Fred Zinnemann

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Fred Zinnemann
Fred Zinnemann 1940s.jpg
Zinnemann in the 1940s
Born(1907-04-29)April 29, 1907
Vienna, Austria-Hungary
DiedMarch 14, 1997(1997-03-14) (aged 89)
London, England
Cause of death
Heart attack
Spouse(s)Renee Bartlett (1936–1997; his death; 1 child)
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Fred Zinnemann
Fred Zinnemann 1940s.jpg
Zinnemann in the 1940s
Born(1907-04-29)April 29, 1907
Vienna, Austria-Hungary
DiedMarch 14, 1997(1997-03-14) (aged 89)
London, England
Cause of death
Heart attack
Spouse(s)Renee Bartlett (1936–1997; his death; 1 child)

Fred Zinnemann (April 29, 1907 – March 14, 1997) was an Austro-American film director. He won Academy Awards for directing films in many genres, including thrillers, westerns, film noir, and play adaptations. Nineteen actors appearing in Zinnemann's films received Academy Award nominations for their performances: among that number are Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn, Glynis Johns, Paul Scofield, Robert Shaw, Wendy Hiller, Jason Robards, Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Fonda, Gary Cooper and Maximilian Schell.

Life and career[edit]

Zinnemann was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, the son of Anna and Oskar Zinnemann, a doctor.[1] His family was Jewish. While growing up in Austria, he wanted to become a musician, but went on to study law. While studying at the University of Vienna, he became drawn to films and eventually became a cameraman. He worked in Germany with several other beginners (Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak also worked with him on the 1929 feature People on Sunday) before going to America to study film.

Zinnemann's penchant for realism and authenticity is evident in his first feature The Wave (1935), shot on location in Mexico with mostly non-professional actors recruited among the locals, which is one of the earliest examples of realism in narrative film. Earlier in the decade, in fact, Zinnemann had worked with documentarian Robert Flaherty, an association he considered "the most important event of my professional life".


Zinnemann moved to Hollywood in December 1934 following the completion of his first directorial effort for the Mexican cultural protest film, Redes, in Alvarado, Mexico. He established residence in a studio apartment complex at 7900 Honey Drive in North Hollywood with Henwar Rodakiewicz, Gunther von Fritsch and Ned Scott, all fellow contributors to the Mexican film effort.[2] One of Zinnemann's first assignments in Hollywood was when he found work as an extra in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), although he was later discharged from the production. After some success with short films, he graduated to features in 1942, turning out two crisp B mysteries, Eyes in the Night and Kid Glove Killer before getting his big break with The Seventh Cross (1944), starring Spencer Tracy, which was his first hit. The film was based on Anna Seghers' novel and, while filmed entirely on the MGM backlot, made realistic use of refugee German actors in even the smallest roles. The central character—an escaped prisoner played by Tracy—is seen as comparatively passive and fatalistic. He is, however, the subject of heroic assistance from anti-Nazi Germans. In a sense, the protagonist of the film is not the Tracy character but a humble German worker played by Hume Cronyn, who changes from Nazi sympathizer to active opponent of the regime as he aids Tracy.

After World War II ended, Zinnemann learned that both of his parents had died in the Holocaust.[3] He was further frustrated by his studio contract, which dictated that he did not have a choice in directing films like My Brother Talks to Horses (1947) and Little Mr. Jim (1947) despite his lack of interest in their subject matter.[4] However, his next film, The Search (1948), won an Oscar for screenwriting and secured his position in the Hollywood establishment. Shot in war-ravaged Germany, the film stars Montgomery Clift in his screen debut as a GI who cares for a lost Czech boy traumatised by the war. It was followed by Act of Violence (1948), a gritty film noir starring Van Heflin as a haunted POW, Robert Ryan as his hot-tempered former friend, Janet Leigh as Heflin's wife, and Mary Astor as a sympathetic prostitute. Zinnemann considered Act of Violence the first project in which he "felt comfortable knowing exactly what I wanted and exactly how to get it."[4]


In the critically acclaimed The Men (1950), starring newcomer Marlon Brando as a paraplegic war veteran, Zinnemann filmed many scenes in a California hospital where real patients served as extras. The film is noted for giving Brando his first screen role. It was followed by Teresa (1951), starring Pier Angeli.

Perhaps Zinnemann's best-known work to come out of the 1950s is High Noon (1952), one of the first 25 American films chosen in 1989 for the National Film Registry. With its psychological and moral examinations of its lawman hero Marshall Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper and its innovative chronology whereby screen time approximated the 80-minute countdown to the confrontational hour, the film broke the mould of the formulaic shoot-'em-up western.

