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November 29, 2007

Behold a Pale Horse

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Fred Zinnemann - 1964
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

In case you hadn't read it elsewhere, Justine of "Beyond the Valley of the Cinephiles" is hosting a Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger Blog-a-thon starting December 16. And what does that have to do with Fred Zinnemann? Behold a Pale Horse is based on the novel, Killing a Mouse on Sunday by the more literary half of "The Archers".

What was even more surprising for me is that Behold a Pale Horse is Fred Zinnemann's most visually accomplished film. Thematically, it is consistent with Zinnemann's other films in which the main character is forced to face challenges to his or her most deeply held beliefs. In this film, Gregory Peck's anti-Fascist exile is almost undone by holding to firmly to his set viewpoint. As a film about the Spanish Civil War, the characters are presented a bit too broadly, disallowing subtleties of difference. The Republicans are all strongly anti-clerical, while Franco and the Catholic Church are presented as having the same goals. Politics is almost besides the point in this film.

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Zinnemann is more interested in the iconography of the human face. I can not think of any of his other films being as full of close-ups. Not only is the screen filled with the more familiar visages of Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif, but of the supporting actors as well. The shots are usually lit to emphasize shadows, as if Zinnemann was discovering the geography of the human face. Frederick Rossif may have influenced the look of the film. Rossif's documentary, To Die in Madrid, about the Spanish Civil War had been released in 1963. Rossif co-directed the montage sequence that opens Behold a Pale Horse. Additionally, Zinnemann may well have been inspired by the photographers who documented the Spanish Civil War, in particular, Robert Capa.

That the politics are expressed in broad strokes could possibly be attributed to Pressburger's novel. The basic story, with Peck and Quinn as two old enemies who try to outwit each other, with the goal of trapping the other, is not too distant from The 49th Parallel. A consistent part of several of the Powell-Pressburger films is that the characters often take on challenges that are considered suicidal, not to mention how frequently characters kill themselves. Robert Kesar's piece on Zinnemann in Senses of Cinema, while only discussing Behold a Pale Horse briefly, does help put the film in the context of Zinnemann's career, with the documentary footage which is integrated with documentary style filming when Peck is first seen onscreen, establishing some sense of realism, combined with Zinnemann's combined with a story about that character, like other's in Zinnemann's films, who continually move forward, in spite of the self-awareness that at best, there is only moral victory.

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Posted by peter at November 29, 2007 07:38 PM