Violent Saturday (1955)

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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18 thoughts on “Violent Saturday (1955)”

  1. Always enjoy watching this film. A big cast who all do well. Richard Egan steals it for me. I wanted him to get some happiness.

    1. That was a blow, they just patched things up and then… you just knew, by the way things were set up and building, that SOMEbody was getting it during the robbery. Really liked everyone and the whole picture. Thanks!

  2. Terrific post, with some really good points on how the robbery and the individual stories mingle. Watching Lee Marvin in this film, you could tell he would be a star and wonder why it took so long. Sylvia Sidney is underused, though; as you note, her name connotes an interesting back history, and we don’t hear anything more about her after the robbery. But she’s so vinegary and spirited, I wanted to see more of her. One thing that dates the film is the treatment of the ‘peeping-tom’ character, who, after confessing his indiscretions, is dismissed with a laugh. I think the reaction today to his creepy behavior would be quite different!

    1. That’s very true, he made my skin crawl! That scene where he’s sidling by Leith in the store was just, yuck. I fully expected him to get killed.
      Agree on Marvin and Sidney, could’ve used more of her for sure, I thought they’d elaborate on her.
      Thanks so much!

  3. “..a noir by way of Douglas Sirk,”

    That’s a pretty good description. Wonderful use of “Scope in this by Richard Fleischer (he was on record that he loved that format) and the colors of 50s melodrama. And a great cast–Victor Mature is still underrated, Richard Egan probably always will be, and I’m here to say there’s at least one guy out here who still adores Virginia Leith. That’s a sad scene between Leith and Egan in the coda.

    It was a lot of fun to read this evocation of a film I’ve always liked and love going back to. It’s so good it makes one wonder why crime films and 50s small town melodrama weren’t mingled more often. It kind of jumps out.

    I will say just as an anecdote that one reason I was already keen on this when it came out in ’55 was that I was friendly with two of the actors because they were neighbors, Dorothy Patrick (who played Victor Mature’s wife) for many years and pals with her sons, and for maybe a year Lee Marvin lived right across the road and was very friendly to me (nothing like so many of his screen characters needless to say) because I’d recognized him, already loved movies, and was pulling for him in his career (he always stood out in those supporting roles). But he’d moved away some months before VIOLENT SATURDAY came out. Still, it was wonderful seeing him getting these great roles.

    1. That’s such a great story, thanks for sharing that. I have a Lee Marvin bio here I’m eager to get to. Also agree on Egan and Mature, I’m a fan. I really enjoyed the mix of soap and noir, like you say it makes nice use of the Cinemascope not only with just scenery but also the train and robbery parts, nice big images to capture all these people, yet there are gritty noir things like the backseat camera pov. Thanks!

      1. This is one I need to finally catch up with…I’ve got it here thanks to Kristina. 🙂

        Blake, love your anecdotes — that was some neighborhood you lived in! 🙂 I didn’t realize Dorothy Patrick was in this one and have always liked her, seeing her teamed with Mature is one more reason to see it. I also love the idea of a Sirkian style crime film!

        Best wishes,
        Laura

        1. I know you’re a Mature and Egan fan so you’ll like their work in it, I sure did. I realize I didn’t even name Patrick in my post, because she has a relatively small part but is good in it, and that’s the neat thing, everyone gets their dramatic moment. Thanks, hope you enjoy!

  4. I like the movie but feel the second half doesn’t quite go where the beginning suggested. I do enjoy the way it welds soap and noir together, and Lee Marvin is terrific in his supporting role. Good write up.

    1. Thank you, that scene of Marvin stepping on the kid’s hand is a doozy. And as always I really enjoy McNally, few did cool and calculating as well as he did. My expectations were different than what ended up happening, about who would get involved and how. Another nice example of a colour noir.

  5. Wonderful cast here that deliver. Fleischer called his autobiography “Just Tell me When To Cry.” It was a quote from Sidney on the set of this production when he needed some tears.

    1. Nice fact! Enjoy this cast, could have used more Sidney but she made the most of what she had and with so many stories to cover everyone gets their moment.

  6. “A Noir by way of Douglas Sirk”…..

    A very interesting comment,but I’ve always felt
    that VIOLENT SATURDAY is Douglas Sirk meets
    Don Siegel.
    My fave Noir meets Douglas Sirk is Allan Dwan’s
    masterful SLIGHTLY SCARLET.
    We enter a world of beautiful suburban homes,
    and lavish apartments where gorgeous redheads
    (Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl…who else!)
    wear alluring outfits.
    Then suddenly we are transported to the world
    of brutal thug Solly Caspar (Ted De Corsia) who
    holds court over his underlings in almost total
    darkness.
    SLIGHTLY SCARLET is the very top of my list
    of films that I crave a Blu-Ray edition of.

    Great to hear Blake Lucas champion Richard
    Egan…..I’m a fan too!
    Nice to hear Blake’s kind word regarding
    Virginia Leith…..whatever happened to her
    career?

    1. I really like SLIGHTLY SCARLET too, and that’s a super comparison for its style and subject, a blu of that might just be too gorgeous for our eyes! True about the Siegel feel too. I really liked the cast in this one, nice roundup of underrated actors and soon-to-be stars. Thanks!

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