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Category Archives: Richard Fleischer

Violent Saturday

 

Poster

Stories about heists that invariably go wrong somewhere along the line have a kind of evergreen quality about them. I don’t think it’s anything as simple as the need to see the moral balance restored that’s the attraction, instead it’s more a kind of perverse wish fulfillment for all of us living in an imperfect world to witness even the most meticulous plans of smart guys turn pear shaped. Violent Saturday (1955) is one such movie, detailing the build-up, execution and aftermath of a bank robbery in a small town. It’s also a film which takes its time creating expectations about certain characters, only to show that those assumptions can frequently be misleading.

Essentially this is a film of two halves. The opening section is something of a darkly soapy melodrama, wherein the principal characters, and their roles in the community, are all established. The two people that are focused on most are Boyd Fairchild (Richard Egan), the heir to the local copper mining facility, and the mine foreman Shelley Martin (Victor Mature). These men are living in the brave new world of a booming 50’s America, all shining, chrome-laden automobiles and homes filled with the latest modern conveniences. Yet, despite the trappings of material success that surround them neither man is particularly at ease with himself. Fairchild is drinking too much in an attempt to blot out the inferiority complex that comes with being the son of a self-made millionaire, and keep his mind off the numerous affairs his wife has indulged in. Martin, on the other hand, is carrying round an entirely different set of baggage; his marriage is a happy one and his success is all of his own making but he’s burdened by a sense of guilt for not having seen active service in the war, a feeling of inadequacy compounded by his failure to appear heroic in the eyes of his young son. Additionally, we’re afforded glimpses into the lives of a few of the town’s other citizens – a financially pressed librarian driven to petty larceny, and the outwardly prim but repressed and voyeuristic bank manager. While these various strands of small town life are being laid before us, three strangers weave their way among them. These men (Stephen McNally, Lee Marvin and J Carrol Naish) are career criminals, come to a town they see as a soft touch to raid the bank. As the citizens go about their daily lives and try to cope with their personal issues, the three newcomers calmly and deliberately plan their heist. The second part of the movie, and the most gripping, sees the paths of all the disparate characters converge on a Saturday afternoon in an explosion of physical and emotional violence.

Something for the weekend - Lee Marvin in Violent Saturday.

Director Richard Fleischer’s career was on an upward curve at the time Violent Saturday was made; he’d come off making a number of interesting noir movies, two of which (Armored Car Robbery & The Narrow Margin) are especially noteworthy. While I don’t believe Violent Saturday is film noir, it does display some of the style/genre’s sensibilities – the doomed robbers and the facade of respectability concealing a darker reality. The structure of the film is clearly designed to provide a back story for the characters and flesh them out, thus heightening the impact of the abrupt intrusion of violence into their lives. As far as that goes it’s only partially successful; the introduction of the librarian and the bank manager has a dramatic potential that’s never fully explored, and in the former’s case the the plot leaves her fate dangling and neglected. The banker (Tommy Noonan) does at least play a pivotal role, albeit in a negative way. His creepy passivity undergoes a transformation in the course of the heist and he finally resolves to take some positive action in his life. It’s unfortunate, however, that his new found steel acts as the catalyst for the bloodletting that follows. Victor Mature was well cast in the role of the family man dogged by the shadow of cowardice. There was always an undercurrent of melancholy and sensitivity about him, and the film puts that to good use. He too experiences a reversal of fortune, where adversity reveals an inner strength and toughness whose existence he doubted. Having said that, the message that’s ultimately conveyed by his actions, and the reactions of others to them, isn’t one that sits entirely comfortably with me. Of the three criminals, both McNally and Naish perform competently without ever being particularly memorable. The real star is Lee Marvin. Dapper in appearance and ruthless in behaviour, he gets the better lines and makes the most of them. It says a lot for Marvin’s talents that he could take what was basically a minor supporting role and deliver the most telling performance in the whole movie. It’s also worth mentioning that Ernest Borgnine has a small, and incongruous, part as an Amish farmer who finds himself and his family drawn into the turbulent events.

