Friday, August 15, 2014

Violent Saturday (1955)

I like odd but interesting little movies and Violent Saturday certainly fits into that category. It’s a mixture of film noir and melodrama but its real oddity comes from its frequent changes in mood.

It was shot in colour and in Cinemascope. There are very few night scenes and visually those scenes have nothing remotely noir about them. Mostly the movie is bathed in bright sunshine. It takes place in a small town but it’s a rather picturesque small town. All this should be enough to disqualify it as film noir but when it comes to content there’s more than enough darkness and moral ambiguity to put it right back in the noir category.

Bradenville is a peaceful little town but it’s a town of secrets. All of its inhabitants, even those who seem most innocent, have dark secrets. The arrival of three bank robbers will not only bring violence to Bradenville but also bring the various secrets of its inhabitants into the open.

Shelley Martin (Victor Mature) works at the copper mine which is the town’s major industry. He’s the right-hand man to the boss. He’s happily married with kids and he’s fairly content with his life, although he is having a few problems with his son Stevie. Stevie’s best pal at school is the son of a war hero. Shelley Martin was in a reserved occupation and therefore didn’t fight in the war. Shelley is not bothered by guilt about this. He was willing to fight but he was a key man at the mine and he understood that he could contribute more to the war effort by helping to keep the mine running efficiently. He has no problems with this but Stevie is too young to understand the complexities of life and he feels bad because his father wasn’t a hero.

Boyd Fairchild (Richard Egan), the son of the owner of the mine, has bigger problems. He’s an alcoholic and his wife has been having affairs. Their marriage seems on the point of final collapse. It has reached crisis point but they are making one last effort to save it.

The manager of the Bank of Bradenville, Harry Reeves (Tommy Noonan), is a timid young man suffering from a hopeless infatuation that is causing him to make a bigger and bigger fool of himself.

The town’s librarian is trying to solve her desperate financial problems by indulging in a spot of thieving.

The only people who don’t seem to have any problems are the local Amish community, people like prosperous farmer Stadt (Ernest Borgnine) and his family.

Bradenville might not exactly be a powder keg but it’s obvious that there is plenty of tension which might well be explosive for some of its citizens. The arrival of Dill (Lee Marvin), Harper (Stephen McNally) and Chapman (J. Carrol Naish) will light the fuse. They have what they think is a foolproof plan to rob the Bank of Bradenville. This plan will entail murderous violence and the taking of hostages and will confront several of the story’s key characters with difficult moral dilemmas. Stadt in particular will discover that it is not enough simply to try to avoid evil - sometimes all you can do is to choose a lesser evil to avert a greater evil.

The changes in mood are also matched with some interesting visual variations. Bradenville itself is a very attractive little town but its main industry is copper mining and the movie switches back and forth between the picturesque town and the stark landscape of open-cut mining. Open-cut mining may well have been a deliberate choice since the movie lays the motivations of the townspeople open as uncompromisingly as the mine lays the landscape open.

What really makes this movie interesting is that it doesn’t succumb to the temptation of cynicism. Most of the characters have serious character flaws and they have done foolish, selfish or thoughtless things but they are not monsters. They’re just human, with the usual quota of human weaknesses. The movie is not trying to tell us that small-town people are vicious hypocrites. These are people who have given in to temptations but they are not irredeemably lost. They are capable of seeing their own faults and they are capable of trying to do something about them. The eruption of violence that follows the arrival of the bank robbers offers chances for redemption.

The movie also resists the temptation to condemn the Amish for their uncompromising stand on violence. Stadt and his family are not portrayed as bigots or fools for their beliefs, even if the movie does suggest that their beliefs may not always work in the real world.

While the movie suggests that it is sometimes necessary to choose the lesser of two evils it also suggests that this is not a reason for surrendering to despair or cynicism or moral relativism.

Sydney Boehm, who provided the screenplay, wrote a number of superb noirs including The Big Heat, Union Station, High Wall and Rogue Cop. Director Richard Fleischer helmed some notable noirs including Narrow Margin and Armored Car Robbery

Lee Marvin gives another of his trademark intense sadistic and twisted performances. Watch out for the scene where he stomps a child’s hand! Victor Mature gives his usual effortless and assured performance. Marvin and Mature take the top acting honours but the supporting cast is quite capable.

Violent Saturday misses out on being top-flight film noir but it gains points for being interesting and unusual. Highly recommended.

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