Hitchcock once pointed out that simply by walking down any street in the world one was apt to pass within feet of a sadist, a philanderer or a murderer. Not exactly a comforting thought, but one apropos when considering Richard Fleischer’s Violent Saturday (1955); aspiring to be ensemble film making at its finest. The beefy family man; the unhappily wed/wealthy couple teetering on the brink of divorce; a desperate-for-money librarian who turns to thievery to save herself; a doting/sex kitten of a nurse who spends more time raising the blood-pressure of this amiable male population than tending to the sick, and the seemingly button-down banker, frittering his afterhours free time stalking her. Add to this eclectic mix, an Amish patriarch, stirred to action against his faith in the face of real danger from three very mean/fairly conflicted bank robbers, come to wreak havoc on this small mining community and voila – Violent Saturday is teeming with the sort of raw and salacious, headline-grabbing fiction, better suited for the starkly lit forties film noir than the expansive DeLuxe-colored canvas of fifties Cinemascope. Never mind: the acting is solid, the drama deftly scripted by Sydney Boehm, cribbing for inspiration from William L. Heath’s novel.
In the mid-1950’s Hollywood turned hopefully – or, perhaps, desperately – to sex and violence; two commodities fairly under-exploited in Hollywood (except in long shot or cutaways to a roaring hearth as the lover’s embrace) to counteract the onslaught of television’s popularity. Today, it seems inconceivable the befuddled old-time moguls would struggle to concede this little black box in everyone’s living rooms had severed theater attendance by almost half within the first two years of its debut. In hindsight, the majors ought to have jumped feet first into this burgeoning new medium to hedge their bets. But Hollywood’s opinion of TV back then was rather bourgeois; the moguls still believing movies would remain as the sole purveyors of mass entertainment despite all evidence to the contrary. TV was third class in much the same way Broadway had once considered the movies as lowbrow popcorn fodder, unworthy to share the great white way with their flesh and blood live theater creations.
Indeed, Violent Saturday appeals to this lowest common denominator; humanity’s generalized, inquisitive thirst for scandal marginally satisfied by this peep show of oddities, the circumstances justified by a return to relative normalcy. Ergo, the philandering wife surrenders her ten year stretch of youthful dalliances to be with her husband – alas, martyred in the botched stickup; the voyeuristic banker confesses his sins to the object of his desire, and the robbers all get what’s coming to them; and I don’t mean a weekend in the country living stylishly off their ill-gotten gains. Today, a film like Violent Saturday would likely be drawn out to exhaust every possibility in its blood and guts spectacle; a showcase for mind-numbing stunt work, a few car chases, some gratuitous nudity and a hailstorm of bullets; the special effects wizards finding new ways to explode their litany of squibs for maximum grotesqueness.
Director Richard Fleischer knows better and proves it with his fairly laid back approach to the material; building ever so slightly on the inner tensions already brewing among the locals, and, showing us the instinctual moral decay enveloping these lives we’re supposed to care about, long before the external seeds of death arrive in town. It’s a kind of film-making we don’t see anymore, and, at first, it’s somewhat disconcerting – even off putting, given the film’s incendiary title. The violence suggested as permeating the entire story actually only happens within the last twenty minutes of this hour and a half programmer, tricked out in Charles G. Clarke’s luminous Cinemascope photography.
But when it does occur, it creates a sensation quite unlike any experienced by the ludicrous in-your-face tabloid approach to film-making today. The audience is not brutalized; the film’s ‘crime must pay’ epilogue mollifying any genuine threat; making the audience secure in the film’s mythology: people are basically good and humane with just a few bad apples weeded out by the local gentry, rising up in the eleventh hour to counteract and neutralize their influences. Even the God-fearing/peace-loving Amish take up arms. Clearly, God helps those who choose to help themselves.
Violent Saturday is rather stylishly produced by the formidable, Buddy Adler; Charles G. Clarke’s moodily lit interiors ripping a page from the B&W film noir textbook and willing it into color and widescreen. In 1955, Violent Saturday was generally panned by the critics for its “unedifying spectacle” of violence; an opinion now more quaintly out of touch to downright ridiculous; perhaps merely a sad indictment on how far audiences have fallen in their collective expectations to be ‘entertained’ by such rank and creatively anesthetizing ferocity depicted on their movie screens.
Indeed, popular opinion has since shifted in praise of Violent Saturday; considered “the reigning king of Southwestern noir” and “great, nasty fun” by some. In retrospect, Violent Saturday attempts the impossible; to straddle a chasm between being an intelligently scripted critique of small town hypocrisies, book-ended by the trappings of the conventional crime story. We are expected to be more invested in the outcome of these nondescripts that populate this sleepy town. Today, our sentiments would side on the success or failure of the killers. I shudder to think what that says about society now!
