With Violent Saturday (1955), the recent Richard Fleischer reappraisal comes full-circle. A brazenly eclectic studio man who directed films as disparate as the Tony Curtis-starring The Boston Strangler (1968) and fantasy epic Conan the Destroyer (1984), Fleischer is near-impossible to pin down. But a few notable European reissues as well as a high- profile retrospective at the 2013 Edinburgh International Film Festival have brought him back into the spotlight for dedicated cinéastes. Violent Saturday is not only his finest work, it’s one of the best American films of the fifties; a picture that repurposes the forms of the past to create the genre sensibilities of the future.
Eisenhower wholesomeness be damned, with Violent Saturday, Fleischer found the plague of violence and discontent behind the white picket fences a decade before Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby fractured the national psyche. Bradenville, the film’s setting, is a folksy mining town in Arizona, a place where blue-collar workers and country club types live side-by-side. The drama centres around a heist planned by Harper (Stephen McNally) along with his henchmen Dill (Lee Marvin) and Chapman (J. Carrol Naish). The trio are not responsible for bringing outside horrors to the town, they simply filter their criminality through the anxieties that are already bubbling beneath the surface of the handsomely manicured lawns. Bradenville’s story is one of secret longings and buried disappointments.
A banker in love with an unattainable woman, a coal man with a crisis of masculinity and a cuckolded company heir who just wants out; Fleischer keeps his gaze wide, showing us how the town constitutes fertile ground for a great destabilising event. The heist itself is multi-purpose; not only does it showcase the director’s astonishing skill with action and tension, it works as a form of reckoning for Bradenville. It’s a home invasion of sorts, bringing the town face- to-face with the pestilence around it. For the righteous to flourish, Fleischer removes us from Main Street to an Amish farm in the hills. It’s there – among the exiles – that the cleansing can eventually occur. It takes those outside the American mainstream to cure the ills of the nucleus
It’s this very kind of transgressive, dissident rhetoric that would fuel New Hollywood years later, a true testament to Violent Saturday enduring quality. While Fleischer manages to pack so much dramatic civic sprawl into the tight running time, his principal stylistic concerns are with the malleability of noir as a form. The sun never stops shining in Bradenville, but Fleischer manipulates space and people to create shadows as atmospheric as anything in the great noirs of the forties. A mixture of locations and studio lots create an uneasy artifice; a recognisable America poised on the edge of a dream or a nightmare. As such, Violent Saturday is a lean, incisive masterpiece for the ages.