Violent Saturday is, on the one hand, an unusual film noir because of its focus on presenting different kinds of masculinity. On the other hand, in the context of the Cold War, its choice of the character who best represents masculinity is unsurprising.
Director: Richard Fleischer. Screenplay: Sydney Boehm based on novel by William L. Heath. Producer: Buddy Adler. Cinematographer: Charles G. Clarke. Music: Hugo Friedhofer. Art Directors: George W. Davis, Lyle Wheeler. Editor: Louis Loeffler. Cast: Victor Mature (Shelly Martin), Richard Egan (Boyd Fairchild), Stephen McNally (Harper), Virginia Leith (Linda Sherman), Tommy Noonan (Harry Reeves), Lee Marvin (Dil), Margaret Hayes (Mrs. Emily Fairchild), J. Carrol Naish (Chapman), Sylvia Sidney (Elsie Braden), Ernest Borgnine (Stadt). Released: Twentieth Century Fox, April 1955. 90 minutes.
In All That Hollywood Allows: Re-Reading Gender in 1950s Melodrama (The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), Jackie Byars says:
“Gender construction had been central to melodramatic film genres, but increasingly during the 1950s, gender was defined in terms of the family. Elements of the “women’s films” and family comedies were combined to produce a discernibly different sort of film, focused on the family. The family provided the background for conflict in genres such as westerns, war movies, film noir thrillers…in which familial conflicts enhanced plots centered on external complications.” (134)
There is no better example of external complications creating the conditions that lead to the resolution of family (including marital) crises than Richard Fleischer’s color film noir, Violent Saturday. Michael F. Keaney, in his reference book, Film Noir Guide: 745 Films of the Classic Era, 1940-1959 (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003), introduces the characters and crises as follows.
“Bad guys (Stephen McNally, Lee Marvin, J. Carrol Naish) arrive in a small mining town to rob the local bank. Not realizing that they’re about to pull a heist in Peyton Place, the would-be robbers witness the dark side of small-town life while making their plans. Victor Mature is a mining engineer who’s trying to regain the respect of his little boy, who recently found out that his dad wasn’t a war hero like his friend’s father. Richard Egan, the unhappy president of the mining company, whose wife, Margaret Hayes, has been cheating on him, has been hitting the bottle hard lately. The bank manager, Tommy Noonan, is married and a secret peeping tom who can’t keep his eyes off a pretty nurse, Virginia Leith, who can’t keep her eyes off of Egan.” (457)
Although Marvin’s performance is outstanding, the criminals play secondary roles. The primary characters are involved in “familial conflicts.” The external complications of the robbery and its aftermath bring about the resolution of these conflicts. You might say that at the end of the film, thanks to the criminals, the town is no longer Peyton Place.
The night before the robbery Hayes comes home late and finds Leith in her living room, with Egan passed out nearby on a sofa. (Earlier that evening at a bar, Noonan, who wanted to get kicks watching Leith’s body move, suggested to Egan, who was soused, that he ask Leith to dance. They danced and then sat in a booth and toyed with having an affair.) As Leith leaves the house, she says, “Drunk or sober, he’s the kind of guy I’ve dreamed about owning all my life.”
Hayes wakes Egan up, and they talk about how they can hold on to their marriage. He keeps sarcastically alluding to her infidelity. When she asks if he has stopped loving her, he says he has always loved her “stone sober or crying drunk.” She thinks they should leave town for a trip, but she doubts it would do any good. “We can’t change. Not us. You’re an alcoholic, and I’m a tramp.” She adds, “What’s the matter with me? Am I sick? Do I belong in an institution?”
The next day Hayes and Noonan are in the bank when it is robbed. Hayes is killed and Noonan is wounded.
Hospitalized, Noonan apologizes to Leith, his nurse, for following her around town. She says she knew. “I wouldn’t be female if I didn’t.” She tells him that from now on he will stay at home with his wife. But he has got more to admit: he has been watching her at night (i.e., when she is undressing). Without any sign of annoyance much less anger, she says she didn’t know. She has been aware and tolerant of Noonan as a harmless daytime voyeur in public, but she hasn’t knowingly let him ogle her naked from the back alley below her apartment. As she leaves the room, she says, “Well, it’s over. We’ve both learned a good lesson. Hereafter, I’ll pull down my shades.”
Leith helps Noonan get through his confession without losing his self-respect. She heals him in ways other than tending to his wound. His experience with her will get him out of Peyton Place because now he is going to be a faithful husband instead of a stalker and a peeping Tom.
Although Hayes and Egan sincerely try to restore their marriage, we have to assume Hayes is correct — she can’t change. She implies she is a nymphomaniac (“Am I sick?”). And we see that she can’t stop herself from being unfaithful. To wit, the day before the robbery Hayes asks Egan to meet her for dinner at their country club. Then she plays golf with a handsome, married man. In the evening she stands Egan up to have sex with the golfer. That’s why Egan is drunk when he asks Leith to dance.
Although the possibility of Hayes and Egan burying the past is considered, it is only by burying Hayes that Egan can be with the woman who is right for him. Egan is neither strong enough nor sensible enough to leave Hayes. The external complication of the robbery takes care of her. The robbery makes it unnecessary for Egan to do the right thing and divorce his wayward wife. Hayes’ death enables Egan to be with Leith. She will get him out of Peyton Place. Because he will be happy with her, he will have no reason to keep hitting the bottle.
