Usually in crime movies the focus is on the plan and the perpetrators, instead of the world into which they intrude and the ruined plans and lives of their victims. In Violent Saturday (1955), you get both a heist and a soap opera that acquaints you with the people about to be robbed and killed. Harper (Stephen McNally), a bank robber posing as a costume jewelry salesman, gets off the bus in the booming copper mining town of Bradenville. He’s soon joined by his partners in crime, Dill (Lee Marvin) and Chapman (J. Carrol Naish) and with Harper’s cold blooded organizational skill, their plan takes shape. Chapman goes into the bank to study the layout, the vault’s time lock cycle, and the customer traffic. Dill establishes himself as the guy who steps on kids, has serious problems with his women and his sinuses, and takes no chances about being short on ammo; it’s a great performance by Marvin. Their confident their plan is perfect, hinging on being in and out of the bank five minutes before closing. With no bank guard and only two troopers that can be sent away with a fake call, the worst they seem to expect is a screaming woman or two.
They fatally underestimate Bradenville as an easy target and pushover town when it’s actually a minefield, the place big plans go to die, a complex and sticky web of affairs and frustrations. Interwoven with the heist preparations are colourful introductions to lots of characters and their brewing problems. Shelley Martin (Victor Mature) is the most well-adjusted character, a superintendent at the mine owned by Boyd Fairchild (Richard Egan), an unhappy, heavy drinking but likable man who envies Shel’s happy marriage and orderly life. Boyd is forever looking for his unfaithful wife and frightening friends and bystanders with his drunken intensity and directness. Meanwhile, at the country club, Mrs. Emily Fairchild (Margaret Hayes) is with her boyfriend Gil (Brad Dexter) an eligible but egotistical sort who offends Emily by bragging about their affair.
There’s a bankrupt librarian Miss Braden (Sylvia Sidney) who solves her unpaid bill problem by stealing someone’s purse. Though it’s never explained further, the detail of her having the name of the town’s founding family is a fascinating one, suggesting more messy history. The bank manager, a very married Harry Reeves (Tommy Noonan) is a “hungry” drooler and peeping tom, who’s stalking nurse Linda (Virginia Leith) and watching her undress at night. And nurse Linda, who Dill says “moves like a Swiss watch,” is in love with Boyd Fairchild and doesn’t mind waiting up for Emily in her own house, to confront her about neglecting her husband.
As the criminals watch the clock, we watch everyone else trapped in their private miseries, pining for things they can’t have and grabbing for things that belong to others. When librarian Braden is caught dumping the empty purse she’s threatened by, of all people, the creepy bank manager, who she catches in the act of peeping, so the dirt they have on each other keeps them both quiet.
The stickup is a way into this small town’s high drama, and the soap foretells that the heist will go the way of all other life plans here and fail miserably. The steady feeling of unease and desperation, and the growing investment in these characters, makes it all so gripping when they’re sucked into the robbery or are in the bank at closing time with urgent matters to take care of. Emily and Boyd have just reconciled and plan a new life together but need some travelers’ checks for their trip. Librarian Braden has brought in the stolen funds that will clear her debts (watch Sidney’s great acting as Marvin takes that money). Shel’s car is hijacked and he’s taken to a nearby Amish farm that serves as the robbers’ temporary hideout and vehicle swap point.
Here we get the payoff from the earlier scene when Shel’s son brawled with a schoolfriend over their dads’ military records. Shel’s boy was ashamed because his dad wasn’t as much of a war hero or as important as a dad with a medal, and Shel explains to him that excelling at what you’re assigned is also a form of heroic service. Now that he’s a hostage, Shel proves himself every bit the action hero by protecting the Amish family in an extended shoot out. Yet another good bit of character and suspense comes from the farmer (Ernest Borgnine) who struggles with his pacifism when he, and violent means, are the only things left that will save Shel’s life.
Violent Saturday was directed by Richard Fleischer, from a Sydney Boehm screenplay which was in turn based on William L. Heath’s novel. Shot in Arizona in colourful CinemaScope, this is a noir by way of Douglas Sirk, where melodrama on sprawling farms, ranch houses and country clubs contrasts with a crime hatched in dark and dingy hotel rooms.