BY WADE SHEELER
Tawdry, lurid, and angst-ridden, Richard Fleischer’s taut and titillating melodrama, Violent Saturday, plumbs the depths of post World War depravity and displays it in full, much like some of the better 1950s soap operas. Beautiful sun-soaked vistas, angular topography and clean lines inform the audience just as richly as the overwrought dialogue and pregnant pauses.
Twilight Time has released a beautiful eye-popping Technicolor print of Violent Saturday on Blu-ray, and it is worth owning, even if you aren’t a classic film fan. The print is so pristine, the colors so vibrant and the focus so sharp it rivals some of the best modern digital releases.
Unlike the shadowy, cramped and claustrophobic settings of most noirs, Violent Saturday exploits the newly created Cinemascope format, playing out across a richly color soaked Southwestern canvas. The desert town of Bradenville pulsates with all of the sexual and repressed tension of a coiled rattlesnake. Almost every exterior (and there are plenty of them) has the scorched horizon of the copper mine, which is Bradenville’s main industry. While most small town’s suffer from neighbors breathing down one anothers’ necks, Bradenville is bright and sprawling, always reminding its denizens (and the audience) that the toxic mine and its immasculated mountain tops are there to overshadow everything. It could be the reason so many of its citizens are on edge.
A trio of bank-robbers arrive in town, as Harper, the leader (Stephen McNally) has been visiting Bradenville for months under the guise of a costume jewelry salesman. His two accomplices Chapman (J. Carroll Naish) and Dill (a simmering and young Lee Marvin) case the bank. But the bank job is only one chapter in the town’s story. Everybody in Bradenville has a secret, and nobody is too far removed from some type of sinister business. Boyd Fairchild (Richard Egan) is the alcoholic Vice President of the mining company, who spends all his time drinking his marriage away. His philandering wife (Margaret Hayes) has been “making time” with the town wolf, but in an attempt to save her marriage, tries calling the affair quits. The bank manager (Tommy Noonan) is a “peeping tom” type stalker, obsessed with Linda Sherman (Virginia Leith) a nurse, who only has eyes for the married Fairchild. When Fairchild drunkenly makes a pass at her, she knows all too well he still loves his wife and takes him home to sober up.
The one-time town matriarch and namesake, Elsie Braden (Sylvia Sydney) is now a broken down librarian, about to lose everything to the bank. She has to resort to stealing a purse to make good on her debts. The creepy bank manager catches her with the goods, and threatens to inform the police. Too bad Elsie sees him peeping into Nurse Sherman’s bedroom, forcing them to share an uneasy alliance.
In the midst of this potboiler lands the three criminals, who mastermind a bank job that involves hiding out at an Amish farm. They kidnap the copper mine’s Jr. VP, Shelly Martin (Victor Mature) in an attempt to jack his car. All goes according to plan, but Martin and the Amish patriarch, (Ernest Borgnine !), upset the apple cart in ways that help deliver on the film title’s promise.
Director Richard Fleischer had a dynamic career, cutting his teeth on some of the best, grittiest and most stylish film noirs (The Narrow Margin, The Clay Pigeon), before directing one of the first Cinemascope successes, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. His work on that film got him the gig with 20th Century Fox and Violent Saturday. He went on to boxoffice success by helming Fantastic Voyage (1966), Doctor Doolittle (1967) and Soylent Green (1973) not to mention critical favorites Compulsion (1959), The Boston Strangler (1968) and 10 Rillington Place (1971). Son of the great animator Max Fleischer, he had an artist’s eye as he adapted to both traditional movie frame ratios and the expansive widescreen format that he himself helped usher in. He’s also a sly storyteller, borrowing devices from other films (the back of the car camera POV just after the bank robbery is a nod to the seminal shot from Gun Crazy) and skillful edits (Margaret Hayes climbs the stairs to her bedroom, and we straight cut to Lee Marvin in a bed, tossing and turning, in another part of town entirely) to make societal commentary as skewering as 1950s subversive Douglas Sirk.
Expeditiously told in a brisk 90 minutes, Violent Saturday may have its roots in pulp, but its stunning visuals and smart script helped it ascend to A level status. Much like Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock and Hathaway’s Niagara, Fleischer’s melodrama embraces color and an untraditional setting to deliver great entertainment and something akin to pure art.