Fox // 1955 // 91 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // May 4th, 2011
We can't change, not us. You're an alcoholic and I'm a tramp!
How in the world could I have never heard of this movie? A cast that includes Victor Mature (Hannibal), Lee Marvin (The Wild One), Sylvia Sydney (Merrily We Go to Hell), Tommy Noonan (A Star Is Born), and Ernest Borgnine (Convoy). That it's directed by Richard Fleischer (The Boston Strangler) takes it over the top. But the best sell of the film possible comes from a phrase in a short essay in the booklet: "...not even the Benzedrine-snorting sadist (Marvin) who can apparently get away with crushing a child's hand under his heel." Yikes. This is Technicolor melodrama wrapped up in a hard-boiled crime story. It's like Tennessee Williams and Jim Thompson got together to write a screenplay, and I love it.
Three crooks (Marvin, Steven McNally, A Bullet Is Wating, and J. Carrol Naish, Rio Grande), posing as traveling salesmen, arrive in town to rob a bank, which they meticulously plan and carry out. Their scumminess goes completely unnoticed by the residents of this southwestern strip-mining town who are already as morally broken as they could possibly be. With their society on the verge of collapse, they can do little but stand by and watch while everything they have is taken from them.
No fan of crime fiction should go another day without seeing Violent Saturday. Bosley Crowler, in his original New York Times review (a pan well worth reading and linked below) called the film "guarded pornography," and if that's not enough to entice people to watch the film, the film is probably the single most sadistic film from that time period that I've ever seen. How it got past censors is beyond me; maybe they were blinded by Victor Mature's rough and manly visage, I don't know. Thank goodness it did, because this is the kind of brazen sickness that I crave and that is exceedingly rare in the Hayes Code days. The filthier the better, I say, and this one, this is filthy.
It may be prurient pleasure of the highest order, but inside Violent Saturday is an orgy of neuroses. The bank heist plot comes a decided second in importance to the weirdoes who live in this Arizona mining village. While the crooks are taking their sweet time casing the bank, we get to witness the breakdown of some of the town's most respected citizens. Whether it's the light-fingered librarian (Sydney), driven to thievery by her mounting debt or the bank manager who signs her threatening letters (Noonan), a real sleazeball who'd rather watch a woman change through her window than push papers at the bank. Even the object of his drooling lust, a young nurse (Linda Sherman, A Kiss Before Dying, in an understated but enticing turn), seems to appreciate watching men debase herself before her, if not the specific way he does it. She prefers the attention of the owner of the mine (Richard Egan, Demitrius and the Gladiators), who has been driven to drink by the blatant infidelity of his wife (Margaret Hayes, Sullivan's Travels), and who bares his drunken soul to her at every available occasion.
Don't worry, though, there are a couple of decent folk in this town to balance things, albeit very slightly. First, we have Borgnine as an Amish farmer (sideburns and all, just another awesome touch to this movies), who is driven to an act unspeakable to him only moments before he does it. Second, and most importantly, we have our eventual hero (Mature), who must face his lack of heroism to his young son who fights his friend to defend his honor. If there's a moral center to this film (a big if), it's that a "hero" is little more than an accident of circumstance, which if that's all there is, makes for a awfully cynical message.
The performances are sometimes a little overdone, but it seems appropriate for such rough material; subtlety is not the name of the game today. Fleischer adds a stroke of style, with a deeply colorful palette and detailed, realistic sets. The scenes of these wealthy scumbags, looking out from their balconies onto red mountains ravished by the industry that made them rich, drive home the barren nature of their rotten souls. There's no sentimentality here, no redemption; Violent Saturday gets to the heart of the matter and apologizes for nothing. It's no small feat that a film made during the height of Hollywood censorship could make a jaded 21st century viewer wince a little bit. It's a mean little movie, but it's a delight.
As happy as I am to have witnessed this spectacle, not all is right in the Dark City. The DVD from Fox, under the Twilight Time label, is quite unfortunate. On the Amazon listing for the film, the producers run a disclaimer about it, but it's still little more than an excuse. The image is not anamorphically enhanced, an especially heinous crime for a film shot in Cinemascope. Since they told me about it, I wasn't expecting much, but they don't explain that the tiny image is covered in dirt, debris, and damage. The only positive is the color, which is fairly rich, in spite of all the rest. If it is, as they describe, a case of having only an old laserdisc transfer to work with, they clearly still did nothing to fix any of the problems. The sound is quite a bit better, which is still faint praise, but the dialog and music are both clear with a minimum of noise. The only extra is one that I always find valuable, even it's a rare inclusion: the isolated score. Hugo Friedhofer's sultry, overheated music fits the mood of the film very well and being able to hear it play directly with the image is always worth watching. Maybe someday, somebody will put out a proper version of this film; today, I'll just be happy with what I have.
It isn't often that you happen upon a film in a genre you love that immediately takes a seat among your very favorites. We'll see how well this potboiler fares over multiple viewings, but for now, I wonder where Violent Saturday has been all my life.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Isolated Score
* Original New York Times Review