If you think people get rowdy on Fridays, then you haven’t seen people on a Violent Saturday. The joke may be poor, but Twilight Time’s release of Richard Fleischer’s 1955 crime drama is a notch above. Violent Saturday is a mix of pulpy melodrama and film noir, Peyton Place on steroids. Meandering within a tense 91-minute runtime, this all-star driven crime melodrama isn’t on par with Fleischer’s past forays into either genre, but a unique experience nonetheless. Three bank robbers enter a small copper-mining town on a Saturday morning. However, the heist itself isn’t nearly as problematic as the town’s residents, all of whom carry dark secrets of their own.
The desert town hiding secrets reminded me of Bad Day at Black Rock, released the same year as Violent Saturday. Where Spencer Tracy’s crime drama provided a social message amidst the town’s terse inhabitants; Violent Saturday is pure pulp goodness. The people here mask their secrets behind the facade of bucolic suburbia, and despite their beautiful venality the robbers are setting off a powder keg. As the opening credits, in a font with the color scheme of flames, indicate, these thieves have descended into the gates of Hell. The robbery is the catalyst for events bubbling over, but the proverbial kettle’s been waiting to boil over for years.
Everything about this town is violent, including the children. When mild-mannered Shelley Martin (Victor Mature), comes to visit his son at school he learns the boy and his best friend have been fighting. The town is so amoral it’s turning childhood friends into bitter enemies. With ominous foreboding, you worry about the fate of the robbers’ themselves. If they’re the least damaged people in this town, what does that say about the rest of the inhabitants. Set in a mining town, appropriate considering everyone hides their true natures while stripping others of their humanity, Fleischer’s camera meanders around the town for nearly an hour, introducing us to everyone and their flaws.
Victor Mature’s Shelley Martin is the family man whose son finds him disappointing since Martin didn’t serve in the war. He’s no Robert Ryan in Bad Day at Black Rock, but not serving is a bigger disappointment to Martin and his family; Martin looks like a coward. How fortuitous that a heist allows Shelley to let his inner man out! The third act has Martin teaming up with an Amish Ernest Borgnine to save the day, in a bloody climax more akin to Straw Dogs or Assault on Precinct 13.
For being produced in 1955, Violent Saturday received its fair share of criticism for being too….well, violent. Certainly for 1955 it was dark, but today’s audiences will be taken aback by how cold-blooded events are portrayed. Marvin’s Dill ends up shooting two people, including a woman, in cold-blooded with the movie never stopping to mourn. Part of this indifference stems from the female, Mrs. Fairchild’s (Margaret Hayes) extracurricular philandering, but also because the movie isn’t interested in mourning the dead. This is a day in which bad things happen, people live and day, and Sunday the town will rebuild.
The cast of talent assembled is reminiscent of 1960s-1970s disaster films where characters bend past their established personalities. To use the Peyton Place reference again, we have several Lana Turners in this film. Mature is the warm center of the group who, alongside Borgnine, play the average American male pushed past his breaking point. Dustin Hoffman’s character in Straw Dogs, a pacifist at the beginning, ultimately learns, through excessive violence bestowed on him, what it means to fight for something you believe in. With Mature and Borgnine, they both realize violence is a last resort when one’s life is on the line. They’re also the two characters who remain honest, both because of their own inner nature and Borgnine’s faith.
The remaining faithless are fun. Tommy Noonan, you’ll remember him best as Marilyn Monroe’s twitterpatted fiance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, goes against type as the peeping Tom bank manager, and Sylvia Sidney plays a librarian with sticky fingers. And don’t discount Lee Marvin as the Benzedrine huffing Dill. He’s a sadistic murderer to be sure, but he’s also filled with a litany of paranoid tendencies including fears of women. Sydney Boehm’s script doesn’t box characters into good or evil. All people have the capacity for both, and can still find some semblance of humanity amongst their misdeeds.
Margaret Hayes and Richard Egan as Mr. and Mrs. Fairchild steal a portion of the movie with their domestic turbulence. Hayes channels Barbara Stanwyck as the classy yet tough dame Emily Fairchild. She makes no bones about cheating on her husband, but her lover, Gil (Brad Dexter) knows never to cross her. When he starts dictating to someone Emily’s response to a phone call she reprimands him, telling him “never pin labels on me.” Being a cheater puts a target on her head during the bank robbery, but she also garners some fantastic shot composition such as a moment of privacy between Gil and her. As the shadows of the trees dance on their faces, they lean in closer, hidden by the idyllic nature around them that’s not nearly as destructive as humanity itself.
In terms of Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, the picture is phenomenal. The colors pop, and it’s on par with past TT releases. Also similar to past release is the tendency for the audio to sound muffled on my TV. If this isn’t just me, please let me know, but several points I found the dialogue to sound canned. It doesn’t help that this is one of the few TT releases without subtitles, so I was playing elevator with the volume buttons, turning it up to hear dialogue and down when the action got too loud. Resident TT historians Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo turn up for the audio commentary which is like listening to two friends discuss films. Kirgo’s environmental analysis of the feature is fascinating and works well the accompanying essay. The isolated score is also included.
On the seventh day God rested, and that’s because Saturday was so damn violent! Violent Saturday is a fun melodrama/noir hybrid obviously inspiring future filmmakers as evidenced by the references I came up with. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is gorgeous but the audio wasn’t good enough for me. If you’re a fan of the actors, or want to watch an intriguing mash-up of two genres, it’s worth your time.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.