Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Written by Isobel Lennart, from the novel by Jon Cleary
Starring Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum, Peter Ustinov, Michael Anderson Jr., and Glynnis Johns
Feed Zinnemann had quite a varied career. Studied filmmaking in France in the 1920s, began directing films in Germany not long after that, and made a film on location in Mexico – all this before he decamped from Berlin for Hollywood at the dawn of the 1930s. Once in Hollywood he established himself as a director with no real ties to any one genre. He made socialist realist dramas; westerns that could be read as both supporting, and attacking, the blacklist witch-hunt; musicals; vaguely religious dramas; prestige costume dramas; and assassination procedurals.
But while he moved from genre to genre, one constant was he was something of an Oscar favorite. His films won a total of 24 Oscars, from 66 nominations, and he personally was nominated for Best Director 7 times. So, it comes as no surprise that this entry is actually the third go-round with a Fred Zinnemann film in the Also-Rans Project, after previously taking on Julia and The Nun’s Story.
Having seen so many of his films for this project, and The Best Picture Project,  and also from my own personal viewing pleasure, I have to confess I’ve never detected any sort of running themes, or authorial intent, in his films the same you would for Hitchcock, Kubrick, or even Spielberg. Which means while I generally enjoy his films – I personally rate The Day of the Jackal as his best – I would never call him an auteur. Which is the curse of a man who generally worked with an unfussy, unself-conscious style.
Here’s an unfair reality – artists of all stripes are often run down, or forgotten, by cinema history simply for having been superb craftsmen, as if competence were a bad thing. As if being the metaphorical Jack-of-all-trades were a bad thing, simply because you were master of none. As if doing a job well were not a virtue.
Even so, while film history may not hold him in the highest esteem, or find him a fashionable contrarian pick for unheralded genius, the Oscars sure liked him. He is a fact: the Oscars love craftsmen, and are forever-skeptical of auteurs. How else to explain that of the auteurs Hitchcock has zero Oscars, Kubrick’s only Oscar was for special effect, Welles’ was for writing, and both of Tarantino’s are also for writing? Whereas the great craftsmen have all the Oscars. Four of John Ford’s six are for Best Director, two of Joseph Mankiewicz’s Oscars are for Directing, William Wyler won three Oscars for Best Director from 12 total nominations in that category, and, believe it or not, Fred Zinnemann has four Oscars – he was twice Best Director,  won another for directing a one-reel short, and again for a documentary short.
It occurs to me now that perhaps the key to winning Oscars for Best Director isn’t to necessarily to make transcendent pictures, or even showy pictures in terms of framing and action, or even pretentious pictures. Rather, it is make a good film and make it competently.
What’s It About
In the early 1920s, an itinerant laborer (Mitchum) travels about Australia picking up work where he can. First, it’s as a drover – essentially a cowboy who drives livestock, in this case sheep, from place-to-place – then as a sheep shearer, then finally as a race horse owner. Along for the ride on the various trails he follows are his wife (Kerr), his son (Anderson), and a co-worker of possibly regal origins (Ustinov). Though the characters are all essentially laborers for their living, they don’t really face any drama or hardships in the way you might expect from these sorts of films. On the other hand, they don’t really enjoy any success. Every setback in met with an equal step-up, and vice-versa. In all, they simply live a year that for them is like many others before it, happy to be together and free.
Was It Good
The Sundowners was the second pairing of Mitchum and Kerr, following their work in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. That movie was the story of a nun and a marine stuck together on a Japanese occupied island during World War II, and how they avoid detection to stay alive. That movie was good and interesting in that it was essentially a love story told through withholding – because Kerr played a proper nun, neither of the two characters could actually get together and do anything about their feelings. Either way, in Heaven Knows they had great chemistry and that movie works well because of that chemistry. So it’s no surprise they’d wind up in another movie together. Also no surprise, they still have good chemistry.
Honestly, it is their chemistry that makes these two characters feel so real. It makes the relationship of the characters real. It makes it seem as if they aren’t just giving a performance, but are living in the skin of who they portray. For instance, early on Mitchum watches Kerr undress and wash herself, then compliments her body. Then, you see the silhouette of Kerr’s body through a towel. It’s not a subtle moment and it’s obvious they are going to have sex, and that’s what makes it great. Coming out of the 1950s and its repression, you might expect some of that to carry over here. You might expect some innuendo to cover up their bold intent. And what is their intent? They clearly want to fuck. And this is where Mitchum and Kerr make it great, because they are believable as a couple that’s been married for years, but are still sexual beings with one another. Without their chemistry, it doesn’t work.
