By 1955, Richard Fleischer had graduated to the A-list of film directors, having worked his way up through RKO, making a string of memorable noir films, notably The Narrow Margin (1952). After a notable sojourn at Disney, where he directed the best adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), he returned to the world of sleazy and dangerous human behaviour with Violent Saturday, based on a novel by William L. Heath.
Similar to Sam Fuller’s nutbar House of Bamboo (1955), it’s a classic noir tale of desperate people misbehaving because they’ve lost touch with their humanity, or became just plain greedy, and filmed in sprawling CinemaScope with discrete surround sound.
Like his taut thriller Union Station (1950), Sidney Boehm’s script is a perfect example of fluid storytelling and scene construction: by the time the main event occurs – a generic bank robbery – we know the characters quite well; they’re not exceptionally vivid, but their positions in a mining town’s society are clearly drawn out.
The beauty of the film is nothing really happens in the first hour besides infidelity, a child’s schoolyard fight, and one of the robbers stepping on a kid’s hand because he felt like it. It’s all sweet teasing, and when the robbery and its tragic outcome occurs, there’s genuine emotion for those physically and emotionally scathed by the event.
Boyd Fairchild (Richard Egan, fresh from Howard Hughes’ silly Underwater!) isn’t just a drunk; he’s a philanderer trying to out-compete his nympho wife Emily (Margaret Hayes) while running the town’s business - a successful mining operation that dominates Bradenville’s skyline and soundscape, with dirt mounds and the constant boom of dynamiting. The whole industrial operation is a metaphor for a town on hinge of an explosive event that eventually drags even an unassuming Amish family into the fracas.
Much like Fred Zinnemann cutting to footage of ticking clocks and watches, and a train carrying hired guns to the sleepy small town in High Noon (1952), Fleischer uses sound and images to layer the sense of looming danger when, for a long stretch, there’s none: the three robbers who quickly arrive into town are merely on a stakeout, and until they pull out their guns and commit kidnapping, theft, robbery, and murder, the trio consists of business-like mastermind Harper (Stephen McNally), OCD weasel Chapman (J. Carrol Naish), and Benzedrine-sniffing goofball Dill (Lee Marvin, stealing the film with pure attitude) - all waiting and walking in and out of local hangouts, unaware some of the people they’re watching with semi-indifference will be affected by their violence.
Boyd isn’t the hero but a casualty of his own neglect; he waited too long to realize he’d been asleep during his marriage, although there’s hope with his latest fling, local nurse Linda Sherman. Actress Virginia Leith does the most with her underwritten character, and one suspects had Boehm been allowed to indulge in further small scenes, her intentions with Boyd would've been more clear, emerging from the confines of a home-wrecker / gold-digger archetype as his saviour from a doomed marriage.
The film’s real hero is the town everyman who missed out on real glory by making the machines used by heroes in WWII rather than use them himself. Shelley Martin (affable Victor Mature) is a decent man, and he’s part of the story’s ‘normal’ family, if not its moral compass, and it’s fitting both himself and a pacifist, Amish patriarch Stadt (Ernest Borgnine!), ostensibly rescue the town.
Every noir requires some sleaze, and Boehm’s dialogue is among the raciest in a fifties colour noir; people are possessive, wanton, secretive, and deny everything when caught or turn tables with blackmail. Linda wants the town industrialist but she also teases the bank manager (Tommy Noonan), who’s also a Peeping Tom; and the local librarian clerk (a mousy Sylvia Sydney) blackmails the "impudent" banker when he threatens to forclose on her home.
Amid the drama, Hugo Friedhofer’s score is surprisingly sparse and doesn’t draw attention to itself, perhaps because the composer recognized the mining location (Bisbee, Arizona) offered the film its own special sonic qualities. The opening “Main Titles” cue is actually preceded by a mountain being dynamited to bits, and the soundtrack is frequently layered with the constant drone of trucks and grinding engines. Perhaps the film’s funniest scene isn’t filled with Boehm’s ribald dialogue, but seeing the lunacy of patients recuperating in a hospital that faces an active quarry. Hardly conducive towards recuperating from a serious wound.
Twilight Time’s third release (after The Kremlin Letter and Fate is the Hunter) is the only one taken from a non-anamorphic transfer, which may irk some collectors, but given there hasn’t been a previously unreleased ‘scope production from Fox Home Video in 3 years (Garden of Eden may be among the last in Region 1 land), it’s up to indie labels to reward patient fans hungry for long unavailable classics.
Violent Saturday still looks good in its non-16x9 transfer. There’s minor softness in details, with a few interior bank shots looking weak – perhaps the result of the lenses used during that day’s filming. The colours are well-balanced and rich, and Friedhofer’s score really booms in Dolby 2.0 Stereo. (There’s still a slight sense of surround sound due to Fox’ then-practice of panning dialogue according to characters' screen movements.)
TT’s DVD (limited to 3000 copies) also includes an isolated stereo score track which appears to carry more music than the CD (namely the source instrumentals), and lacks the abrupt edits and volume dips associated with most isolated music stems.
Film historian Julie Kirgo, who’s contributed her own superb audio commentary tracks for prior Fox DVDs, penned the colourful liner notes, and while the film may not be the utter masterpiece she claims in her florid prose, it’s still a bloody good thriller and indicative of the top talent working during the fifties. Fox’ ‘scope productions were very elegant, and gave audiences the ultimate big sound-big screen experience because unlike Cinerama, the stories weren’t pure travelogue.
Fleischer’s next film for the studio was the weird Joan Collins gam-fest The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), whereas Egan went straight into the glossy Seven Cities of Gold (1955) for Fox, featuring one of Friedhofer’s most sumptuous scores.
Sexy Virginia Leith appeared in the colour noir A Kiss Before Dying (1956) before sliding into TV, and earning a bit of ignominy in the Grand Guignol idiocy The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962). Lee Marvin also appeared in several dramatic anthology series, but earned deserved critical attention in his own small breakthrough film, Shack Out on 101 (1955).
Sydney Boehm followed up with The Tall Men (1955), Hell on Frisco Bay (1955), The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956) co-starring Richard Egan, Woman Obsessed (1959), and the grisly Shock Treatment (1964).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan