With the voyeuristic joy reminiscent of Tommy Noonan’s character, I can’t praise the folks enough at Twilight Time (in conjunction with 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment) for doing a much-needed limited edition Blu-Ray redux of Richard Fleischer’s 1955 CinemaScope noir triumph VIOLENT SATURDAY.
Back in 2011, I was thrilled beyond belief when I got to review this movie on DVD, one of the first Twilight Time platters ever released: “Its official American arrival on DVD is reason alone to run screaming through the streets (if that’s your idea of fun) – which the citizens in the picture’s fictional town of Bradenville actually end up doing.”
While I was surprised that it wasn’t an anamorphic transfer (the only widescreen TT title in 4:5), I was nevertheless tickled pink (no DeLuxe Color pun intended) to be able to savor this noir classic in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio (a bit compromised from its original stereo-mag accommodating 2.55 dimensions, blissfully corrected for this new release). When the company went all-Blu-Ray, I secretly hoped they would re-do this thriller – one of my favorite Fleischer noirs. How good is this remaster in 1080p? Good enough that it’s one of my favorite discs of the year!
Below is a slightly re-edited version of my original review (after all the movie hasn’t changed, just its appearance…and “just” is the word).
There’s so much to say about this movie that it’s hard to find a starting point – but perhaps it’s best to begin with VIOLENT SATURDAY‘s unfairly neglected director, Richard Fleischer. Sadly, today Fleischer is regarded by way too many as the force behind Amityville 3D, the Neil Diamond version of The Jazz Singer, Red Sonja, lame comedies (Million Dollar Mystery), the lead balloon Dr. Dolittle (featuring Rex Harrison and other freakish biological monstrosities) and Mandingo (which I genuinely like). This is but a small example of his output, which in toto is extremely impressive – a filmography any director would (and should) be rightfully proud of.
The son of famed animation genius Max Fleischer (creator of pre-Code’s Betty Boop, Popeye and the Technicolor Superman series for Paramount), Richard Fleischer strutted his stuff fairly early by helming the near-surreal 1948 comedy So This is New York. Disney later claimed (no doubt with much guilt) that he felt obligated to give the young director his start. How nice. Forget that the result was 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – the movie which not only put Fleischer on the map, but saved the Disney studios and ultimately enabled them to complete the multi-million dollar pipe dream to be known as Disneyland. Leagues became quickly known as the industry’s state-of-the-art sci-fi flick – notably due to two frightening sequences: a battle with a giant squid and Kirk Douglas singing.
Disney’s “generous” decision to help the son of his former competitor (whom he helped ruin) failed to mention one item: in the interim of between So This is New York and the Jules Verne adventure, Fleischer had become the wunderkind of RKO – where he directed a series of terrific low-budget noirs that racked up big grosses and even bigger critical accolades (1952’s The Narrow Margin being probably the most famous). Bottom line: the guy worked quick and cheap. Making amends for professionally destroying a rival animator is likely to have taken a back seat to the skinflint mogul’s appreciation of celluloid economics…Ya think?
Douglas, too, didn’t forget Fleischer’s talents – eventually hiring him to direct his 1958 Norseman epic, The Vikings – one of the most action-packed and beautifully-shot movies of all time. This, in turn, got Fleischer perhaps his most underrated project, 1961’s Barabbas – easily one of the finest Biblical spectaculars that ever graphically demonstrated why thou shalt not do anything.
But it was with noir and true crime that Fleischer excelled. After his mammoth success at Disney, the young craftsman was given a contract at 20th Century-Fox…and here he flourished. In 1955 he not only unleashed VIOLENT SATURDAY but the first in his series of aforementioned true-crime dramas, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (Compulsion, The Boston Strangler and 10 Rillington Place would follow over the next sixteen years). Fleischer was wise to go with the studio that introduced CinemaScope, as he was extremely proficient in manipulating the new widescreen process – never better exemplified than in VIOLENT SATURDAY. The inventive rectangular framing and smooth sweeping scope visuals crisscrossing of main characters are a joy to behold. Another aspect of VIOLENT SATURDAY which makes it so unusual is the fact that it seems to contradict the very idea of noir by being lensed in color; unusual – but not unique, as the movie admirably joins its illustrious brethren of Desert Fury, Slightly Scarlet, Hell’s Island and others whose sinister palettes prove that the genre of shadows is by no means limited to black and white.
Of course the sourcework ain’t nothing to shrug off either. Based on a scorching novel by William L. Heath, the filmic adaptation (as scripted by Sydney Boehm) wisely eschewed the original’s Dixie hamlet for a prosperous Southwestern locale, thereby eliminating the racial element and focusing more on Bradenville’s class structure – the irony being that no one in the narrative has any. To say that Bradenville is a rough burg is like calling Jack the Ripper “eccentric.”
Enter the leading characters and the movie folk who inhabit them. Let me preface this by stating that VIOLENT SATURDAY is a “you know you’re in trouble” movie…for example: You know you’re in trouble when the town’s suave bon vivant is Brad Dexter; as the reigning golf pro, he rivals Tiger Woods in most holes scored – sometimes even on the links. Then again it’s easy when the alluring rich women are personified by self-acknowledged nympho, Maggie Hayes…who’s married to weak, drunken womanizing Richard Egan. Egan, who in CinemaScope close-up clearly and often exhibits all of his 150 teeth, looks like a piano made out of lunch meat. He also gives what is probably the best performance of his career. But leave us continue. Star Victor Mature is a seemingly happy family man, whose 12-year-old son just happens to be embarrassed by his very presence. It seems the kid’s friends’ fathers all were heroes during WWII while Mature apparently held the same military duties as Captain Peacock on Are You Being Served? Mature tries damn hard to win the lad’s respect. But it’s no use. I bet that even if he told him, “Son, before the war I fought dinosaurs in One Million B.C.,” the child’s reply would be along the lines of, “Yeah, but they were just blown-up lizards with pasted on Dimetrodon fins against rear-screen projection.” What a brat!
Oh – and then there’s Virginia Leith, the hot and trampy nurse, who’s contemplating stealing Egan from Hayes…and Tommy Noonan as the respectable banker by day and peeping Tom perv/stalker by night. This connects to Sylvia Sidney as the town’s embittered thieving blackmailing librarian. And (here we go) you know you’re in trouble when Ernest Borgnine is the head of an Amish family. Sporting an Abe Lincoln beard that makes him look like one of the mid-transformations in Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Borgnine’s peaceful nature ultimately becomes unraveled during events on the title day when he conveniently finds a pitchfork causing what, were he a Quaker, could only be categorized as unfriendly persuasion. And these aren’t even the villains. I tell you, Bradenville makes Peyton Place look like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood!
So how about the real baddies? Well, (one more time) you know you’re in trouble when the brains of the outfit is Stephen McNally…and especially when his cohorts comprise sociopath J. Carrol Naish (whose passion is feeding candy to children) and substance-sniffing sadist Lee Marvin. The combination of Mature, Egan, McNally and Dexter alone results in enough beefcake per capita to keep Lee & Perrins afloat for decades. Jane Russell aside, Mature had the dubious distinction of having larger breasts than any of his female co-stars – which the picture’s ripped-shirt ad campaign promotion eagerly exploited. Mature’s “manmaries” have nothing to do whatsoever in how he finally wins his boy’s devotion – one of Hollywood’s most shocking brutal depictions of gunplay and retribution for its time; that Mature is so visibly a participant in the powerhouse finale is especially praiseworthy when one recalls Robert Mitchum’s caustic evaluation that “…Vic needs a stuntman to step off the side of the curb.”
To see B-D of a DVD is always a treat; when it’s a refurbishing from 4:5 widescreen transfer, it becomes an event. VIOLENT SATURDAY is an event. To say the imagery has been heightened is an understatement. Like the picture and cast – it’s aces. Naturally, the razor-sharp Blu-Ray provides an excellent showcase for master cinematographer Charles G. Clarke’s extraordinary work. The vibrant color scheme and amazing lighting often recall the imagery of his Fox alumnus, Leon Shamroy – but make no mistake – Clarke’s efforts stand on their own. The new edition exhibits such crystal clarity that it’s almost surreal – everything that the cool kids used to tell us that LSD would do to your mind. I mean, you can read the titles on the pulps in the drugstore. You can clearly see dimly-lit background movie posters in the alley (think I’m kidding – it’s Shock, that 1946 Fox title costarring Vincent Price and Lynn Bari).
The audio is another major achievement – a classic rendition of 1950s directional stereo. While there is little to no “surround” information, the dialogue exchanges are a demo room hoot. In a typical conversation, McNally’s voice booms from the left speaker, Naish from the center channel and Marvin from the right. Love that stuff. The score is by the great Hugo Friedhofer – one of the least-known of the true giants of film music. The score has also been isolated on a separate track, so that soundtrack collectors can additionally revel in playing the music only – in effect having a CD album of Friedhofer’s composition.
If one still requires impetus for purchasing this major noir title – there a new second audio track featuring the always entertaining and scholarly reflections of Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman. Unlike leads Mature, Egan and McNally, they provide pure meat and no fat.
I can’t recommend this version of VIOLENT SATURDAY highly enough; alas, remember it’s a limited edition. Once it’s gone, well…
VIOLENT SATURDAY. Color. Letterboxed [2.55:1; 1080p High Definition upgraded from the original DVD’s 2.35:1]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Limited Edition of 3000. CAT # 903RJO44VS. SRP: $29.95.
Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment: www.screenarchives.com