Saturday, June 4, 2016

VIOLENT SATURDAY (1955)


The early, low budget Richard Fleischer movies were noted for realism through location shooting and in-car cameras, giving credence to the scripts. “Violent Saturday” has the realism front covered but this time with a larger budget worthy of the then popular CinemaScope. Hiring Hugo Friedhofer to do the score settles the issue. From the opening scene of the obligatory bus arrival, Fleischer does not let your attention waver. Cameras weave in, out, up and down setting up scenes and characters with no loose ends. Each bank robber stationed in pivotal locations in anticipation of something. Maybe even violent. It is not without its faults, however. The script turns a typical bank robbery into a myriad of character subplots, not unlike many TV dramas today. These may generate a few chuckles in the truest soap opera sense. And there is probably at least one illogical scene that thrusts the suspension of disbelief on you. But the film is a first-rate classic.


Victor Mature gets top billing. An obvious assumption based on his leading roles from the past decade. But his supporting cast is strong, including up-and-comers, Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. Along with stalwarts, J. Carrol Naish and Stephen McNally, are Richard Egan, Sylvia Sidney and Virginia Leith. They even managed to work in Brad Dexter as his smarmy self.

Tommy Noonan has a creepy subplot as the awkward and emotionally challenged bank manager who moonlights as a voyeur of local nurse, Leith. He walks at night to peek into her window. He follows her around town to get closer to her. He nearly faints in one scene at the drugstore as he finds himself in a tight spot exiting, brushing between her and a display rack. It was not meant to be funny in 1955. His character is also married which makes one wonder how that is going. He is wounded this violent Saturday and Leith is the nurse monitoring him. With a sense of manliness, he confesses his weird behavior to her. She does not give it a second thought. She is actually flattered. What a gal. What an era.


Known for her somewhat wooden acting and one of the most unfortunate female voices since the silent era, Virginia Leith never made it into the big time. She was attractive enough but it is hard to describe her untrained voice. Part Gomer Pyle. Part Lizabeth Scott. When she keeps her volume low, it disguises her real danger when she smiles and talks. Her throat tightens up and all her feminine qualities vanish. Her first greeting to Egan in the drugstore is classic Leith. Her most infamous role is the decapitated woman whose head is kept alive in, “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.” Her voice was dubbed by another actress. Having the appearance of her head on a lab table and her natural voice was too shocking. But I digress.

That obligatory bus lets off McNally, the obligatory “traveling salesman.” He is soon joined by two “junior salesmen,” the sadistic nasal inhaler, Marvin, and Naish, who appears to be everyone’s favorite uncle though far from it in reality. Naish has been through this routine before and has the presence of mind to keep candy in his suit pocket in case an unruly child in the bank needs befriending. While posing as a salesman, McNally’s frequent observations have given him a well-planned heist. 

There is a somewhat humorous scene for Marvin, who knew his way around comedy. Subtle or not. It is a great scene that captures his character. Some time after McNally has reviewed the bank robbery plans, Marvin is restless. Cannot sleep. He does, however, want to talk about all the women who have messed up his life to McNally. He always went for “skinny broads.” Just skin and bones. One wife in particular was a record holder for getting colds. Then he would get her cold. Maybe fifty times. That is how he got addicted to nasal inhalers. She left him for a two-bit undertaker. The other side of his persona centers a scene around a local boy who accidentally bumps into Marvin, knocking his inhaler to the sidewalk. Uh-oh. As the boy apologizes and attempts to retrieve the inhaler, Marvin grinds the boy’s hand into the concrete with his shoe. Marvin’s character enjoyed it.


McNally fakes a visit to an Amish farm outside town in which Borgnine is the head of the household. Borgnine calls any stranger, “neighbor” and says “thee” and “wouldst thou.” It will be the perfect hideout. McNally later describes him to his partners as “a religious screwball.” Right out of the Hollywood playbook. McNally is given the obligatory glass of buttermilk as well. Nothing more refreshing in the desert! Set in the fictitious town of Bradenville, the southwest Arizona desert seems an unrealistic location for the Amish, given their expertise and dependency on growing and harvesting crops in fertile soil. But it is Borgnine’s magic pitchfork which may explain why the Amish were scripted in.


Mature’s Mercury is what the robbers need and at gunpoint he is ordered to drive to the Amish farm. Fleischer’s in-car camera goes to work and Friedhofer’s score cranks up the excitement. The bandits tie up Mature and the Amish family in the barn’s hayloft. Seeing the family of five lined up with white tape covering most of their faces is a bit unsettling, creepy, as they look less than human. Mature manages to cut the ropes around his wrists and then set the Amish free. So to speak. After the heist, the robbers return. All they want is to leave in their getaway truck. Here is one illogical setup. For some reason, Mature wants to shoot the robbers rather than let them leave in their truck. The bandits threaten to burn the barn down. Do not understand this thinking, either. “If we cannot take the truck, we’ll burn your barn down!” Take the truck. Please! I am not sure any of this is logical but it does explain Mature’s “happy ending.” They position his car in front of the barn doors. With a huge stone over the accelerator, the high revving engine is remotely shifted into gear with a rake and the car rams through. Slick. They set the car’s gas tank on fire. With little fear or knowledge that the car might explode, Mature crawls underneath the car and shoots another of the robbers. With the help of Borgnine’s pitchfork, Marvin finally kicks his inhaler habit. One could imagine the pain from a pitchfork in the back yet with medical attention it would seem survivable. I hope the jury is still out on how deep a pitchfork could be driven into a human’s back. Plenty of bones to hit. Could sever the spine. Still, it would take one monumental thrust to drive a pitchfork deep enough to be killed instantly, but that is the assumption. This stand-off scene was controversial with critics. All pitchforks had to be registered from then on. You can believe that if you want.

Mature was more useful in the copper mines during World War II. His son cannot explain why his friends think his dad is a “coward.” After the recovery of the stolen money, blowing away two criminals with a shotgun and getting wounded himself, he becomes a hero to his son and all his friends. Mature’s happy ending.

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