATAN MET A LADY, and found it very enjoyable for its rather outlandish “embellishments.”

    I imagine it came from somebody at WB saying, let’s use Warren William in the part. He might even be called, in a sense, the auteur of the film. Not believable as a hard-nosed PI the way Bogart was, but very entertaining to watch. I suppose some would say he comes across too much as a con man smirkingly admiring his own conning, but you find your fun where you find it. Wini Shaw is much the most appealing and least hard to take of the three Iva Archers.

  • Barry Putterman

    Actually, I’ve heard Clint Eastwood speak very highly of Zinnemann in interviews.

    The Reagan analogy is that while there is a good body of historical analysis which gives him credit for a number of achievements, there are a number of people who feels that his fundamental approach to government was wrong and so do not want to give him favorable consideration. By the same token, there are a number of people (and I’m pretty much one of them) who has seen all of Zinnemann’s films and recognize occasional achievements, but see his fundamental cinematic approach as being wrong and so do not want to give him much further consideration. You can call one end of the analogy political and the other aesthetic, but I would claim that they amount to the same thing.

    Nevertheless, I look forward to reading Fredrik’s future work on Zinnemann (one hand washes the other here) and am perfectly willing to listen to anybody else on the subject as well.

    I don’t know what the experience was on your site Mr. Cairns (I hope I spelled that right. I can’t scroll up while in the comment box), but we’ve had more than 70 comments this week, most of which have been back and forth on Zinnemann and I don’t recall anybody saying that such a discussion shouldn’t be allowed. What’s more, we’ve had monumental, marathon donnybrooks regarding Huston, Kubrick, The Coen Brothers and other directors whom I’m sure that our host and others would hope would somehow go away, without anybody saying that such discussions did not belong here.

    So, while I occasionally hear these laments that someone is somehow not ALLOWED to make the case for Stevens or Wyler or whoever, it always seems to come within the context of ongoing debates regarding those very people.

  • ” we’ve had more than 70 comments this week, most of which have been back and forth on Zinnemann and I don’t recall anybody saying that such a discussion shouldn’t be allowed.”

    Indeed. The exchanges on Zinneman’s merits or lack thereof have been more interesting than watching some of his movies for me.

  • David Cairns, let me assure you that I have no plans to send out my personal squadron of storm troopers to prevent you from proclaiming your opinions about Fred Zinnemann or anyone else. I do have to say that I wish you could provide a more convincing argument than vague, unverifiable assertions such as “Zinnemann’s lead actors are incredibly natural and unaffected”? How would you distinguish him, from, say, Mark Robson or Edward Dmytryk, two other “actors’ directors” who emerged under the Stanley Kramer banner?

  • Shawn Stone


    Warren William’s performance in SATAN MET A LADY is much of a piece with his take on Perry Mason in a film series I very much hope will be released by Warner Archive some day. And it’s always a pleasure when Wini Shaw is in the cast.

  • Brian Dauth

    1. I believe THE STING to be one of the great movies of the 1970’s. The rest of GRH’s output is a little more hit-and-miss for me, but THE STING is choice (and I say this after several recent viewings where I was wondering if the film would fail).

    2. Serious question to Barry and all: what do we mean when we write: “… see his fundamental cinematic approach as being wrong”? What is wrong about it? I know for me, when I use this terminology, it is most often of when the camera seems positioned in a place that I cannot understand why it is there — it seems to be recording dead space. But is this an absolute, or can a different spectator be presented with the same image and find life in it?.

    3. x359594: Ouch, but well put (Zinnemann slipped over the years for me, and now I am not sure I want to revisit his films, though what D Cairns has posted makes me want to go back with his insights in my mind).

  • Barry Putterman

    Brian, I used that phrase within the context of the analogy. Which is to say that if you don’t embrace Reagan’s general philosophy of limited central government, you may not want to consider the merits of his individual polices. And if you don’t embrace Zinnemann’s general style; reasonable, understated, middle distance, what I earlier termed as appropriate to the United Nations, you may not want to hear arguments about the individual films

    In “real life,” I’m less inclined to call anybody fundamentally wrong, even if I don’t much care for their overall approach or most of their individual efforts. Mostly because it implies that there is a way which is fundamentally right. And I’ve never really been able to go there.

  • Count me another long-time admirer of George Roy Hill, someone whose films across a variety of genres are tremendously pleasurable, extremely witty and surprisingly moving. His versions of SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE (with its great use of Glenn Gould) and THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP make him one of the unacknowledged masters of literary adaptation– I’ve always believed GARP actually a better film than it is a book, for the simple reason that it is presents itself as a piece about the entire course of a man’s life from birth to death in a way that fundamentally resonates with the medium of its telling, unspooling, as it were, irrevocably, whereas the book is primarily about the life of a “writer,” filled with all of John Irving’s personal (as someone who was at the time of publishing “Garp” a guy with 2 unsuccessful novels to his name) bullshit about writing and what it means to be a writer, etc. etc. In the movie, it almost doesn’t matter what Garp does, and the lifting of that burden does wonders.

