Directors Who Dominate: Fred Zinnemann
The directors who dominate our consciousness tend to be auteurs: people whose aesthetics are so distinctive you can tell who they are by the way they wield their cameras. An exception is Fred Zinnemann. For half a century this A-list director of A-list stars made ambitious, memorable pictures without letting himself become the story. He was not without style, but his films were defined by their ethos and restraint rather than visual acrobatics. The 23 films in Zinnemann’s resumé generated 24 Oscars out of 65 nominations – a batting average that makes oft-snubbed geniuses like Hitchcock and Scorsese look like underachievers.
The director Zinnemann has the most in common with, at least biographically, must be Billy Wilder. Less than a year apart in age, both men were born into Jewish families and reared in Austria. They met when young and were still swapping stories in old age. They both honed their craft in Paris in the early 1930s, and both had landed in Hollywood by the time Hitler’s shadow darkened Europe. Each man lost close family members, including parents, in the Holocaust, but neither gave in to despondency; Wilder’s films were comedic, if also dark, and Zinnemann’s would look for and usually find the incorruptible good in people.
Where they differ is in the perceptibility of their presence. As a director-screenwriter, Wilder controlled virtually every aspect of his productions, and a clear and consistent vision emerged. Zinnemann typically did not write, nor did he try to overwhelm his screenwriters’ work or his actors’ interpretations. He was a faithful servant to story and character, and his body of work is replete with powerful tales of human resolve.
Four of Zinnemann’s films have spots in the Flickchart top 1000, and his fifth-highest is a household name. They are:
Zinnemann had some serious, well-known dramas under his belt, but no musicals, when he oversaw the long-delayed screen version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! It would be the only musical he ever directed, but it would also join the pantheon of great American movie musicals. It’s easy to look at Gordon MacRae’s spotless singing cowboy outfit and Gloria Graham’s too-perfect ‘do and dismiss the movie as a trifle, but that assessment misses the ways in which Zinnemann reinvented the genre. His movie was longer than earlier musicals, nearly as long as the original stage show. It also had a grander visual style than the Hollywood musicals of the 1940s, debuting the 70mm Todd-AO film stock that would be used in South Pacific and in the third highest-grossing movie of all time, The Sound of Music. Zinnemann was thus an originator of the style of the mid-century big-budget musical, one of the dominant art forms of the period.
- Globally ranked #3348
- Wins 41% of matchups
- 1 user has it at #1
- 4 users have it in their top 20
1966’s Best Picture is an adaptation of a Robert Bolt play. Bolt was also an accomplished screenwriter, penning the epics Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago, so he himself provided Zinnemann with the adapted screenplay. Zinnemann provided the spot-on, all-star cast: Orson Welles as a grumpy cardinal, Robert Shaw as a mad tyrant, Paul Scofield as a saintly scholar, John Hurt and Vanessa Redgrave as youthful pawns in a game of thrones they can’t win. The movie is a largely-accurate telling of the trial and execution of Utopia author Sir Thomas More, who defied Henry VIII at the cost of his life, but it omits some of the less palatable facts about More’s judicial career. Bolt and Zinnemann’s purpose, though, is to provide a model for civil disobedience in our own time, and in the annals of film there may be no better portrait of conscientious rebellion in the name of higher law.
- Globally ranked #696
- Wins 45% of matchups
- 0 users have it at #1
- 24 users have it in their top 20
In The Day of the Jackal Zinnemann faced a challenge: to make a movie suspenseful even though the audience knew the outcome. It was just three years since the imperious Charles de Gaulle, a symbol of French national pride ever since his days as an anti-Vichy leader, had died of natural causes. The movie, based on a hit novel, tells of a fictional attempt on President de Gaulle’s life. That the assassin will fail is a given, but Zinnemann finds ways to kindle tension and doubt. He and screenwriter Kenneth Ross play up the procedural elements of the story. They make it a question not of what, but of how. We see why The Jackal (Edward Fox), a detail-oriented British mercenary with no investment in French politics, is Europe’s best assassin-for-hire. He acquires exactly what he needs for the job and leaves no trace, because he leaves no witnesses. We also see what makes detective Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale) the best government servant to dog Fox’s heels. The thoroughness of his investigation extends even to politicians’ private lives, and he is willing to expose their scandals if it means saving the life of the president. Stakes are therefore high for all players, not just for the largely off-screen de Gaulle. The Day of the Jackal’s tense, process-driven style anticipated later political thrillers of the 1970s like All the President’s Men, which followed the same approach in breaking down the fall of Richard Nixon.