But back to Violent Saturday: a film of considerable weight, even if its story does tend to unravel into a rank shoot ‘em up in the last reel. Director Fleischer gets some fair mileage out of William L. Heath’s novel, considerably cleansed and condensed to placate Hollywood’s then reigning button-down conservatism and censorship. There’s some smoke but little fire – apart from the 55’ Chevy that gets flame-broiled by the bank robbers in their desperate and misguided attempt to regain control over their hostages.
What Fleischer is left with then, are the machinations of this isolated sect of basically good people, momentarily turned by disillusionment, bitterness, sexual frustration and other self-destructive behaviors, yet not so far gone as to be able to return to quote - ‘normalcy’ – unquote. Hence, here is a story where tramps reform, a morally forthright man copes with his philandering spouse by hitting the bottle (and momentarily hitting on the most attractive girl in town), and, hired guns confide their insecurities in heartfelt tête-à-tête, over a few cigarettes and sleepless nights.
Violent Saturday opens on that prerequisite panoramic vista all early Cinemascope movies have in common, to take full advantage of its sprawling screen dimensions; an underground explosion detonated in the apocalyptic landscape of the local copper mine, presumably meant to punctuate the pugnaciousness it will take the better half of its 90 minutes to revisit; the screen emblazoned with red and yellow title credits to whet our anticipation.
We’re plunged into rank domesticity in Bisbee, Arizona; a small community of tightly woven, sparsely treed streets. Like all communities, this one runs the gamut from the socially affluent to the not so well off; the former represented by mine owner, Boyd Fairchild (Richard Egan), his wayward wife, Emily (Margaret Hayes), and his associate, Shelley Martin (Victor Mature) who is happily married to Helen (Dorothy Patrick) and has a devoted son, Steve (Billy Chapin). The latter is embodied by careworn librarian, Elsie Braden (Sylvia Sidney), who steals a purse while on her book rounds in order to pay her outstanding debts to the local bank, run by Harry Reeves (Tommy Noonan); a seemingly aboveboard milquetoast, harboring an unrequited – and fairly unhealthy – yen for nurse, Linda Sherman (Virginia Leith); the only attractive/unmarried girl in town.
Harry stalks Linda around town, under the pretext of walking his dog; waiting outside her apartment late at night and watching from the shadows as she undresses in full view of her open window. Ironically, during one of these late night peep shows, Harry observes Elsie ditching the stolen purse in a back alley garbage can. Honestly, couldn’t she have simply buried it somewhere in her own backyard, or ditched it on the outskirts of town where no one would have been the wiser. But, I digress.
Harry and Elsie have words. She threatens to expose Harry’s ‘sick fetishism’ to his wife (whom we never see) if he ever breathes a word to anyone about her kleptomania. Alas, Violent Saturday isn’t really concerned with these intersecting lives; just one in a series of brief back stories meant to hold our attention while the real story continues to evolve: ditto for the heart sore machinations surrounding Boyd and Emily; she having taken up with local golf pro, Gil Clayton (Brad Dexter) and Boyd briefly considering a tryst with Linda too.
There’s also a subplot involving Shelley’s boy, Steve, who gets into an afterschool skirmish with his ex-best friend, Georgie (Richey Murray) in defense of dear old dad, considered something of a coward by the locals for never having served in the army during WWII. Steve believes in Shelley; an enduring faith to be richly compensated at the end of our story; a son’s hero-worship ever so slightly diffused by Shelley’s attempt to explain there is no great satisfaction in killing one’s fellow man – even in self-defense; a sentiment echoed more sincerely by Stadt (Ernest Borgnine); the farmer who refuses to defend himself against the criminal element until they wound his son in the shoulder. Hell hath no fury like the Amish scorned!
The plot is intriguingly centered on none of these lives, but rather the pending robbery plotted by a trio of professionals come to knock off the bank: mastermind, Harper (Stephen McNally) hooking up with steely-eyed Chapman (J. Carrol Naish) and goony, Dill (Lee Marvin), who continues to psychosomatically snort his nasal inhaler because he was once married to a woman prone to giving him her colds. It’s an interesting bit of business, fleshed out by Dill’s midnight conversation with Harper; neither able to get rested on the eve prior to their big heist.
The day of the robbery goes badly; Harper carjacking Shelley; forcing him to drive to Stadt’s farm where he, Stadt and Stadt’s wife, Martha (Ann Morrison) and family – son, David (Kevin Corcoran) and daughter, Anna (Noreen Corcoran) are bound, gagged and blindfolded; left in the barn to be guarded by a fourth accomplice, Slick (Boyd 'Red' Morgan). Harper, Dill and Chapman invade the bank just before closing time. Emily, having decided she truly loves her husband, has also come to the bank to take out $5000 in traveler’s checks for their planned trip around the world.
Earlier, Emily was confronted by Linda, informed of her own designs on Boyd. He’s all man and definitely Linda’s ideal, much to Harry’s chagrin. Drunk and depressed, Boyd later flirted with Linda at the local watering hole at Harry’s behest, presumably to deflect the town’s suspicions he is lusting after Linda too. Now, trapped inside the bank, Harry gets the itch to be cavalier, reaching for his gun inside his desk drawer as the robbers prepare to loot the safe. Instead, Chapman brutally shoots and wounds Harry, another bullet instantly killing Emily.