But really, it isn’t just Mitchum and Kerr bringing the charisma to The Sundowners, because pretty much the whole of the cast has charm to burn. Ustinov is great as the friend, Rupert. Anderson is great as the son, Sean. And Johns is great as Rupert’s love interest, Mrs. Firth. If nothing else, this cast makes clear that the difference between being a paid actor, and being an unemployed actor, is as much about magnetism as performance. Anybody can cry on command, but commanding an audiences attention with nothing more than your being is a rarer trait indeed.
Of the cast, the two nominated actors were Kerr for Best Actress, and Johns for Supporting Actress. About Kerr, she’s fine. This is not her finest moment – she had that as Sister Clodagh in The Black Narcissus – but she acquits herself fine. At the end of the day you can understand why she’d be nominated for the role, and also why she wouldn’t win.
Glynnis Johns’ nomination is a tougher nut to crack. Honestly, it’s a bit baffling. Certainly she’s charming – she always was – but her part seems far too thin and hardly the type of role to single out for an Oscar nomination.
Nevertheless, Because the cast has the chemistry, it’s easy to see why the film is so upbeat and generally good-natured. It’s not a dour picture, which means it’d make Ed Sullivan happy. It’s not a movie with a lot of frowning. Which makes it a bit of a startling change of pace from Zinnemann’s previous picture, The Nun’s Story And because it is such a change of pace, you can understand why he probably chose it. After all, The Nun’s Story was a dour film, what with the cloistering, the muted palate, and the anguish of the main character as she struggles with her faith. Given it’s heavy subject matter, it makes sense Zinnemann would follow that with a film that feels it’s opposite. One set in wide open spaces, shot in rich technicolor, and about people just looking for all the joy in life they can find.
Better Than Best
The Sundowners is an upbeat, joyful picture, and I generally enjoyed it, though not as much as I maybe should. Moreover, it didn’t seem entirely like Best Picture material to me – or, apparently to the Academy either, who awarded the Oscar elsewhere.
Part of the problem if the film, to me, is it’s fairly episodic, which means your mileage will vary, depending on your enjoyment of the parts:
- Mitchum and Ustinov drive the sheep from one place to another, dealing with a fire that threatens them, and Kerr and Anderson, along the way. Covers approximately 40 minutes.
- Once the sheep are moved, they need to be sheared, and so our four stars stay around and do various jobs at the sheep shearing station. During this time, another shearer becomes a father, various events are wagered on, and there is a sheep shearing contest. Covers approximately 75 minutes.
- Mitchum wins a horse while gambling, and decides to race it. The horse wins, then loses on a protest. Covers approximately 20 minutes.
Yes, the movie does try to tie it all together with Kerr’s desire to buy a little piece of land and a house so the family can farm for itself, which is not what Mitchum wants at all. He enjoys the vagabond lifestyle and throws off all attempts at giving it up. And sure, the unifying arc of the house and land does unify things, to a degree, even as it can change the fact that your mileage will vary. And my mileage did.
If we’re honest, though, this is lesser Zinnemann. He might have four Oscars to his name, but it’s not an oversight that none of them are for this film. In Zinnemann’s filmography this is middle-of-the-pack, at best, crowded out by his other films that achieve the certain timelessness that this one is missing. That’s not to say it’s bad – it’s lesser, not terrible – because it sure goes down easy.
Under the circumstances, faced with the 1960 Best Picture, The Apartment, it’s easy to conclude The Sundowners is not better than best. But then, while The Apartment is seen as a classic, it’s actually not the best itself. That’s because elsewhere among the nominees in 1960 – though, curiously, not for Best Picture – was Hitchcock’s masterwork, Psycho.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 In order, they were The Men (1950), High Noon, Oklahoma!, The Nun’s Story, A Man For All Seasons, and The Day of the Jackal
 From Here To Eternity and A Man For All Seasons were covered there.
 Spielberg being the auteur of the masses.
 His Thalberg award does not count.
 For From Here To Eternity, and A Man For All Seasons.
 That Mothers Might Live (1938)
 Benjy (1951)
 It’s so simple, I can’t believe they don’t already do it.
 Interestingly, just two weeks after the December 1960 release of The Sundowners, Kerr’s and Mitchum’s third pairing, Stanley Donen’s The Grass Is Greener, would hit theaters.
 Hell, more impressive to me is the film allowed a man and woman in there mid-to-late 30s actually be sexual creatures. Usually on film, that sort of thing is reserved for the young.
 Or, at least the Ed Sullivan portrayed in Oliver Stone’s The Doors, who advises the boys just before they are to go on to not be sullen on-stage.