In 1928 Fred Zinnemann worked as assistant to cinematographer Eugene Sch?fftan on Robert Siodmak's Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday), along with Edgar Ulmer and Billy Wilder, who wrote the scenario for this semi-documentary silent feature made in the tradition of Flaherty and Vertov. Having been strongly influenced by realistic filmmaking, particularly the work of Erich von Stroheim, King Vidor, and Robert Flaherty, Zinnemann immigrated to the United States in 1930 and worked with Berthold Viertel, Flaherty ("probably the greatest single influence on my work as a filmmaker," he later stated), and the New York photographer-documentarist Paul Strand on Los Redes, the first of a proposed series intended to documenteveryday Mexican life. Los Redes told the story of the struggle of impoverished fishermen to organize themselves against economic exploitation. The film was shot in Vera Cruz, and Zinnemann was responsible for directing the actors.
Zinnemann's documentary training and background developed his style as a ?social realist? in a number of early pictures (several shorts he directed, for example, in MGM's Crime Does Not Pay and The Passing Parade series) during the years 1937-42. His medical short That Mother Might Live won an Academy Award and enabled Zinnemann to direct feature films. His first feature at MGM was a thriller, The Kid Glove Killer, with Van Heflin and Marsha Hunt. The Seventh Cross was adapted from Anna Segher's anti-fascist World War II novel. Starring Spencer Tracy, the film was notable for its atmosphere and documentary style. The Search, shot on location in Europe in 1948, with Montgomery Clift, gave a realistic portrayal of children who had been displaced by the turmoil of World War II and was a critical as well as a commercial success. The Men was the first of a three-picture contract Zinnemann signed with Stanley Kramer and dealt with the problem of paraplegic war veterans, marking Marlon Brando's debut as a film actor. Zinnemann filmed The Men on location at the Birmingham Veteran's Hospital and used a number of patients there as actors.
Zinnemann's next film for Kramer, High Noon, was significant because of the way Zinnemann's realistic style turned the genre of the Western upside down. It featured Gary Cooper in an Oscar-winning performance as Will Kane, a retired marshal who has taken a Quaker bride (Grace Kelly), but whose marriage is complicated by the anticipated return of paroled desperado Frank Miller, expected on the noon train. Zinnemann treated his ?hero? as an ordinary man beset with doubts and fears in an existential struggle to protect himself and the community of Haddleyville, a town that proves to be undeserving of his heroism and bravery. Zinnemann created a tense drama by coordinating screen time to approximate real time, which is extended only when the fateful train arrives, bearing its dangerous passenger. Working against the stylized and mythic traditions that had come to dominate the genre, High Noon established the trend of the ?psychological? Western and represents one of Zinnemann's finest accomplishments.
Zinnemann's last Kramer picture was The Member of the Wedding, a Carson McCullers novel that had been adapted into a popular Broadway production by McCullers herself. The film utilized the same cast that had made the stage production successful (Julie Harris, Brandon de Wilde, and Ethel Waters) but created cinematically an effective atmosphere of entrapment. Member of the Wedding is a model of effective theatrical adaption. Zinnemann went on to adapt the 1955 movie version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic Oklahoma!, removing the exclamation point, as one wit noted, in a spacious and lyrical, but also rather perfunctory, effort.
In 1953 Zinnemann moved to Columbia Pictures to direct the adaption of the popular James Jones novel From Here to Eternity, a huge popular success starring Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, and Ernest Borgnine that won Zinnemann an Academy Award for Best Director. Zinnemann's approach effectively utilized newsreel footage of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and his realistic style both tightened and dramatized the narrative. A Hatful of Rain applied Zinnemann's documentary approach to the problem of drug addiction in New York. The Nun's Story (with Audrey Hepburn and Peter Finch) has been linked to A Man For All Seasons in that both reflect conflicts of conscience, a recurring motif in Zinnemann's films. A Man for All Seasons, adapted from Robert Bolt's play, won Paul Scofield an Academy Award for his portrayal of St. Thomas More.
Among Zinnemann's political films are Behold a Pale Horse, starring Gregory Peck and set during the Spanish Civil War, a picture that also incorporated newsreel authenticity, and The Day of the Jackal, a story about an assassin's attempt on the life of Charles de Gaulle, shot on location ?like a newsreel.? A later and in many ways impressive political film involving a conflict of conscience was Zinnemann's/w/ta, adapted by Alvin Sargent from Lillian Hellman's Pentimento, concerning Hellman's love affair with the writer Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) and her longstanding friendship with the mysterious Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), the daughter of a wealthy family who becomes a socialist-intellectual politicized by events in Germany under the Nazi regime. Julia is a perfect Zinnemann vehicle, impressive in its authenticity and historical reconstruction, and also psychologically tense, particularly in the way Zinnemann films Hellman's suspense-laden journey from Paris to Moscow via Berlin. It demonstrates the director's sense of psychological realism and his apparent determination to make worthwhile pictures that are nevertheless highly entertaining.?JAMES M. WELSH