Egan’s chief engineer, Mature, doesn’t have a marital crisis. He is happily married to a lovely, young homemaker (Dorothy Patrick). But his son has become ashamed of him. The aftermath of the robbery not only resolves Mature’s familial conflict, it also takes care of a political problem that pertains to the Cold War/anti-communist era when Violent Saturday was made, in 1955.
The three robbers kidnap Mature and make him drive his car to an Amish farm, where Ernest Borgnine and his family live. They leave everyone tied up under the guard of a fourth man and drive the car back to town to rob the bank. By the time they return to the farm in order to switch the loot to a different vehicle, Mature has freed himself, rescued the Amish family, killed the guard, and taken the dead man’s shotgun. There is a shootout, and Mature kills McNally and Naish. Then Marvin severely wounds Mature. As Marvin aims his pistol to finish off Mature, Borgnine watches from behind. We assume Borgnine is inwardly struggling with his religious opposition to violence and killing.
In the other familial conflicts, people know they are behaving badly, such as being a tramp or a peeping Tom. We understand that, under normal circumstances, they can’t make themselves change. That is why the film’s plot has a robbery. However, Borgnine isn’t initially presented as a man with a problem. He is honorable, neighborly and, of course, undisputed head of his household. Family-wise, he’s just right for the 1950s.
However, in terms of the Cold War, he is severely flawed. He thinks non-violence is righteous. To him, it is as proper as not having a telephone (electricity) or a car (machinery) on his farm. But in the context of U.S.-Soviet (and Red China) rivalry, refusing to be a fighter – and, if need be, a killer – is un-American. Pacifism is an unacceptable creed. The film shows us a pacifist in order to demonstrate the error of a belief in absolute non-violence. It creates a situation in which Borgnine can reasonably (if not morally) justify rejecting this creed. By killing a bad man, Borgnine can save the life of a good man. And that’s what he does. He stabs Marvin in the back with a pitchfork.
Similarly, a year earlier in Suddenly, a widow and mother (Nancy Gates) is put in a position where she has to reject her pacifism, which comes from her grief over losing her husband in war. To save her family, she has to kill a would-be presidential assassin (Frank Sinatra). By overcoming her antipathy to violence (and, therefore, her frigidity to men who can be violent and who believe violence can be necessary), Gates is not only able to re-marry but she is also able to fall in love with a man whose commitment to violence is professional, the town sheriff (Sterling Hayden).
The resolutions of the two marital crises that involve Leith are dealt with first, since they involve lesser men. Mature’s crisis is resolved when his son visits him in the hospital. His son is so proud to show off his father that he brings six other boys. The film ends with all the boys gazing at Mature, hero-worshipping him.
In contrast to the flawed alternatives of masculinity represented by Egan and Noonan (to say nothing of the robbers and Borgnine), Mature is The Man to be idolized/idealized. He has pulled himself up from poverty (as opposed to Egan, born with a silver spoon). He is respected by the men he supervises at the copper mine, as well as by the mine owners themselves. He is a faithful husband, with a devoted wife. He is not part of Peyton Place. He may not have won any medals in the war, but he has proven that he is heroic the same way as a soldier does, by killing adversaries.
That an easy-going guy can be, when necessary, a killer, is how Mature demonstrates his superior masculinity. Consequently, the last scene not only completes the narrative, it also realizes the film’s underlying purpose, which is to reveal to us who is Mr. Right and why. Typically, in a romantic comedy or romantic melodrama, there are various men available for a woman. Her dilemma is to make the correct choice. At the end of the film, she and the audience have found out who is the best man for her, and she is in love with Mr. Right.
In Violent Saturday all the melodramatic crises are resolved via the events of the crime story. However, not all the crises are of equivalent gravity. Of all the prominent men in the film, whether crooks or civilians, only Mature isn’t responsible for his crisis. The army ordered him not to enlist so that he could continue to supervise production of copper from the mine. The robbery provides the external complications for Mature to act heroically, that is, violently. Notwithstanding his exceptional qualities as an employee, a husband and a father — in the context of the Cold War political significance of violence that the film salutes — Mature is Mr. Right because he is a victorious warrior. In the boys’ eyes, Mature is a role model for them. And they are the men of tomorrow. “Gender construction,” indeed!
The conclusion of my analysis of Violent Saturday focuses on the connection between Victor Mature’s masculinity and the Cold War. Later I read a book by Leonard Cassuto, Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories (Columbia University Press, 2009). Cassuto provides additional evidence to support my interpretation.
According to Cassuto, my analysis of Victor Mature does not merely show that he represents the most exemplary masculinity in Violent Saturday, in fact Mature’s character represents the quintessence of Cold War masculinity.
The following is Cassuto’s description of the “sentimental action hero” of the Cold War 1950s.
“[This is the] central contradiction inherent in Cold War masculinity: a man had to be rugged enough to defend the country from Communist menace, yet gentle enough to work compassionately in a bureaucracy and appreciate his loving home. While anti-obscenity activists [like those who condemned comic books as too violent] sought to restore the woman to the center of the sentimental domestic universe in the postwar era, crime novelists like [William P.] McGivern responded by making the hypermasculine, violent male into a tender sentimental hero at the same time. This new sentimental man is no woman in drag. Instead, his aggression protects sentimental virtues. His violence defends the home and makes sentimental domesticity possible. The sentimental action hero commits himself not to self-preservation (as Sam Spade primarily does) or even committed professional (the credo of Hammett’s Continental Op and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe), but instead to the people around him.” (pp.112-113)
For more about Leonard Cassuto’s book, see the page Hardboiled Sentimentality.