Fred Zinnemann is the epitome of a certain kind of film director. He was a workhorse - not a hack, not somebody who'd just show up and do the job in the most uninspired way, but somebody who still did obviously view it as a job. There's nothing flashy in a Zinnemann film, but they're robust and well-built, and they take the audience's time and attention seriously. They're solidly crafted, and they demand hard work from their actors (he has a knack for getting surprisingly layered performances from stars who generally let themselves rely on a small bag of tricks, without asking them to precisely renounce those tricks - Gary Cooper in 1952's High Noon and Audrey Hepburn in 1959's The Nun's Story are the two most exciting examples), and they're very sturdy and easy to admire, even when they're not especially inspired. Obviously, other filmmakers fit that bill, but none of them have Zinnemann's imprimatur for the film industry for doing it: six of his films received Best Picture Oscar nominations, while he himself  received seven nominations for Best Director, a number only matched or surpassed by six other men.

I bring this up now because A Man for All Seasons, the 1966 film for which Zinnemann won his second directing Oscar (it was also his second Best Picture winner; in both categories, it was preceded by 1954's From Here to Eternity) is maybe the epitome of this tendency in Zinnemann's filmmaking, just as he is maybe the epitome of this kind of filmmaker. It is perhaps the best demonstration in his career of both the strengths and weaknesses of his style. It's a prestige film to its bones, adapted from a celebrated 1960 play by Robert Bolt (the screenplay is by Bolt himself) that very openly traffics in Ideas-with-a-capital-I, while touching on the matters of kings and politics in the early English Renaissance. It's easy to imagine this as a suffocating dirge that vanishes all the way up its own ass, especially since we have so many examples from the whole history of sound cinema of movies with a similar setting and plot concerns that are suffocating dirges. But this one is rather more lively and biting than the typical English history Oscarbait, a genuinely engaging story of complicated political intrigue made palatable through its sharp cast and dialogue.

The cast, in particular, is a keen example of what makes this better than so many similar costume dramas. The film stars Paul Scofield as Thomas More, briefly Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII (Robert Shaw), covering the period that immediately led to More's rise to that position, going through his decline in favor as he refused to offer his support to the king's establishment of himself as supreme head of the Church of England, and his trial for treason as a result. Scofield created the role onstage (he and Leo McKern are the only two members of the cast to appear in the movie), and it was Zinnemann's intention all along that he should be able to give his performance immortality on celluloid, but the money men were nervous. Scofield, after all, though a hugely important stage actor and one of the most celebrated Shakespeareans of the 20th Century, had little presence in the movies, at his own choosing, and there was a reasonable concern that he wouldn't draw in crowds. The practical result is that the film's budget was carved down the bone, leaving little money for a fancy, elaborate production.

That ends up being a huge strength; so does Scofield's presence in the central role. A Man for All Seasons is almost scrappy, and it's certainly free from any sense of grand pageantry. It's a story about exhausted, irritable people trying to keep their heads above water in a time of political crisis instigated by a narcissistic monster, stripping away any excess romance or theatricality. Scofield's performance is a crucial part of this. Bolt's screenplay, anxious to play around with heavy concepts of fidelity to relgion and moral duty, gives More a great many big lines freighted with meaning, and occasionally with the rich pleasure of dialogue, the most famous by far being his miniature speech when confronted with the suggestion that it might be better to sacrifice the rule of law for quick expedience in getting the morally righteous thing done in an hurry:
What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ... And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!
It's easy to imagine an actor - Richard Burton, for example, whom the producers wanted for the role - turning that speech into a real barnburner of breast-beating line readings and declarative poses. Scofield does not do this. He doesn't underplay it, but he keeps it firmly in mind that he's delivering this to one man, who's sitting about three feet away from him, and he has all the authority in that relationship. So he never raises his voice very much, using speed rather than volume to emphasise. He's explaining, not declaiming, and his mood is not one of righteous anger but of nervousness that his reckless interlocutor might be able to make things very bad. Even that final line is played less as a thick punctuation mark than as an attempt to defuse the moment and calm himself down; to cement this reading, Zinnemann and editor Ralph Kemplen follow it immediately (there is even, perhaps, a few frames of overlap) with a very surprising and anticlimactic dissolve to the next scene, letting the energy of the speech collapse visually the way that Scofield has turned it more into a running-out of breath than a final barking shout.

Obviously, there's more to a performance than a surprisingly low-key recitation of a really chewy, terrific speech, but that moment is emblematic of Scofield's approach. He astutely reads More as a tired pragmatist who will do the right thing rather than the wrong thing as a matter of instinct, but would surely prefer if the world didn't require him to make a big thing about it. He's reticent, a rather peculiar emotion for an actor to have to play, but Scofield makes it work in the form of very wary glances towards other actors, in his outwardly calm but obviously impassioned way of speaking, and in the way that he holds his body. The difference between More as he stands (tense, alert, defensive) and as he sits (strategic, wary, philosophical) is the whole film in a nutshell really, including the fact that Scofield is able to very clearly draw a distinction between "alert" and "wary".

