What is the difference between an auteur and a director? Why do some names–Hitchcock, Spielberg, Capra, Ford–acquire a legendary status that is not tethered to the individual titles of films they directed? Or, perhaps more germane to a discussion of Fred Zinnemann, why do some director’s names remain relatively obscure even though the films they helmed–Oklahoma!, A Man For All Seasons, High Noon, From Here to Eternity–become beloved cultural treasures?
Fred Zinnemann amassed forty-seven credits in a career that spanned over five decades in Hollywood. He won three Academy Awards for directing (one was for “short subjects”) and was nominated an additional five times. He directed Marlon Brando in the actor’s first feature role (The Men) and Montgomery Clift in the latter’s first film credit. Gary Cooper, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robards, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, and Paul Scofield all won Oscars for their work in Zinnemann’s films.
Why, despite a filmography that can stand up against that of any commercial, studio director, does ZInnemann’s name seldom evoke the same sort of reverential awe afforded to giants in the industry?
The reflexive answer might be that the bulk of Zinnemann’s career came before the French New Wave and, hence, before the term “auteur” even entered the cultural lexicon. Only six of Zinnemann’s films were made after 1960. He was a part of the studio system that at times looked upon the director as hired help and gave much more power and credit to the producer. (In Zinnemann’s autobiography, he mentions that Harry Cohn had final cut over From Here to Eternity and curtailed two scenes that threatened to push the story’s anti-military tone too far.)
It is too simple, however, to think of the auteur as a modern phenomenon. Plenty of the directors championed by Cahiers du cinema and the French New Wave worked in an around the studio system.
What I hope to do in the coming weeks is launch a new series where I look at the films of a particular director with a specific focus on his or her directorial fingerprints — to see if distinctive patterns or motifs emerge. To what extent do the films that bear a director’s name evidence a signature style or particular concerns?
Thus far this means paying particular attention to:
1) Formal aspects of the films (cinematography, sound, editing,) and evidence, if any, that these were the product of directorial choices. (I’ve said frequently that I am skeptical of critics’ awards in large part because the collaborative nature of film makes it difficult to know who to credit, exactly, for the success of a particular element of the whole.)
2) Thematic threads that unite the director’s films and suggest a set of preoccupations or ideas that inform and infuse his work.
In looking at both these areas, Zinnemann’s aforementioned autobiography, A Life in the Movies, is an invaluable resource. It is not a detailed log of any particular picture’s production history, but it does provide candid comments from the artist looking back over his career. I recommend it highly.
From Here to Eternity
The Academy Award winner for 1953, From Here to Eternity does not beat viewers over the head with stylistic flourishes. On revisiting the film, it was a little disorienting to be reminded that the iconic beach encounter between Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr) and Sgt. Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) is intercut with a club scene. While the image of the actors rolling in the waves has come to be a symbol of unrestrained passion, it comes at the beginning rather than climax of the scene. The couple scamper back to the beach and at least part of Kerr’s subsequent dialogue pretty clearly appears to be done in close up on a stage using backdrop photography for the waves.
As is not uncommon in films, long shots are used to establish group settings or locations, allowing the subsequent shots of only the principals to seem as though they are taking place in and among a crowd. While relationships are suggested through screen composition, rarely do camera angles or proxemics do more than reinforce what the story has already told you about the characters’ relationships.
One might argue that the preference, if intentional, for social proxemics (4-12 feet) over an abundance of close-ups, contributes to the formal, restrained tone. Even those on the island who feel passion or long for intimacy are conscious of being watched, being burned, and hence must keep their guard up and their distance from one another. Even when we get close ups (and the women, not surprisingly, appear to get more of them then the men), they don’t connote intimacy since the actors are often off-center, averting their eyes, or in profile rather than head on. (Once Karen and Milton get out of the water, it is mildly surprising how much of the following scene shows them with their backs to each other, with one or the other positioned with back to the camera, or not even in the same shot.)
The beach scene appears typical to me in providing focus through cutting (shot/countershot) rather than camera movement (panning). This is bread and butter, nuts and bolts film composition.
The lack of innovation or flourish should not lead viewers to conclude that Zinnemann was unthinking in creating the film. One can use conventional technique and still be thoughtful about the effects that technique is attempting to create. In his autobiography, Zinnemann explains how he attempted to established Clift’s character, Robert E. Lee Prewitt, in the very first shot: “[…] He was introduced as a loner, going his own way — a tiny figure approaching the camera, growing larger and larger, seen through an infantry platoon moving across the screen in the foreground.” We have to look past the army to see the man.
The casting of Clift was another way that Zinnemann exerted his influence as a director. In his notes, he implies that Cohn had the final decision about casting, but Zinnemann finally suggested Cohn should get another director if he refused to allow him to use Clift. He also pushed back against casting Joan Crawford as Karen, calling an agent’s suggestion to use Deborah Kerr “brilliant” because it was against type.
How much credit should directors get for casting? I would argue that it depends upon their rationale. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to recognize the talent of a Kerr or Clift. What is more revealing are Zinnemann’s reasons for preferring the cast he chose: they reveal insight into the material and how a particular actor is suited for the effect he wants to create. From the novel, Zinnemann argued that Prewitt was “deceptively slim.” Yes, he is a boxer, but the bulk of the film is about someone who takes abuse and does not want to fight. (Paradoxically, the heftier, more physically imposing Marlon Brando was cast in The Men, the story of a paralyzed veteran.)