At the time of its release, High Noon was regarded as an allegory of Senator Joseph McCarthy's vendetta against alleged Communists. Screenwriter Carl Foreman had intended it this way. Zinnemann disagreed.

In 1992, Zinnemann wrote, "Foreman saw it as an allegory on his own experience of political persecution in the McCarthy era. With due respect, I felt this to be a narrow point of view. I saw it as a great movie yarn, full of enormously interesting people... only later did it dawn on me that this was not a regular Western myth. There was something. timely -- and timeless -- about it, something that had a direct bearing on life today. To me it was the story of a man who must make a decision according to his conscience. His town -- symbol of a democracy gone soft -- faces a horrendous threat to its people's way of life. Determined to resist, and in deep trouble, he moves all over the place looking for support but finding that there is nobody who will help him; each has a reason of his own for not getting involved. In the end, he must meet his chosen fate all by himself, his town's doors and windows firmly locked against him. It is a story that still happens everywhere, every day."[5]

For his screen adaptation of the play The Member of the Wedding (1952), Zinnemann chose the 26-year-old Julie Harris as the film's 12-year-old protagonist, although she had created the role on Broadway just as the two other leading actors, Ethel Waters and Brandon deWilde, had.

Zinnemann's next film, From Here to Eternity (1953), based on the novel by James Jones, would go on to win 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Zinnemann fought hard with producer Harry Cohn to cast Montgomery Clift as the character of Prewitt, although Frank Sinatra, who was at the lowest point of his popularity, cast himself in the role of "Maggio" against Zinnemann's wishes.[6] Sinatra would later win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. From Here to Eternity also featured Deborah Kerr, best known for prim and proper roles, as a philandering Army wife. Donna Reed played the role of Alma "Lorene" Burke, a prostitute and mistress of Montgomery Clift's character which earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for 1953.

Oklahoma! (1955), Zinnemann's version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, is noted for the wide screen format Todd-AO making its debut, as did the film's young star, Shirley Jones. It was followed by A Hatful of Rain (1957), starring Don Murray, Eva Marie Saint and Anthony Franciosa, and based on the play by Michael V. Gazzo.

Zinnemann rounded out the 1950s with The Nun's Story (1959), casting Audrey Hepburn, previously cast in comedic roles, in the role of the anguished Sister Luke.


The Sundowners (1960), starring Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr as an Australian outback husband and wife, led to more Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress (Kerr) and Best Supporting Actress (Glynis Johns), but won none. Behold A Pale Horse (1964) was a post-Spanish Civil War epic based on the book Killing A Mouse on Sunday by Emeric Pressburger and starred Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif, but was both a critical and commercial flop; Zinnemann would later admit that the film "didn't really come together."[7]

In 1965 he was a member of the jury at the 4th Moscow International Film Festival.[8]

Zinnemann's fortunes changed once again with A Man for All Seasons (1966), scripted by Robert Bolt from his own play and starring Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More, portraying him as a man driven by conscience to his ultimate fate. The film went on to win six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Scofield) and Best Director, Zinnemann's second such Oscar to date. The film was also entered into the 5th Moscow International Film Festival.[9]

After this, Zinnemann was all set to direct an adaptation of Man's Fate for MGM. However, the project was shut down in 1969, and the studio attempted to hold Zinnemann responsible for at least $1 million of the $3.5 million that had already been spent on pre-production. In protest, Zinnemann filed a lawsuit against the studio, and it would be seven years before he would make his next film.[10]


By the early 1970s, Zinnemann had been out of work since the cancellation of Man's Fate; he believed it had "marked the end of an era in picture making and the dawn of a new one, when lawyers and accountants began to replace showmen as head of the studios and when a handshake was a handshake no longer."[10] However, Universal then offered him the chance to direct The Day of the Jackal (1973), based on the best-selling suspense novel by Frederick Forsyth. The film starred Edward Fox as an Englishman who is relentlessly driven to complete his mission to try to kill French president Charles de Gaulle, and Michael Lonsdale as the French detective hired to stop him. Zinnemann was intrigued by the opportunity to direct a film in which the audience would already be able to guess the ending (the Jackal failing his mission), and was pleased when it ultimately became a hit with the public.[11]

The Day of the Jackal was followed four years later by Julia (1977), based on the book Pentimento by Lillian Hellman. The film starred Jane Fonda as Hellman and Vanessa Redgrave as her best friend Julia, a doomed American heiress who forsakes the safety and comfort of great wealth to devote her life to the anti-Nazi cause in Germany. The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won three, for Best Screenplay (Alvin Sargent), Best Supporting Actor (Jason Robards), and Best Supporting Actress for Redgrave, who drew scattered boos on Oscar night for her "Zionist hoodlums" acceptance speech.[12]