To date, Violent Saturday has had three releases on DVD (in Spain, the US and Australia), none of which appear ideal. All of these discs offer the film a non-anamorphic scope transfer. The Spanish release is via Fox/Impulso and, the letterboxing aside, sees the movie looking quite nice. The lack of anamorphic enhancement does take away from the overall sharpness of the image but, on the plus side, the colours look strong and true, and the print doesn’t suffer from any significant damage. Extras, as on the majority of Fox/Impulso titles, consist of some text-based material on cast and crew along with a gallery. Subtitles on the English track can of course be disabled via the menu. The movie itself is a solid crime drama that builds nicely to a suspenseful and action-filled conclusion. It’s not quite top flight material, but it’s not too far off either. I’d rate it as a smoothly directed piece of entertainment that could have used a little extra polish on the script.

 

The Clay Pigeon

Poster

The issues faced by returning war veterans have been tackled by more than a few film noirs. Generally, the difficulties related to an inability to settle back into civilian life or the fact that the old familiar things had changed in their absence. The hero of The Clay Pigeon (1949), however, is presented with a set of circumstances that are of an altogether different nature. This movie falls into the nightmare/amnesia sub-genre, wherein a character has no memory of a crucial period and thus finds himself confronted by the consequences of actions that he has blocked out. This kind of storyline has enormous potential of course, but The Clay Pigeon never exploits it to the full. 

Jim Fletcher (Bill Williams) is a sailor, waking up in hospital after sustaining a bad head injury. He knows his name and most of the details about his past life, but he can’t recall what led to his being in hospital. And there’s the rub: Fletcher has been accused of treason during his time in a Japanese POW camp. What’s even worse is that his actions apparently led to the torture and subsequent killing of his friend. Knowing that he’s faced with a court martial at which he has little chance of clearing himself, Fletcher decides that his only alternative is to duck out and try to get to the bottom of it all by himself. Naturally, a penniless fugitive isn’t likely to make much headway without some assistance, so he takes a chance on contacting his friend’s widow. Unsurprisingly, this lady, Martha (Barbara Hale), is both suspicious and hostile initially. She grudgingly agrees to go along to Los Angeles though when a call to another old buddy, Ted Niles (Richard Quine) promises further help. Whatever doubts Martha may have had are gradually eroded on that long drive, particularly when an unknown car tries to force them off the road to their death. Their arrival in LA reveals just how complex and deadly a mess Fletcher has blundered into – a lethal conspiracy involving counterfeiting, war criminals and personal treachery. The whole thing culminates in a chase through Chinatown, followed by a train journey that exposes the real traitor.

Barbara Hale and Bill Williams spot danger looming.

The Clay Pigeon is a genuine B picture, coming in at little over an hour in length and never really pausing for breath. As such, there’s no time for any kind of character development amid the chasing and dodging. If anything, that’s probably the biggest weakness of the film: in these kinds of stories the audience needs to be kept guessing as to whether or not the hero is really as clean cut as he’d like us to believe. As it is, neither the audience nor the character of Fletcher has the least suspicion that he may indeed be the villain of the piece after all. I can’t honestly say that the fault lies with Bill Williams’ amiable playing as the part was written that way for him. I’d be more inclined to place the blame on Carl Foreman’s script (whose dearth of characters makes it pretty obvious who the traitor is right from the off) and the cheap-jack production values. That’s not to say there’s nothing positive to take away; Williams and Hale play well off each other, and the location filming is very welcome. This was one of Richard Fleischer’s earliest directorial efforts and he manages to create some nice angles and images, and does his best to create tension from a script that seems bent on draining away every vestige of suspense. The opening, the night drive to LA, and the Chinatown sequence are all ably handled and point to better things ahead for the director. 

The movie comes to DVD from French distributor Montparnasse (I think there are Spanish and Italian editions out there too) and the transfer is one of their more typical efforts. It’s not especially bad, but there’s a slightly thick image that may have some contrast boosting, and it appears to be interlaced. Extras are confined to an eminently missable introduction. However the disc is certainly passable and the subs are not forced on the English track. It’s probably worth bearing in mind too that this film is likely to be a candidate for the Warner Archive in R1, so a vastly improved transfer isn’t something I’d be holding my breath for. All in all, The Clay Pigeon is pacy little B noir that passes the time painlessly. I just feel that a bit of fine tuning to the script might have added some much needed ambiguity and resulted in a more memorable film.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in 1940s, Film Noir, Richard Fleischer

 
 
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