Of Kerr’s turn as Karen he writes, “I thought that hearing a corporal say at the start of the film that ‘[Karen] sleeps with every soldier on the post,’ the audience would not believe it.” He continues, “If a sexy actress were to play that part the outcome would be a foregone conclusion.”
My point here is that casting against type is not simply a gimmick. Zinnemann does it when it suits the film. He was equally willing to cast the obvious choice. It is hard to imagine anyone but Paul Scofield as Thomas More (a part he originated in the London and Broadway theatrical productions of A Man For All Seasons) or another actor taking Gary Cooper’s place as Will Kane (High Noon). Of Burt Lancaster, Zinnemann writes “This was type-casting.” Although he preferred Eli Wallach for Maggio, the director insists he thought Frank Sinatra tested well and was happy to have him. (Although Cohn apparently made Sinatra pay his own way to Hollywood and paid him only $8,000, Zinnemann wryly comments that “at no time were horses’s heads involved in the casting decision.”)
Zinnemann also said he had to “persuade” Cohn to let the picture be shot in black-and-white after market research claimed a million dollar difference in projected profit. “Color would have made the movie soft and trivial,” he writes.
The director’s process is perhaps succinctly summarized in the statement, “In retrospect, I am surprised to think how many battles I did win during the making of the film.” If an auteur is only a director who manifests complete control over all aspects of production, then Zinnemann, by his own admission, wouldn’t qualify. But it’s equally true in this instance that directors, regardless of competence, are not simply interchangeable; From Here to Eternity is a better film for having had Fred Zinnemann in the chair, knowing when to push and when to accommodate.
Themes in the Work
From Here to Eternity is a bit of a soap-opera, but at its center is a character who has to stand firm in the face of immense social pressure–pressure that escalates to physical torture and threatens not only his peace of mind, but his life. When discussing why the casting of Clift was so important, Zinnemann wrote, tellingly:
…this story was not about a fellow who didn’t want to box; it was about a human spirit refusing to be broken, about a man who resists all sorts of pressure from an institution he loves, who becomes an outsider, and eventually dies for it.
Substitute the phrase “sign his name” for “box” and the above would be an equally accurate description of A Man for All Seasons. Make it a happy ending rather than a tragic one, and you have High Noon.
The word that pops in that quote is “institution.” Robert E. Lee Prewitt’s struggle is not simply an outward one with a sadistic stockade jailer or an indifferent leadership. It is an inward struggle to hold on to the principles and values of an institution he treasures, thereby preserving both them and it. For all our protestations about the soap-opera qualify of the Lancaster-Kerr subplot, it underscores that the central theme of this film, like so many Zinnemann films, is fidelity. When Prewitt says, “A man loves a thing that don’t mean it’s gotta love him back,” he’s not talking about a woman.
To a generation that was born and grew up after World War II, the idea of being loyal to an institution borders the scandalous. Our calls for fidelity, when we make them at all, are limited to our personal relationships. Perhaps we retain some semblance of corporate loyalty in our nationalism, though the increasingly adversarial and polarized nature of American politics makes me wonder if patriotism has given way to tribalism in everything but name. Even Zinnemann’s penultimate film, Julia, seems to reverse the modern trend to glorify personal loyalty over corporate fidelity. Lillian is loyal to Julia, placing herself at risk, but Julia is the heroine precisely because her loyalty to a cause trumps all other concerns, even the concern for self-preservation.
What do we make, though, of the fact that so many of Zinnemann’s heroes receive death rather than reward for their loyalty? Zinnemann mentions that the one battle he didn’t win while filming From Here to Eternity was the one where he attempted to keep a “sarcastic touch” from novel’s end. While the novel has the villainous captain promoted to major (an eerie parallel to Richard Rich’s ascendancy at the end of A Man for All Seasons), the Army made a condition of its cooperation that this character be forced to resign (or be court-martialed).
A Man for All Seasons is the more powerful film in part because of its willingness to embrace its source material’s recognition (along with the writer of Ecclesiastes) that the distribution of rewards and punishments in this life too often feels, at best, arbitrary. Yet neither film is amoral or atheistic. There may be a recognition that things don’t always work “here” the way we know they should, but “eternity” is still postulated.
High Noon, A Man for All Seasons, and From Here to Eternity all have women who initially argue for the heroes to place personal loyalty (and survival) above principal and institutional fidelity. Each then must have a scene in which the woman surrenders her claim on the man…or at least recognizes that her claim is subordinate to the institutions. Yet in each case the institution fails the hero. Will Kane’s deputies run away. Cardinal Wolsey mocks More for wanting to run a state on prayers. The army does everything in its power to break Prewitt, most of the officers caring more about the boxing team than the man’s rights or the law’s restrictions.
As we begin to explore the central question, “What is the signature theme or preoccupation of Fred Zinnemann’s films,” a working thesis might be, “A search for something (not someone) to believe in amidst the chaos of a broken world.”
Is it that simple? No, of course not. But it’s a good place to start…