Zinnemann's final film was Five Days One Summer (1982), filmed in Switzerland and based on the short story Maiden, Maiden by Kay Boyle. It starred Sean Connery and Betsy Brantley as a "couple" vacationing in the Alps in the 1930s, and a young Lambert Wilson as a mountain-climbing guide who grows heavily suspicious of their relationship. The film was both a critical and commercial flop, although Zinnemann would be told by various critics in later years that they considered it an underrated achievement.[13] Zinnemann blamed the film's critical and commercial failure for his retirement from filmmaking: "I'm not saying it was a good picture. But there was a degree of viciousness in the reviews. The pleasure some people took in tearing down the film really hurt."[14]

Final years and death[edit]

Zinnemann is often regarded as striking a blow against "ageism" in Hollywood. The story (which may be apocryphal) goes that, in the 1980s, during a meeting with a young Hollywood executive, Zinnemann was surprised to find the executive didn't know who he was, despite having won four Academy Awards, and directing many of Hollywood's biggest films. When the young executive callowly asked Zinnemann to list what he had done in his career, Zinnemann delivered an elegant comeback by reportedly answering, "Sure. You first." In Hollywood, the story is known as "You First," and is often alluded to when veteran creators find that upstarts are unfamiliar with their work.[15]

Zinnemann insisted, "I've been trying to disown that story for years. It seems to me Billy Wilder told it to me about himself."[16]

Zinnemann died of a heart attack in London, England on March 14, 1997. He was 89 years old. His wife died on December 18,1997.


Zinnemann's films are all dramas of lone and principled individuals tested by tragic events, including From Here to Eternity (1953); The Nun's Story (1959); A Man For All Seasons (1966); and Julia (1977). Regarded as a consummate craftsman, Zinnemann traditionally endowed his work with meticulous attention to detail, an intuitive gift for casting and a preoccupation with the moral dilemmas of his characters.


Feature films[edit]

YearFilmOscar NominationsOscar WinsBAFTA NominationsBAFTA WinsGolden Globe NominationsGolden Globe Wins
1930Menschen am Sonntag (Documentary)n/an/an/an/a
1936Redes (aka The Wave)
1942Kid Glove Killer
Eyes in the Night
1944The Seventh Cross1
1945The Clock (uncredited)
1946Little Mister Jim
1947My Brother Talks to Horses
1948The Search4111
Act of Violence
1950The Men1
1952High Noon7474
The Member of the Wedding1
1953From Here to Eternity138122
1957A Hatful of Rain113
1958The Old Man and the Sea (uncredited)311
1959The Nun's Story8515
1960The Sundowners531
1964Behold a Pale Horse
1966A Man For All Seasons867754
1973The Day of the Jackal1713
1982Five Days One Summer
Total (doesn't include uncredited films)652436143413

Short films[edit]

YearFilmOscar NominationsOscar Wins
1937Friend Indeed
1938They Live Again
That Mothers Might Live11
The Story of Doctor Carver
1939Weather Wizards
While America Sleeps
Help Wanted
One Against the World
The Ash Can Fleet
Forgotten Victory
The Great Meddler
The Old South
A Way in the Wilderness
1941Forbidden Passage1
Your Last Act
1942The Greenie
The Lady or the Tiger?
1951Benjy (Documentary)11


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ Ned Scott Biography
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^ Fred Zinnemann, A Life in the Movies. An Autobiography, Macmillan Books, 1992. Pages 96-97.
  6. ^
  7. ^'t+really+come+together%22&source=bl&ots=NpyIWvX_Ff&sig=xqSK5E2WzPR-7YuvuR5ssWA06fM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=tS0zT4zVIoyJtwfrw8SxAg&ved=0CCgQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=zinnemann%20%22the%20film%20didn't%20really%20come%20together%22&f=false
  8. ^ "4th Moscow International Film Festival (1965)". MIFF. Retrieved December 2, 2012. 
  9. ^ "5th Moscow International Film Festival (1967)". MIFF. Retrieved December 15, 2012. 
  10. ^ a b Gray, Timothy M.; Natale, Richard (March 17, 1997). "Zinnemann dies at 89". Variety. 
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ Gritten, David (June 21, 1992). "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". Los Angeles Times. 
  15. ^ Weinraub, Bernard (September 14, 1994). "At Lunch with: John Gregory Dunne; The Bad Old Days In All Their Glory". The New York Times. Retrieved October 9, 2007. 
  16. ^ Gritten, David (June 21, 1992). "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". Los Angeles Times. 

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