I like odd but interesting little movies and Violent Saturday certainly fits into that category. It’s a mixture of film noir and melodrama but its real oddity comes from its frequent changes in mood.
It was shot in colour and in Cinemascope. There are very few night scenes and visually those scenes have nothing remotely noir about them. Mostly the movie is bathed in bright sunshine. It takes place in a small town but it’s a rather picturesque small town. All this should be enough to disqualify it as film noir but when it comes to content there’s more than enough darkness and moral ambiguity to put it right back in the noir category.
Bradenville is a peaceful little town but it’s a town of secrets. All of its inhabitants, even those who seem most innocent, have dark secrets. The arrival of three bank robbers will not only bring violence to Bradenville but also bring the various secrets of its inhabitants into the open.
Boyd Fairchild (Richard Egan), the son of the owner of the mine, has bigger problems. He’s an alcoholic and his wife has been having affairs. Their marriage seems on the point of final collapse. It has reached crisis point but they are making one last effort to save it.
The manager of the Bank of Bradenville, Harry Reeves (Tommy Noonan), is a timid young man suffering from a hopeless infatuation that is causing him to make a bigger and bigger fool of himself.
The only people who don’t seem to have any problems are the local Amish community, people like prosperous farmer Stadt (Ernest Borgnine) and his family.
Bradenville might not exactly be a powder keg but it’s obvious that there is plenty of tension which might well be explosive for some of its citizens. The arrival of Dill (Lee Marvin), Harper (Stephen McNally) and Chapman (J. Carrol Naish) will light the fuse. They have what they think is a foolproof plan to rob the Bank of Bradenville. This plan will entail murderous violence and the taking of hostages and will confront several of the story’s key characters with difficult moral dilemmas. Stadt in particular will discover that it is not enough simply to try to avoid evil - sometimes all you can do is to choose a lesser evil to avert a greater evil.
What really makes this movie interesting is that it doesn’t succumb to the temptation of cynicism. Most of the characters have serious character flaws and they have done foolish, selfish or thoughtless things but they are not monsters. They’re just human, with the usual quota of human weaknesses. The movie is not trying to tell us that small-town people are vicious hypocrites. These are people who have given in to temptations but they are not irredeemably lost. They are capable of seeing their own faults and they are capable of trying to do something about them. The eruption of violence that follows the arrival of the bank robbers offers chances for redemption.
While the movie suggests that it is sometimes necessary to choose the lesser of two evils it also suggests that this is not a reason for surrendering to despair or cynicism or moral relativism.
Sydney Boehm, who provided the screenplay, wrote a number of superb noirs including The Big Heat, Union Station, High Wall and Rogue Cop. Director Richard Fleischer helmed some notable noirs including Narrow Margin and Armored Car Robbery.
Lee Marvin gives another of his trademark intense sadistic and twisted performances. Watch out for the scene where he stomps a child’s hand! Victor Mature gives his usual effortless and assured performance. Marvin and Mature take the top acting honours but the supporting cast is quite capable.
Violent Saturday misses out on being top-flight film noir but it gains points for being interesting and unusual. Highly recommended.