    His directorial signature may be subtle, but one feels a real sensibility, a sense of humor and a compassionate humanism across his work– reading the claims in recent years of the cult of Hal Ashby, I often feel like the same praise might be laid upon THE STING, SLAPSHOT and A LITTLE ROMANCE.

  • Jonah

    Re. genre films by folks who don’t seem to like genre films, I had a similar thought while watching Losey’s THESE ARE THE DAMNED. I know this has a cult reputation–Joe Dante and, I think, Dave sing its praises. But I found it terrifically dull. Losey had a bizarre genre premise, but only occasionally seemed to connect to it with a satisfyingly strange or unsettling mise-en-scene.

    Far too much of the film was a pretentious talkfest in the manner of many early-1960s “art films” (I was reminded equally of contemporaneous films by Jules Dassin and Antonioni), gussied up with fashionably emptied-out ‘Scope compositions. Losey does nothing to make his characters more than rickety conceits, and their interactions ring 90% false. (It didn’t help that was a little repulsed by the extremely leathery Macdonald Carey.)

    I agree that the way the film takes a flying leap from social-problem drama to science-fiction (connected by intimations of dystopia) is unique, but that didn’t make the film any more pleasurable. I’d rather I had been content reading about it. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Losey was trying to elevate his material, and would much rather have adapted the likes of Pinter, etc.

    (I’ve never had such a negative reaction to a Losey film before, but I’ve had similar thoughts about other of his films, notably TIME WITHOUT PITY, which likewise takes a seemingly unbeatable suspense premise and manages to make it feel attenuated and less than gripping. That said, I was impressed by some of his American noirs.)

    I’ll say one thing, though: it has an impressively bleak ending. Would that it were attached to a better film.

    From the interviews with G.R. Hill I’ve read, he’d mock all you for characterizing him as an “auteur.” It does seem a clumsy concept by which to rationalize one’s admiration for any number of films…

  • Jonah

    Admittedly, Howard Hawks would also find the characterization ridiculous. I guess I just don’t know what’s to be gained, at this point in time, by dividing directors up into “auteurs” and “metteurs-en-scene” in the Cahiers fashion–it’s a dichotomy that seems to obscure more than it reveals.

  • It’s not that I feel people who don’t like Zinnemann are threatening or bullying. It’s just that, while their arguments often take the stance that he’s overrated, Dave K seemed to be arguing that it’s somehow legitimate to do that, but wrong to argue from the opposite side and say that the negative reviews are missing something.

    Actually, I think the only reference I made on my blog to negative comments was the way Hawks is wielded as a club to beat Zinnemann with, because that one’s inescapable – and silly. Professionalism is a major theme in Hawks, and so he objected to what he saw as unprofessional behaviour in High Noon. But (1) trying to get help when you’re hopelessly outgunned isn’t unprofessional, especially when past circumstances lead you to expect help will be forthcoming, and (2) Zinnemann isn’t particularly concerned with professionalism so it’s no the right yardstick to assess his film by.

    “Zinnemann’s lead actors are incredibly natural and unaffected” does sound woolly, although at least I was referring to two specific actors in one specific film, Theresa. I can back it up, superficially, by pointing to the fact that they wear no makeup, are naturalistically photographed, on location, and speak with their own accents. Neither had acted before and they interact with other players who aren’t professionals at all: the styles seem to me to blend. They speak more quietly than people in most 40s/50s films. They don’t gesticulate dramatically like Brando, they speak falteringly, and when Pier Angeli smiles, it always seems involuntary.

    As to distinguishing Zinnemann from Robson and Dmytryk… Well, since it’s been remarked that thematically Zinnemann is always concerned with questions of integrity, that should let him out of any comparison with poor Dmytryk, who I think went into a tailspin after he testified to HUAC. Dmytryk and Robson were both editors, which I think informs the more interesting formal aspects of both their oeuvres. (Incidentally, Dmytryk “emerged” not under Kramer but under Adrian Scott at RKO – by the time he worked with Kramer, I think his more interesting days were behind him. And Robson, of course, “emerged” under Val Lewton.)

    Zinnemann differs because of his personal obsession with integrity in conflict with realpolitik, and because of his project, beginning with Redes, to use “real people” alongside actors, which brings him closer to Milos Forman than to anybody from the supposed Kramer school.

    Like those filmmakers you mention, Zinnemann did work in a wide range of genres, but his themes are pretty consistent, which makes him more like Hawks, in the sense of being what would be considered a classic auteur. Even Day of the Jackal, which he thought of as a departure from his usual interests, has a key moment when the Jackal kills a woman he has slept with, in order to protect his identity, and shows emotion for the only time in the film. Unlike other Zinnemann protagonists, he has broken his own moral code.

    I would also point to Kent Smith’s recent championing of the exploding watermelon shots in the same film, in his recent/ongoing dialogue on Bresson with B Kite. Zinnemann’s films have tactile pleasures which are never mentioned by those rushing to dismiss his films as civics lessons. In fact, he’s less didactic than, say, Kurosawa: his films are only about the situations which occur in them. Any application of those situations to the wider world is the work of the audience, and rightly so.

