Thursday 26 November 2009

Violent Saturday (1955)

Director: Richard Fleischer
Writer: Sydney Boehm, from the novel by William L. Heath
Stars: Victor Mature, Richard Egan and Stephen McNally

Index: Dry Heat Obscurities.

The Bank of Bradenville is right in the middle of town so we get plenty of opportunity to see it as three would be thieves turn up and start casing the joint. They're important folks too, like J Carrol Naish and Lee Marvin, and they're led by Stephen McNally playing a character called Harper. They do their homework carefully and well, studying not just the bank itself, its employees, its safe and its routine, but also the local geography, finding a potential safe haven at an Amish farm run by Ernest Borgnine, the year he won his Oscar for Marty. Yes, the film's worth watching just for that, along with the revelation that Amish farmers in blindfolds look like ninjas. The crooks watch the townsfolk too, with open eyes and ears, which is how we get to know their stories and discover that they're a pretty unhappy lot across the board.

Boyd Fairchild, the owner of the Fairchild copper mine, is rich and powerful but he gets continually led on a merry chase by his unfaithful wife, so he finds solace in drink, very believably so. Town librarian Elsie Braden is short of money and succumbs to petty theft to avoid having her wages garnished. Nervous bank manager Harry Reeves can't stop watching a shapely nurse called Linda Sherman, even though he's married, and he goes as far as becoming a peeping tom. Mine superintendent Shelley Martin is the happiest of the bunch because he has only lost his kid's hero worship, after little Bobby realises he only got a certificate of merit for working the mine during the war while his best friend's dad got a medal at Iwo Jima.

So we watch their lives play out and intertwine and unfold in a sort of soap opera style, slowly and surely but with plenty of emotional pull, too much of a deluge to be simple drama. It's like each of them has their own hour and a half film that got cut down to the basics and turned into a subplot to the real story here, which is the bank job of course. Fortunately the people playing these parts are strong enough to keep us at least vaguely interested in their lives while we wait for the action that such a blatant title suggests is imminent. After all, how important can all this detail be in the grand scheme of things? I comment so often about how films could be enhanced by a little more attention to detail, a little more effort to provide believable backgrounds. Here it's taken perhaps a step too far.
For all the detailed background we get on the people of Bradenfield, we find out next to nothing about the bank robbers. That leaves us watching the actors more than the characters because there's not much character there. J Carrol Naish is the mean one, hardly surprising given his solid background in genre flicks, especially during the forties. Stephen McNally is the planner, fading a little into the background, especially when he's around Lee Marvin, who as he tended to do, never stops moving. From the moment he arrives on the train, full of allergies and fidgets, he's in motion and even though he's a little more subdued here than I'm used to seeing him, that doesn't mean he's even remotely still. I don't think I've ever seen anyone move quite as much as Marvin. He's like the precise opposite of Myrna Loy in every possible way you can imagine.

We watch the actors playing the Bradenville townspeople too rather than their characters because we don't believe that all that inside knowledge we're let in on is going to matter, though we're mostly wrong on that front. Fairchild is Richard Egan, who also made another Arizona heist movie, 1971's The Day of the Wolves. Braden is the joyously acerbic Sylvia Sidney, well after her heyday in thirties films like Fury, Sabotage and Dead End, but long before I first saw her in Tim Burton films like Beetlejuice and Mars Attacks! Top billed is Victor Mature as Shelley Martin, looking as ever just like a walking, talking action figure. He lives up to that description too given that he climbs down ladders with his hands tied and crawls under burning cars to get a decent shot at the bad guys, but I was more engrossed watching our peeping tom of a bank manager peep at the lovely Miss Sherman. He's played by Tommy Noonan, riding high after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and A Star is Born and he's a peach of an obsessive character, utterly lost to his sickness.

What's most surprising here is how little violence we get on this particular violent Saturday. That's not to say there isn't action and there's a good deal of suspense, but this is no action movie for all that Victor Mature could have followed this up with a 1956 version of True Lies. It's a character driven drama, set around a bank heist that takes everything we discover about these people and shakes it all up, even down to the Amish folks. By this time we know the characters well enough to know what would happen if there were a next episode to this soap opera. It's all written with as much care and attention as went into the heist we watch and it came off a little better in the end, aided by dependable performances and some appropriate use of the 2.55:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio to show us depth to the scenes, whether they be a crowd of kids surrounding a fight, perspective shots of the Fairchild copper mine or a train hurtling towards us under the smoke trailing out from a factory chimney. If only there had been a little more violence.

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