I imagine that the film was built around Scofield's More, the one established element of the production before it became a movie; at any rate, his mood exactly sets the vibe that the rest of the cast operates within, and that Zinnemann's directing supports. Hell, even the great ham Orson Welles, playing the corpulent, cynical Cardinal Wolsey, matches Scofield's lower-energy way of playing this material, delivering his lines in a register so far from his usual oracular staginess that I have a hard time hearing his inordinately recognisable voice. The one exception is important: Shaw plays Henry as as loud, mercurial fop, right from his first onscreen action, hopping out of a boat with a laddish enthusiasm that immediately sets the character apart from the rest of the cast. And of course this makes sense, given that the king's self-involved bullying is the driving force behind literally everything we see over the course of the film's two hours. He's a life force - a negative, destructive one, but still the only character who gets to spout with whatever's on his mind. Shaw has fun with that, of course, but what's impressive is that he manages to make the king out to be a bratty lout while also preserving some measure of charisma: this isn't the later Henry VIII of the popular imagination, a pustulent sack of greedy appetites. This is the young Henry, still a magnetic, dynamic presence, and if he's not, there's no way he can hold sway over the film; at the same time, he needs to be unpleasant to be around, despite that magnetism, and Shaw just, like does it.

These aren't the only two performance of note, obviously; in fact, there are only good performances in A Man for All Seasons, and a few great ones, including Wendy Hiller's work as More's equally hard and pragmatic (she and Shaw were both Oscar-nominated, and lost), but more openly panicked wife Alice, and little baby John Hurt as the shiftless Richard Rich, who needs to seem like an amoral, ruthless politician that's also a dimwitted, in-over-his-head youth. Put them all together and let them attack Bolt's short, crisp scenes of English politicians spitting verbal barbs at each other and putting various complicated schemes into motion (one of the ways that the film telegraphs being Serious Drama for Intellectual Adults: if you stop paying attention for any three minutes of the first hour, you will be hopelessly lost), and you have a pretty great portrayal of the ugly business of maintaining power and keeping keeping the country running under a savage like Henry VIII. These are not men intoning historical lines; they're just venal politicians, nobody actively "wicked", except in that they are all mostly concerned with their own well-being, and willing to sacrifice others to preserve it.

So let's round back to Zinnemann, and his sturdy, workmanlike approach to the film. I said the approach had strengths, and the biggest one is that he's able to get all of the actors on the same page and let their energies bouncing off each other do the work of putting the film across. It's a theatrical approach, but it never feels like canned theater, in part because of the variety of locations, but mostly because the cast is playing to the camera, not to the balcony. And, too, his lack of interest in any stylistic flourishes helps the film's sense of pragmatism. It's not that the film is without style: it just uses it sparingly, and purposefully, so that when we get a push-in towards Scofield's face during a critical line of dialogue, we feel the weight of his emotions. Or when a series of dissolves skips us forward several months in what looks like a single shot, the presence of time finally lands hard on a film that sweeps through six years without always providing us with a map for exactly where we are.

However, it's certainly a pretty simple film, all things considered: Zinnemann and cinematographer Ted Moore make great use of natural exterior lighting wherever possible to bring a feeling of naturalism that removes any lingering trace of theatrical grandeur from the material, and there's not a single scene until the big courtroom sequence at the end, where the good and moral More stands against the whole of the English government to prove that his dogged faith is greater than their cynicism, where we're actively being invited to look at the sets. And there it's less about showing off than it is about isolating Scofield in the frame. This isn't a posh, design-heavy film; the costumes are enough to put across a feeling of period authenticity, the interiors look like people live in them but without doing much to personalise them. It is keeping itself tightly focused on the events and the people, with no interesting in anything that might distract from the moral questions being asked and fought over.

This cuts both ways. While A Man for All Seasons doesn't feel like canned theater, as I've said, it doesn't feel much more like a great movie. It's functional, faultlessly so: it's a perfectly crafted object. But visually and sonically, it's simply not very interesting. It's too clean and squared-off for that. We're here for the story, the dialogue, and performances, and that's all we get.

For a good long while, 40 minutes or more of the two-hour film, that's all we need. The politicking is fascinating, and convoluted enough that it demands our attention without being so knotty that it's frustrating. The actors breathing life into those politics are terrific. But this is, I said some long while ago, a film about Ideas-with-a-capital-I, and it's at the point where that capitalisation kicks in and the political wrangling takes a back seat to More's moral crisis that the film starts to get more pedestrian. For one thing, Scofield starts to dominate scenes, rather than swat them back and forth with other performers; for another, even though the actor admirably refuses to orate his lines or the ideas buried in them, the screenplay still hands him the kind of "And now, I shall Read the Themes Aloud" dialogue favored by audiences who want to be told that they are thinking, perhaps moreso than they want to do the work of thinking. A Man for All Seasons is not a stupid movie, and it's not more than slightly didactic. But it is very clear about what we should be discussing on the ride home, and it foregrounds all of that with an artless force that's exactly why you don't want to hand if off to a directors who is marshaling all of his skills to make sure the movie stays out of the script's way. At no point do I regret sitting in front of the movie, and it rallies with that courtroom scene, which brings back some of the strategy and lawyerly cunning that has evaporated over the preceding 40 minutes. But it flirts with being one of the great costume dramas of its era before settling back down to above-average, and it's always disappointing to see that kind of thing happen.