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Violent Saturday

Violent Saturday(1955)

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teaser Violent Saturday (1955)

In the unique marriage of heist caper and overheated melodrama, Violent Saturday (1955), a trio of bandits enter the quiet small Arizona mining town of Bradenville led by criminal mastermind Harper (Stephen McNally) who is masquerading as a costume jewelry salesman. Joined by Dill (Lee Marvin) and Chapman (J. Carrol Naish), Harper and his gang hole up in the Bradenville Hotel where they plot their robbery of the local bank. But in many ways, the heist is secondary. For director Richard Fleischer and screenwriter Sydney Boehm, far more interesting is their depiction of life in Bradenville, an on-the-surface peaceful small town which in fact harbors a number of feverish, sordid personal stories. At the top of the scandal ladder are the local aristocrats Boyd (Richard Egan) and Emily Fairchild (Margaret Hayes). Wealth is no buffer from trauma for the pair, who grapple with alcoholism and promiscuity. Other town scions are equally compromised. Married bank manager Harry Reeves (Tommy Noonan) harbors a crush on dishy nurse Linda Sherman (Virginia Leith), that has turned him into a sweaty, alley-creeping peeping Tom. Meek librarian Elsie Braden (Sylvia Sidney) is deeply in debt, and would do just about anything to get out of it, including steal. And family man and mine supervisor Shelley Martin (Victor Mature) has a young son ashamed that he never served in the war. The only truly unsullied members of the community are an Amish farming family led by patriarch Stadt (Ernest Borgnine), and even they are drawn into scandal on the day of the climactic Saturday bank robbery.

Screenwriter Sydney Boehm (The Big Heat [1953], Shock Treatment [1964]) based his screenplay on a story by William L. Heath, which appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine in February 1955. The film was shot in the town of Bisbee, Arizona, an old copper mining town, and at the Tucson Country Club.

Failing to consider the impact of the sensational content of their film, Twentieth Century-Fox planned to premiere Violent Saturday in the Amish community of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But after reading the original story Lancaster's mayor nixed the idea, calling the film "too violent and sexy." The film was the first at Twentieth Century-Fox produced by Buddy Adler, who replaced the noted head of production Darryl F. Zanuck and pegged Yale-grad Richard Fleischer (The Narrow Margin [1952], Fantastic Voyage [1966], Soylent Green [1973]) to direct. Recalled Fleischer in his autobiography Just Tell Me When to Cry, "Adler was the new fair-haired boy, the screenplay showed promise, and Fox was the place I wanted to be. I accepted the offer and the inevitable long-term contract that went with it. For the next fifteen years I worked mostly for Fox." But even with Adler now in charge, the legend of Zanuck still held sway.

"The influence of Zanuck was pervasive," recalled Fleischer. "You could feel it in the air. In the commissary was a huge Art Deco mural, the centerpiece of which was the face of Darryl Zanuck wearing an expression that was a mixture of Clive of India and Genghis Khan. Even while you ate, his influence poured over your food." Fleischer's autobiography provided many examples of Zanuck's eccentric, autocratic style but an often uncanny ability to craft great films. Fleischer was especially delighted and awed by the fact that Buddy Adler had cast Sylvia Sidney in the film. Fleischer was beside himself, "The aura of her stardom still overpowered me. I couldn't imagine in my wildest dreams ever being permitted to direct Sylvia Sidney. I'd already worked with some pretty fair names: Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, James Mason. But this was Sylvia Sidney for God's sakes." In his autobiography, Fleischer recalled how Sidney sat and knit in her movie trailer while he explained in excruciating detail, her character's psychology and motivation. At the end of his soliloquy she told him "when we get on the set, you just tell me where to stand."

"Oh, and by the way. Whenever you need tears...just tell me when to cry."

Though some critics found the film's violence gratuitous, others found moral complexity in its treatment of a crucial murder at the film's conclusion. One reviewer observed "the morality of violence is brought vividly into question, and the question has seldom been answered with more pith and natural majesty." Others were not so forgiving. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times said the film "appears to have no other purpose than to titillate and thrill on the level of melodrama and guarded pornography." Crowther was especially struck by Lee Marvin who he called "the Number 1 sadist of the screen."

Marvin was less pleased with his turn in Violent Saturday. His wife Pamela Marvin recounted in Lee: A Romance, "Lee said he spent most of the time trying to hide behind his own hand, turning his back or anything else he could do to disappear, he felt the movie was so bad." Ernest Borgnine claimed in his autobiography Ernie, that "I almost killed one of my best friends making this movie," during a pivotal scene where he was supposed to stab bad guy Lee Marvin in the back with a pitchfork. To get the proper gesture of rage, Borgnine said "I caught sight of myself in the beard and overalls and I imagined I was John Brown-a fellow Connecticut native, as it happens-at Harpers Ferry fighting off the soldiers of Robert E. Lee."

Other members of the Violent Saturday cast were less inclined to give it their all for the film. Borgnine recounted that Victor Mature had a very "me vs. them" attitude about movie studios and wasn't inclined to do anything dangerous after he broke his leg doing a stunt for Columbia and was never compensated for his injury. Fleischer had asked Mature to dive under a car for Violent Saturday but Mature refused. Borgnine recalled, "Lee and I thought he was being a little prissy about it. I mean this was a different situation for a different director and not really that dangerous. It's part of what an actor is supposed to do. But Victor had his own view, and I guess he was entitled to it."

Vastly underrated at the time of its release, Violent Saturday is enjoying a much better critical reassessment now, thanks to the release of a new 35mm print that has been playing high profile repertory cinemas like New York City's Film Forum. In reviewing the film, Village Voice critic Nick Pinkerton wrote, "The reigning king of Southwestern noir until, say . . . Charley Varrick?... the opening coda, combining the gouged orange dirt of the copper mines and a Neolithic credit font, suggests something primal-one of the major themes is paternal protectiveness, underlined by a startling amount of violence toward children. Director Richard Fleischer, an ace with the long frame, composes scrolling studies in horizontality, grabbing one of the most ravishing train shots in cinema. Everything keeps swirling inexorably toward the zero-hour heist, thanks to scriptwriter Sydney Boehm, who gets in some of his gristliest lines ("She looked awful, didn't she? Like she'd never been alive")."

Director: Richard Fleischer
Producer: Buddy Adler
Screenplay: Sydney Boehm from a novel by William L. Heath
Cinematography: Charles G. Clarke
Production Design: Lyle R. Wheeler, George W. Davis
Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Cast: Victor Mature (Shelley Martin), Richard Egan (Boyd Fairchild), Stephen McNally (Harper), Virginia Leith (Linda Sherman), Tommy Noonan (Harry Reeves), Lee Marvin (Dill), Margaret Hayes (Mrs. Emily Fairchild), J. Carrol Naish (Chapman), Sylvia Sidney (Elsie Braden), Ernest Borgnine (Stadt).
C-90m. Letterboxed.

by Felicia Feaster

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