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MOVIES : A Lion in His Winter : At 85, Fred Zinnemann looks back on a life in film; his anecdote-rich autobiography earns the rave reviews his last movie didn't

June 21, 1992|DAVID GRITTEN | David Gritten, based in London, is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Clift was another notable actor who appeared in two early Zinnemann films--"The Search" (1948) and "From Here to Eternity" (1953), as the individualistic soldier Private Prewitt, the talented boxer who refuses to be cowed by the regimentation of Army life.

Zinnemann immediately locked horns with Harry Cohn when he insisted he wanted Clift in the lead. "He thought the film was about boxing, and I thought it was about the human spirit," Zinnemann says.

Cohn wanted another actor who, he said, "is under contract, hasn't worked for 10 weeks, his salary's mounting up, he looks like a boxer and the girls like him." When Zinnemann said he wanted Clift, Cohn retorted that he was "no soldier, no boxer and probably a homosexual."

As it happened, Cohn was right on all counts, but he underestimated Clift's ability to psych himself into a role. Zinnemann threatened to walk away from a hefty paycheck if Clift did not get the part. Cohn relented and, says Zinnemann, "by the time Monty was ready for the part, you'd swear he was a top soldier and a good boxer."

Deborah Kerr was another intriguing casting choice as the captain's adulterous wife.

"Joan Crawford was ready to do it, and in fact was already complaining about her wardrobe," Zinnemann says. "But then when Deborah was suggested, we all thought it would be an excellent idea to cast against type. At that time, Deborah was perceived as being almost like the Queen of England, as cold as an iceberg. But it worked out beautifully."

Kerr and Burt Lancaster went on to shoot one of the most memorable scenes in movie history--a horizontal embrace on the beach as waves crashed over them. Zinnemann notes wryly that tourist buses still stop at Diamond Head (in Hawaii) to point out where the scene was shot: "It is a curious contribution we have made to popular culture."

"High Noon" remains Zinnemann's best-known film, and one that yields various interpretations to different people. Zinnemann does not agree with screenwriter Carl Foreman's assertion that it is an allegory of McCarthyism. "Some people even think it is an allegory on the Korean War," he adds. "But I see it as a man desperately fighting to save his own life, a man who must make a decision according to his conscience."

He hugely enjoyed directing the picture and working with Gary Cooper, who played the courageous small town marshal. But Zinnemann says he relished equally the challenge of completing "High Noon" within the allotted 28 days.

This kind of comment has led Zinnemann to be perceived by some critics as a master of logistics rather than a director with a strong vision. Certainly, he admits to having enjoyed the technical problems involved in shooting a musical--"Oklahoma!"

And what he remembers best about "The Day of the Jackal" was "seeing if suspense could be maintained if you knew the ending--that is, that the Jackal failed to kill De Gaulle. That kind of thing fascinated me; it became like a crossword puzzle."

The best and most widely circulated story about Zinnemann is a good one, even if apocryphal.

Some dozen years ago, in the autumn of his career with all those classic movies under his belt, he was persuaded to take a meeting with a brash, newly installed Hollywood studio executive in his late 20s.

"So," said the exec, undaunted by his own ignorance, "we've never met before. Tell me some of the things you've done." "No, no," said Zinnemann politely. "You first."

Is it true? Zinnemann giggles. "I've been trying to disown that story for years. It seems to me Billy Wilder told it to me about himself."

Whether or not the story is true, it fits. Zinnemann, who still has a strong Austrian accent, is mild-mannered and full of old-country Viennese courtesy.

But Zinnemann is impatient with the new Hollywood. Much as he rails about Harry Cohn and that autocratic breed of studio bosses, at least they knew movies.

"That was one area of common ground," he says. "Those people were greedy, ruthless, and I felt contempt for the way they used power. But their love for the movies--that was one thing you could bring into discussions with them."

Now, as he sees it, all is different; accountants and lawyers run the show. "If you talk to these guys about a love for the movies, I'm not sure they would know what you were talking about," he said. "You don't need to be in love with salami if you're selling salami."

The turning point that soured Zinnemann came in 1969, when MGM canceled his version of Andre Malraux's novel "Man's Fate," on which he had been working for three years. The studio pulled the plug on the movie only three days before it was due to start shooting in London.

"Until that point," says Zinnemann with a sigh, "there was a certain thieves' honor in the business. But after then, a handshake was no longer a handshake."

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