The trio’s ironclad plan of escape is foiled by Shelley, who has already managed to free himself and the Stadt family from their restraints and has killed Slick by dropping a barrel on him from the barn loft. Seizing Slick’s shotgun, Shelley becomes a one man vigilante, killing Chapman and Harper in short order. Dill isn’t so easily dispatched, however, cleverly ducking under a truck loaded with hay – their planned getaway vehicle – and shooting Shelley in the leg. In response to Dill wounding David in the shoulder, Stadt sneaks up from behind, plunging his pitchfork into Dill’s back.
Fast forward to the aftermath: we discover Harry has survived, sheepishly confessing his voyeurism to Linda. She’s actually more flattered than surprised or even disgusted; but afterward, she turns to Boyd to comfort him in his loss; also, likely, to pursue a relationship now that Emily is out of the picture. Our story ends with Steve inviting Georgie and a group of school boys into his father’s hospital room; these impressionable minds whirling in awe of this man they once regarded as the town coward.
Violent Saturday isn’t a terrible movie. On the other hand, it isn’t an altogether prepossessing one either; director Richard Fleischer struggling for cohesion with all these disjointed narrative threads. Lest we forget, this isn’t a melodrama – or rather, doesn’t report to start off as one – although its first two acts are much more drama than action. As a melodrama, Violent Saturday might have worked, except, intermittently Fleischer is forced to differ to the noir-styled crime story without actually fleshing out the bad guys beyond anything more substantial than cardboard cutouts. Harper, Dill and Chapman are here to rob the bank – period! J. Carrol Naish and Lee Marvin make their mark – mostly because each is a strong personality. But Stephen McNally disappears into the woodwork. We won’t even count Slick in their scenario, because he seems to pop up out of nowhere – a local or an independent, who arranges to have the heist money smuggled inside bales of hay and driven across state lines in his truck.
In his 1955 review, noted critic, Bosley Crowther called Ernest Borgnine’s performance ‘a joke’, and I must confess, its’ a fairly accurate assessment; Borgnine’s talents all but wasted playing the bearded hypocrite who refuses to fight based on his religious beliefs until, of course, his only son is shot by one of the killers; the old 'eye for an eye' taking precedence thereafter. Victor Mature is top billed in Violent Saturday. But actually it’s Richard Egan who gets the most screen time; rather effective too as the humiliated hubby who cannot bring himself to hate the woman he wed even though theirs has been an open marriage almost from the moment each said ‘I do’. Egan is at his best as the self-deprecating drunkard, clumsily wooing Linda at the bar, or pouring out his heart near the end after Emily’s death, asking Linda to turn away while he indulges in a good manly cry.
Violent Saturday has its moments, but they become bogged down in these not so 'sunshine sketches' of a little town where middle-class morality has derailed and run amuck. Emily’s tryst with Gil on the golf green, the ignoble way he chooses to manipulate her already waning affections for him; Harry’s creepy pursuit of Linda – who knows she is being followed but seemingly doesn’t mind his adoration from afar because she has already astutely assessed Harry is more the ‘look - don’t touch’ harmless variety of freak; Steve’s undying patriarchal love, reaffirmed when Shelley breaks out the big guns in the eleventh hour. It all makes for some interesting back story. Unfortunately, Violent Saturday never seems to move beyond any of these narrative machinations, merely meant to delay and mark time until the whole point of the story – the botched robbery – can take place. In all fairness, at 90 scant minutes there's really no time to explore any of these plot devices beyond superficial talking points. But there are better crime stories out there on celluloid, and better ways to tell this one in particular.
But there is definitely nothing to complain about in Fox Home Video’s stunning 1080p Blu-ray transfer, released as a limited edition via Twilight Time. Ah, now here is a hi-def rendering to truly live up to the claim of perfect picture and sound. Violent Saturday is obviously the benefactor of some major restoration efforts. What’s not to love?: a robust palette of colors that pop, razor-sharpness revealing every last fine detail in Charles G. Clarke’s deep focus cinematography, and superbly rendered contrast and film grain levels. Even the transitional fades and/or dissolves between scenes – something of a shortcoming in early Cinemascope features – are smoothly rendered herein with narrowly a hint of that awkward momentary bump in grain and simultaneous loss in color fidelity.
The DTS 5.1 audio delivers a real kick. Aside: I am always impressed by the acoustics of 4-track Westrex vintage audio. In some ways, the clarity and spatiality is even more impressive when one considers the absolute technological crudeness these artists were working with back then. We also get Twilight Time’s usual commitment to providing an isolated score, plus the added benefit of listening to Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo affectionately wax and trade histories on the making of this film on a separate commentary. Bottom line: I can’t say I really appreciated the film, but I absolutely adored this transfer. By those standards, and particularly if you are a fan of this movie, then this is the absolute best presentation on home video.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)