- Globally ranked #640
- Wins 45% of matchups
- 0 users have it at #1
- 23 users have it in their top 20
War was already raging on several fronts, international diplomacy had broken down, and there were hints and fears of an impending attack. But the bombing, strafing, and torpedoing of the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor was still a surprise for the soldiers and civilians in that Hawaiian port. They were caught unprepared, in the middle of life happening. That apparent innocence is exactly what novelist James Jones, screenwriter Daniel Taradash, and director Zinnemann find heroic. From Here to Eternity is in a strange genre of its own: not a war movie, not a home front movie, but a calm-before-the-storm movie in which the players are already in an exotic locale (Hawaii was not a state either at the time of the attack or at the time of the film’s release), dressed for a fight but with nowhere to go. There is destiny in the air, a sensation that leads to romance. Audiences and critics relished the opportunity to remember the pre-war moment in this light, and Zinnemann’s film became the first to tie Gone with the Wind’s record of 8 Academy Awards.
- Globally ranked #466
- Wins 47% of matchups
- 2 users have it at #1
- 30 users have it in their top 20
High Noon features the best-known stylistic gimmick in Zinnemann’s body of work: it unfolds practically in real time as Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) waits for the arrival of outlaw Frank Miller on the noon train. The movie is also famous for its political messaging. In 1952 people on both sides of the spectrum read it as a critique of those who let themselves be cowed by Congress’s communist witch hunt. Once that era had passed, the film acquired a bipartisan appeal as a tale of courage in the face of overwhelming odds. It was, as many trivia buffs know, a favorite of Bill Clinton during his time in office, and Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower were reportedly fans as well. Beyond its controversies and its temporal innovation, though, is a prototypical Western. There’s a straightlaced lawman, a pack of scroundrels including a young Lee van Cleef, a jittery deputy (Lloyd Bridges), a pretty Quaker woman (Grace Kelly), and a sultry businesswoman – the film does not say madam – who lives upstairs in the hotel. The latter is played by Katy Jurado, and her scene with Cooper in which they speak unsubtitled Spanish to each other (“Un año sin verte.” “Si, lo se.”) may be the greatest romantic moment in any Western. It feels fresh because of the interethnic relationship it implies, but a suggestive rapport between marshals and prostitutes is not outside the narrative conventions of the genre; it was, for example, a staple of Gunsmoke, which premiered as a radio show in early 1952. High Noon is a mix of fresh and familiar, contemporary and timeless, and in that blend lies Zinnemann’s directorial genius.
- Globally ranked #188
- Wins 50% of matchups
- 6 users have it at #1
- 129 users have it in their top 20
The next five Zinnemann films on Flickchart have been ranked by relatively few users, but their win percentages show that those who have seen them like them. Each has something to offer a student of cinema. They are:
Zinnemann looks back on the pre-war years in this cerebral period piece adapted for the screen by Alvin Sargent. It features superb performances from Jane Fonda, Maximillian Schell, and Vanessa Redgrave in the title role. Julia, an anti-Nazi partisan, recruits her childhood friend for a dangerous mission. Perhaps only Zinnemann would have spun a realistic spy movie into a quiet rumination on friendship.
- Globally ranked #3791
- Wins 45% of matchups
7. The Nun’s Story (1959)
Nazism was not a new topic for Zinnemann; he had also addressed it in The Nun’s Story starring Audrey Hepburn. Like Julia and From Here to Eternity, this movie takes place in the years and months leading up to the Second World War. Perhaps because Zinnemann had left Europe during that time, or maybe simply because he found the moment narratively rich, he returned often to the period over the course of his career.
- Globally ranked #4757
- Wins 49% of matchups
8. The Search (1948)
As for the postwar period, Zinnemann dealt with it while he was still in it. The Search was shot in Germany in 1948 amid the physical evidence of the recent Allied assaults. It predates by a year The Third Man’s famous version of war-weary central Europe, and it is also notable for being Montgomery Clift’s first film role; Clift would later star in Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity.
- Globally ranked #5191
- Wins 60% of matchups
9. Act of Violence (1948)
Cynicism isn’t a hallmark of Zinnemann’s films, but his 1948 drama Act of Violence is an exception. Like The Search, which came out in the same year, it covers the aftermath of the recent war. Its strong cast is typical of Zinnemann’s work – Janet Leigh and Mary Astor bring their noir sensibilities to the movie, while Robert Ryan makes a compelling righteous avenger – but the grim revenge tale has few analogues elsewhere in his filmography.
- Globally ranked #5740
- Wins 53% of matchups
10. The Sundowners (1960)
An Australian couple and their young son seek seasonal work on sheep farms; that’s an unlikely enough subject for a movie, and even more surprising is the fact that it’s probably Zinnemann’s most comedic work. Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr never had better chemistry with anyone else, and with them that’s saying something. Their characters’ disagreements about the kind of life to which their family should aspire are familiar without feeling clichéd, and substantive without seeming hopeless. Supporting roles from the chortling Peter Ustinov and the wide-eyed Glynis Johns help make this family adventure dramedy a must-see for lovers of Australian cinema.
- Globally ranked #7815
- Wins 47% of matchups
1950’s The Men, a Marlon Brando vehicle, is the 11th and final Zinnemann film in the Flickchart top 10,000, but more gems are lurking further down the list. Do you have an obscure favorite, or a particular fondness for one of the top entries? Let us know below.
Also: check out our Directors Who Dominate post on Zinnemann’s colleague, Billy Wilder.