  • Kent JONES. Mixing my Smiths and Joneses.

  • david hare

    David Cairns, congrats for a long overdue context and appraisal of Zinnemann.

    One might add, isn’t professionalism itself surely an exercise BY US in discretion of one’s appraisal between one artist and another, to the extent that one merely recontextualizes artists from an apparently indentical era? An exercise in history?

    This seems to me so obvious, and the parallel just like another ongoing battle in trying to resurrect 30s and Occupation France cinema from autuerist historical fascism, simnply on the basis of historical contextual prejudice. (Like the current Modern German opprobrium dumped on 30s Sirk by that very establishment as “pro-Nazi”. So, bien sur, Schlussakkod is a Pro Nazi Family Culture film? )

    Isn’t this very exercise of discretion AND ARGUMENT and indeed discrimination what we all must do? Have to do?

  • Barry Putterman

    Well I am loathe to call any received opinion which differs from mine “historical fascism.” But the one which tells us that Dmytryk’s career became rubbish after his HUAC testimony demands further examination. I know that it makes for comforting moral math, but for me, the films say otherwise.

    In particular, I would point to two post HUAC films, THE SNIPER and WARLOCK, as his two finest achievements. And while I would not want to construct another false parallel, it struck me that those films were both more morally complex and psychically tactile than anything I recall from THE DAY OF THE JACKAL or HIGH NOON.

  • Alex

    Fredrik Gustafsson

    In my reading of Bordwell, the “Hollywood” in the Classical Hollywood Cinema is there (1) because Bordwell, i
    a nut shell, a mode of film making that centers on narrative, roots narrative in the initiatives of manifest build his model from a generalization of the prevailing mode of film during the Hollywood studio system and (2) because he believes this mode of cinema has its source of worldwide diffusion in the early Hollywood studio era. The presence of this mode of film beyond the Hollywood studio system is viewed, I think, as a matter of legacy and diffusion — as well as a matter of degree and perhaps occasionally of varied re-discoveries of the wheel.

  • Alex

    George Roy Hill is slick and light. His films have a nice professional sheen but it’s a gloss over works with the social and psychological depth of teen fiction. That glossiness and the charm if its leads aside, THE STING mainly works on the basis of a surprise ending rooted in room for mischievous manipulation in bookie reliance on privileged telecommunications, a technological nicety best utilized in Joseph M. Newman’s (1950) far more substantial “711 Ocean Drive.” In these terms, “A Little Romance,” and “The World of Henry Orient” — delightful classics middle school female entertainment sort at the same high level as such John Sturges classics of middle-school male entertainment as “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape.” (No, I find no depths in “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “ Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, “ though the latter, at least, is not slick and shallow to the point of moral effrontery.)

  • Thanks, David Hare.

    I thought THE SNIPER was good.

    Re-reading this, I see I made a more nuanced case for Dmytryk’s career arc at the time, one which seem more in keeping with his CV.

    But I prefer Crossfire and Murder My Sweet. I haven’t seen Warlock — it has an intriguing, mainly bad, reputation, which suggests I might find it interesting.

    I don’t recall making much of a case for High Noon or Day of the Jackal being morally complex. At any rate, I wouldn’t say their greatest strengths lie in those areas.

    As for the psychically (or physically?) tactile, that really strikes me as something best argued with actual examples, rather than simple assertion. I’m quite open to being impressed with Dmytryk’s tactile qualities, if you can suggest where to look.

  • Barry Putterman

    Well I would think that “integrity in conflict with realpolitik” without moral complexity pretty much leads to “didactic.”

    For tactile (however I mangled the spelling) I would point to he silence leading up to and then including the broken glass in the shooting of Marie Windsor and the shooting, and resultant spillage, of the painter atop the building in THE SNIPER.

  • David Cohen

    given the recent conversation, thought folks might appreciate this headline from The Onion:

    Fan Prefers Tarantino’s Early Work When He Was Shelving Movies All Day At Video Store

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘he’s less didactic than, say, Kurosawa’

    What is example of Kurosawa Akira didactic movie? Is all Kurosawa movie didactic?

  • Brad Stevens

    I’m not a fan of Bruce Beresford, but the letter he had published in the British newspaper THE GUARDIAN yesterday made me laugh:
    The writer of the obituary for Richard Zanuck (17 July) – who won a best picture Academy Award for Driving Miss Daisy – commented that the director (myself) was not nominated in the best director category as “the film did direct itself. The right ingredients were there from the start”. This comment is quite accurate. My contribution, as director, was negligible, just as it was in the other 27 films I have directed to date. Luckily for me the “right ingredients” were present in films such as Tender Mercies, Breaker Morant, Black Robe, Double Jeopardy, etc, so that I had little to do but stand by and watch. My involvement was also minimal in the nine operas I have directed.
    Bruce Beresford

    I don’t think I’ve seen any of Beresford’s films since DRIVING MISS DAISY (and I’m not sure I made it all the way through that one). Does he have any admirers here?