Six years is a long gap between filmslor so eminent a director as Fred Zinnemann. He will always be revered here and by Catholics everywhere for directing A Man For Al! Seasons, from Robert Bolt's play about St. Thomas More.
Zinnemann was singularly the right man for the job, with the right temper to appreciate More's perfect balance between worldly sanity and otherworldly sanctity, to match his discipline, delight in life and devotion to duty. yet six years have elapsed between A Man For All Seasons and Zinnemann's new political thriller, The Day of the Jackal, from Frederick Forsyth's novel.
It was just about as long since I had had the Pleasure and nrivileee of meeting Zinnemann, who has been one of my favourite directors 'ever since The Search, his wonderful aftermath-of-war picture. It introduced Yvonne Mitchell and Montgomery airt, and as a European, Zinnemann was able to interpret some of the most poignant European problems of that harrowing period. (The heroine, you may remember, was a Yugoslav displaced mother.) The problems have since become all too familiar though Zinnemann still speaks with deep feeling of the film and the agonies of the period.
Since then, in My ignorance, I had thought of Zinnemann as one of those outstanding Europeans who had been able to enlighten American and English film audiences. Of course he has. But in fact he has been working in America since 1929.
Like many European filmmakers, he was born in Vienna. After short spells of study in a Berlin film studio, then a Paris film institute, he migrated to Hollywood, where he cut his movie teeth on the excellent prewar series of Crime Does Not Pay shorts.
By 1944 he had already made The Seventh Cross, one of the late Spencer Tracy's great pictures. Zinnemann was not one of those Eu open film-makers who could not acclimatise to Hollywood; he stayed to make the best of both worlds.
For the past six years, however, he has lived hi London. "My wife's English", he reminded me. "She's a Sussex girl and had had enough of travelling round."
It wasn't by linnerriann4s choice that he made no new film for so long. A lot of the intervening time he spent working with AndriMalraux, former French Minister of Culture, on .4
Man's Fate, the story of a battle between early Chinese Cammunists and Chiang Kai-shek's troops who massacred them. This project ran into difficulties and had to be dropped after all.
In fact Zinnemann tends to a certain impatience with the type of direc tor who spends years on each film — except' of course Flaherty, the great documentary director, whose collaboration years ago on a film which never got made, Zinnemann still remembers as "the most impor tant single event in my professional life." But he thinks it a tragic waste that Flaherty at his death left only seven films.
This led to a discussion. For I incline to hold that the devouring appetite of the mass media sucks dry the talents of those who try to satisfy it. Very gently, for he is the gentlest of men, though always quite firm, Zinnemann corrected me by recalling the great musicians — Mozart, Haydn, Bach — who turned out hun dreds of works simply by keeping hard at their jobs, and so became immortal. For himself, Zinnemann claims no such aspirations. "I don't claim to be a creative artist", he says firmly. "I like to do everything as well as it can be done. Of course I prefer some themes — a conflict of conscience, or a struggle between an individual and a crowd — and so on. But you can't preach to audiences, can't propagandise. So I like to try to make films to entertain people, and make them as well as they can be made."
In contrast to Flaherty, he quoted the great John Ford, with over NO films to his credit, as saying: "If two out of live are good, I think I'm winning".
"I don't think it's a good thing," said Zinnemann thoughtfully, "to lie
fallow for too long. No, I think I've been too choosey."
What made him choose The Day of the Jackal"? At once he answered: "The challenge of making a suspense story from which suspense seems precluded by the knowledge that the assassination could not take place because as everybody knows, General de Gaulle was not assassinated. Moreover, after the Malraux project had fallen through, he didn't want a subject which would demand another lengthy period of preparation.
"The Forsyth book was there and ready," he said. "Forsyth was free to do the screenplay, so we could go right ahead with the casting and locations. Another thing that appealed to me about the subject was its movement across Europe, and the pattern of a picture made up of a set of more or less irrelevant bits to fit together.
"Some people think details of the assassin's careful preparations are too slow. But you have them or they wouldn't hang together when you want to build up the final exeitement."
I asked Zinnemann about the wonderful Anglo-French actor, Michel Lonsdale, who plays the French police commissioner and nearly steals the picture. He replied enthusiastically: "Oh, he was an inspired suggestion by the casting director, Margot Capelier — those women are the women in films who really earn their money! I originally wanted Alec MacCowen for the part, but Alec was busy and Margot suggested Lonsdale."
Remembering MacCowen's glorious performance as the police commissioner in Hitchcock's Frenzy,. might have been sad to think what we had missed if Madame Capellier's candidate, Lonsdale, had not been so masterly.
I was interested to find out Zinnemann's own favourite among his films. Without much hesitation he answered High Noon I think, and then The Nun's Story, pointing out that High Noon was a suspense story too, although also in the great romantic tradition of the Western.
He remembered, too, how shy and nervous the young Grace Kelly had been when she arrived, so young and inexperienced, to play opposite Gary Cooper, then a great star of 51.
His second choice rather surprised me, because 1• bad thought it if anything too perfect, remembering those long rows of nuns. But Zinnemann expanded: "I don't know why, it was a paricularly happy time in my life.
"I went very deeply into the whole thing you know — the liturgy and the wonderful music and all of it. I spent a lot of the time with the Dominicans and some Jesuits. 'I he time in Africa on the mission sequences was fascinating. Lumumba himself was there at the time — in prison; and in only weeks the Congo erupted and was swept away.",
Another film of which Zinnemann speaks with affection is The Sundowners, which starred Deborah Kerr and •Robert Mitchum. "You'll remember it as about the love of a mature man and woman who had been married about 15 years," he said.
"When we came back from sustralia, I thought it was a real
picture and would be popular. But it was a disappointment." He described the only too-familiar story of the distributors' misguided attempt to sell it as a sex film. Of course the people who bought that and went to see it were disappointed because it wasn't that kind of picture, while the people who would have liked it were put off and kept away by that kind of advertising. '
What next? It wasn't quite definite yet, but the project under consideration is the story of Abeiard and his Zinnemann was enthusiastic about the latest French version of the story by Reginc Perhoud. But I could see he was weighed down by the prospect of another preparation and the enormous difficulty of casting the two famous lovers.
"You need stars with magic," he said carefully, as one who doesn't use such words loosely. "It isn't easy to find a girl of 17 with magic. People don't develop magic so young. And Abelard at the time was in his forties — so casting won't be easy.
"That was the trouble with Zeffirrelli's Romeo and Jae. It was a beautiful film, but those youngsters had no magic." I am not sure which of its added "and no poetry."
Freda Bruce Lockhart