- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Fred Zinnemann, the Austrian-born film director who seemed to merge some of the most desirable aspects of a European upbringing and sensibility with classic Hollywood skills, died 10 years ago this month, a few weeks shy of his 90th birthday. A five-week retrospective series that begins this weekend at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre anticipates the official centennial date of April 29.

The Zinnemann feature catalog is not a lengthy one: about 20 titles, made between 1942 and 1982. Eliminating the negligible credits ought to leave ample time for the ones that still resonate — and constitute two-thirds of a high-quality output. Shortchanging this selective group, the AFI is reviving only eight Zinnemann movies. By my count three omissions are indefensible: “The Men” (1950), “The Member of the Wedding” (1952) and “The Nun’s Story” (1959) — unless presentable prints have vanished from the face of the Earth.

Mr. Zinnemann became a major director as a result of back-to-back hits in 1952 and 1953: “High Noon” and “From Here to Eternity.” The former was a major Academy Award contender and won the best actor prize for its star, Gary Cooper; the latter was the front-runner of its year, with 13 nominations and eight Oscars, including best movie and direction.

By then Mr. Zinnemann was in his middle 40s and had surpassed the usually modest expectations appropriate for a director of live-action shorts at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the late 1930s. Promoted to B-features in the early 1940s, he achieved an independent breakthrough that wedded the discipline and practicality of his studio training to an affinity for subject matter that astutely reconciled popularity with prestige.

The lure of the prestige production later cost Mr. Zinnemann years of time and effort: he abandoned “The Old Man and the Sea” and “War and Peace” in the late 1950s, “Hawaii” in the early 1960s and “Man’s Fate” at the end of the 1960s. He completed only five pictures during the last 20 years of his career. The long layoffs that preceded “The Day of the Jackal” and then “Julia” made it a pleasant surprise to see that his craftsmanship remained intact.

The most satisfying Zinnemann pictures commence with the selection that opens the AFI series: a Swiss-financed production called “The Search,” which was released by MGM in 1948 and starred a newcomer named Montgomery Clift as a soldier who befriends an apparently orphaned Holocaust survivor who has run away from a camp for displaced children in Germany.

The producers had requested Mr. Zinnemann because of a wartime credit, the 1943 chase melodrama “The Seventh Cross,” which starred Spencer Tracy as a late 1930s concentration camp escapee seeking shelter among friends and strangers in Mainz. The movies have an eerie structural similarity; chained to ponderous voice-over narration in the opening reels, they oblige a director to liberate the material from up-front editorial burdens. Mr. Zinnemann does escape these straitjackets, splendidly so in “The Search,” one of the great tearjerkers of the post-war years.

The war haunted Mr. Zinnemann’s movies right through the triumph of “Eternity.” MGM had gladly loaned the director for “The Search,” since he had rejected several scripts and planned to go on suspension anyway. The veteran of a quixotic Mexican documentary feature of the early 1930s, “The Wave,” Mr. Zinnemann responded to the independent trends competing for talent after the war.

He was recruited by ambitious young producer Stanley Kramer for a relatively uncompromising movie about paraplegic soldiers, “The Men,” which introduced Marlon Brando to movie audiences. For three years Mr. Zinnemann was the house director at the emerging Kramer company. While emphasizing realistic settings and struggles during this period, the fugitive from MGM was also helping launch several careers. Mr. Clift and Mr. Brando were quite a tandem, but Mr. Zinnemann was also there for Janet Leigh in “Act of Violence,” Pier Angeli and Rod Steiger in “Teresa” (a melodrama about an Italian war bride that required location shooting in Italy, the home base for cinematic realism at that juncture), Grace Kelly in “High Noon” and Julie Harris in “The Member of the Wedding.”

Mr. Zinnemann got an entire generation of Broadway-to-Hollywood musical blockbusters on their merry way by filming “Oklahoma!” which Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had been holding in reserve for more than a decade. After two false starts with Hemingway material (Darryl F. Zanuck also asked Mr. Zinnemann to direct the film version of “The Sun Also Rises,” but he declined), the director found a best-seller that suited his temperament and sophistication, Kathryn Hulme’s “The Nun’s Story,” Audrey Hepburn’s best dramatic vehicle. He concluded an admirable decade with “The Sundowners,” an affectionate evocation of Australian ranch life in the 1930s, with Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum as one of the great cinematic marital matches.

During his prime Mr. Zinnemann appeared to be in touch with the soundest tendencies of mainstream filmmaking and exceptionally responsive to maverick or misfit protagonists. He became something of a specialist at ambivalent alienation: the major characters remained profoundly attached to the groups or people that conspired to thwart or humble them. Pathos is not uncommon in the best Zinnemann movies, but it’s usually a hard-earned sentiment.

Postscript

Betty Hutton’s death last week at the age of 86 prompted an immediate fond response from Turner Classic Movies — as it should have, since host Robert Osborne shared a touching, invaluable interview session with the actress several years ago. Perhaps it’s safe to assume a TCM birthday salute every Feb. 26.

The greatest Hutton roles are super-fertile Trudy Kockenlocker in Preston Sturges’ “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and Annie Oakley in the film version of “Annie Get Your Gun.” If these seem a bit over-familiar, canvass Netflix for some of the musicals that made her a screwball sensation of World War II at Paramount. She made her debut in “The Fleet’s In” of 1942, matched right off the bat with Eddie Bracken and entrusted with a knockout novelty song, “Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry.” Why not match “Fleet” with “Here Come the Waves” of two years later, in which she played twins harassing Bing Crosby, doing a spoof of Frank Sinatra.

There’s no way of quantifying such things, but the young Miss Hutton had a force-of-nature comic dynamism that could be happily confused with a guarantee of national victory. Every defeatist performer now in our midst looks strangely diminished in the shadow of Betty Hutton at her volcanic, morale-boosting best. Somehow, one response is just more generous and encouraging than the other.

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