Five Days One Summer

October 3, 2011

Fred Zinnemann’s tastefulness has long been a bone of critical contention. He has collected lots of awards over the years from the establishment critics and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but since the early Sixties he’s been living with the burden of being considered the most impersonal of the impersonal directors in (by now) most critical circles. My own limited experience with Zinnemann movies suggests to me that the latter group is probably close to the truth on Zinnemann; High Noon is, well, High Noon, but The Search, Oklahoma!, A Hatful of Rain, and A Man for All Seasons are pret-ty boring (not that this represents a definitive survey of his career). On the other hand, From Here to Eternity is one of my favorite movies, but it has always seemed to me that that film gets its personality from Montgomery Clift’s melancholy hardhead Robert E. Lee Prewitt as much as from its director.

Anyway, Zinnemann’s newest film seemed to hold the promise of engaging him more than usual; Five Days One Summer is set in the time of his youth, around and on the mountains that held fascination for the Austrian-born Zinnemann (not that literally autobiographical qualities have anything to do with how personal a film is, but it was a promising sign). The movie’s about a doctor/mountaineer (Sean Connery) who escorts his much-younger lover (Betsy Brantley) to a resort in the mountains of Switzerland. Their troubles: he is a married man, she is his niece, the Swiss mountain-climbing guide disapproves—and also happens to dig the girl very much.

There is not much story there, and Zinnemann doesn’t flesh things out or dig too deeply. He does give the story a strange subplot: in the course of hiking, the trio discovers the body of a man who disappeared forty years earlier—on the night before his wedding. His bride-to-be, never married, is confronted with the corpse, kept mint-condition by the snowpack; she, of course, is an old woman by now (this scene takes place beside a river that is the result of a melting glacier). You can see why Zinnemann wanted this episode in there, even if the strain to integrate it into the plot is too much for the movie. In fact, it’s not integrated in, Zinnemann doesn’t quite pull it off, and this little bit does not really seem all that mythically haunting or perversely eerie—but that’s sort of why I like it. Zinnemann’s trying for the mythic, and just not quite making, is somehow touching. After this point, it is much easier to be sympathetic to the film; besides that, in the picture’s second half there are fewer murky intimations among the people and more sensational mountain climbing.

The climbing sequences are spectacular. The last part of the small human drama is played out on the sides of the mountains, and the action is quite breathtaking. The assault on a sheer face of solid ice, carving toeholds on the way up, is astounding. It’s an apt visualization of the ultimate Zinnemann situation: ambiguities put aside, a problem is clearly seen, the solution executed with icy, dogged simplicity. Would that the movie were less muddled. But it’s on to the next mountain—if Fred Zinnemann thinks it’s worth the trip.

First written for (but not published in) The Informer, December 1982

When I was looking for something under “Z” in my file cabinet (Zemeckis-related, actually), I came across a Photostat of this review, which was cut from the Seattle Film Society’s monthly journal, The Informer. I never did get around to printing it, so here it is. The review may be nothing great but the movie is an interesting “old man’s film,” a late-in-life effort from a filmmaker who isn’t trying to impress anybody anymore. Freddy Z goes back to the Bergfilm era of German film, with its ecstatic renderings of nature and the big melodrama played out there. Except that Zinnemann doesn’t do big melodrama, he makes watches. The movie is pretty obscure now, and it is not a conventional success, but it does have a genuinely haunting element at play. I had more to say about the Z-man when I did a career piece for Film Comment in 1997, which I will reprint one of these days.