Obituary: Fred Zinnemann

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The critical establishment has always had a tendency, especially where the cinema is concerned, to judge brows and classes in tandem, with a fair amount of indulgence for the extremes of both high and low, but contempt for the dreaded middle. If, thus, Fred Zinnemann's stock as a director has fallen of late, it is because, during the 16 years of his heyday, a period stretching from The Men in 1950 to A Man For All Seasons in 1966, his career sought to demonstrate above all the importance of earnestness, that quintessential middlebrow and middle-class virtue.

His work was distinguished by the one unfashionably high-minded attribute of which "the movies" have ever been, or perceived to have been, bereft - a hyperactive (and on occasion self-regarding) social conscience. And even when, as rarely, he made a genre movie - the western High Noon, the musical comedy Oklahoma! - he seemed temperamentally incapable of exulting in the simple, incorruptible poetry of generic myths and conventions, of either cunningly or gruffly transcending those conventions from within in the manner of a Hitchcock, Hawks or Ford. What concerned him, rather, was the degree to which their sometimes resistant themes and textures would lend themselves to the moral gravitas of his trademark brand of humanistic editorialising.

In consequence, he was for several years, along with William Wyler and George Stevens, one of the three token "intellectuals" of the Hollywood industry, which predictably rewarded his conspicuous seriousness and sincerity with a bouquet of Oscars. Later, however, he was totally, mortifyingly, ignored by "the French" in the Sixties, when the Auteur Theory became the dominant methodology of film criticism, a reversal of fortune from which his reputation was never afterwards to recover. Certainly, whatever the term auteur has come to mean in a cinematic context, it is difficult to apply it to the sober-sided, often impersonal Zinnemann, whose films are definable less by their essence than by their difference - that is, by the virtual absence of those qualities (and, to be fair, flaws) that characterise the output of Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford, Lang, Minnelli, Sternberg and their like in the auteurist Pantheon.

With Zinnemann, it was the subject not the style that made the man; visually, his work tended to be flat and academic, if always very competent. And it was not by chance that his affinities lay with a stolidly middlebrow range of literary blockbusters: The Seventh Cross (Anna Seghers), From Here to Eternity (James Jones), A Hatful of Rain (Michael G. Gazzo), The Nun's Story (Kathryn C. Hulme), The Sundowners (Jon Cleary), A Man for All Seasons (Robert Bolt) and, arguably, Julia (Lillian Hellman). Indeed, a typical film by Zinnemann resembled nothing so much as one of those well-intentioned, exhaustively researched slabs of fiction (by such writers as James Michener, Irwin Shaw, Herman Wouk and Leon Uris) of which Gore Vidal once caustically remarked that they were fine in every respect except as literature.

Zinnemann was born in 1907 in Vienna, the son of a prominent Jewish physician. Although he early planned to become a lawyer, his profession was determined by three films that he saw in his youth - Stroheim's Greed, King Vidor's The Big Parade and Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. So, after graduating from university, he left his native city to become an assistant cameraman in Berlin, where, in the company of such future Hollywood film-makers as Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder and Edgar G. Ulmer, he would collaborate on a celebrated documentary, more honoured by movie buffs in the breach than in the observance, Menschen am Sonntag (1929, People on Sunday).

In 1929, he emigrated to Hollywood where, in the following year, he was hired as an extra on Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front. He assisted, in various capacities, the directors Berthold Viertel, Robert Flaherty (on an abortive documentary project which was to have been filmed in the Soviet Union) and, at least according to his curriculum vitae, Busby Berkeley on the deliriously campy production numbers of an Eddie Cantor musical, The Kid from Spain. Finally, in 1935, he was accorded co-director status with the documentarist Paul Strand on Redes (or The Wave).

Following years of ploughing some of the less fertile fields of the Hollywood backlots - three short-film series, Crime Does Not Pay, Pete Smith Specialties and Historical Mysteries, as well as a few routine, now forgotten B-movies - Zinnemann eventually established a name for himself in 1948 with The Search, a duly "sensitive" if already somewhat programmatic melodrama of the growing friendship between a GI (Montgomery Clift) and a young concentration camp survivor.

Thereafter, an acknowledged Hollywood heavyweight, he would never descend to churning out one film after another, but would meticulously select and prepare his material (vainly struggling for several years, for example, to adapt Andre Malraux's La Condition humaine to the screen), frequently having to battle with the fabled front office to preserve what he saw as the integrity of his vision.

In an era when the greatest Hollywood directors - Ford, Capra, Vidor, etc - were politically conservative and even reactionary, Zinnemann was a liberal humanist and a social (if not quite "socialist") realist, with a natural inclination to addressing the burning issues of the day: disability (The Men, in which Marlon Brando gave an extraordinary performance as a paraplegic: Zinnemann was unquestionably a major director of actors and possibly envisioned the direction of actors as the film-maker's primary vocation); anti-Semitism (From Here to Eternity, 1953, Julia, 1977); heroin addiction (A Hatful of Rain, 1957); the religious calling (The Nun's Story, 1959); and, supremely, to the point where it might be regarded as a personal thematics, the sort of conflict of conscience that permits heroic individualism to emerge from a context of moral cowardice (High Noon, 1952, A Man for All Seasons, Julia and passim).

If, paradoxically, his finest production - a remarkably faithful and uncannily well-cast adaptation of Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding (1953, with Julie Harris, Ethel Waters and Brandon de Wilde) - conforms not at all to his public image, the most famous of his films, High Noon, was widely read as a courageous allegory of the McCarthy era witch-hunts. Yet even High Noon, although once universally admired, has had its detractors. It was the time-consuming and ultimately counterproductive search for help by its lawman protagonist (Gary Cooper) that prompted an exasperated Howard Hawks to make Rio Bravo, a western that is now generally considered to be superior on every level; and Zinnemann's pseudo-Aristotelian pretensions to "real time" were punctured in an ingenious article by the British critic Richard Combs.

High Noon may be Zinnemann's best-loved film, but the most vividly remembered single sequence in his entire oeuvre is without doubt the sexy, wetly glistening encounter on a Hawaiian beach between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity, a scene which set the style in romantic soft-core eroticism for many years to come and became (as numerous parodies bear witness) the cinematic equivalent of a well-thumbed page in some slightly risque best-seller.

Fred Zinnemann, film director: born Vienna 29 April 1907; married 1936 Renee Bartlett (one son); died London 14 March 1997.