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Fred Zinnemann emerges in the doorway of his living room, and it's hard to believe that this sweet-faced 87-year-old Austrian made some of the century's most vivid - and vividly American - movies.

Any doubt vanishes when the Academy Award-winning director of "High Noon" and "From Here to Eternity" starts to speak, and his particular passions take hold."I really couldn't wait to become American," Zinnemann was saying several minutes later, seated one humid morning in the Mayfair apartment he shares with his English wife, Renee, who is 85.

"It wasn't career or money - that was secondary," said the director, who left Vienna for New York in 1929. "I was very hungry for what I found in America at that time: You could breathe freely. I felt myself in a country that had real idealism and real spirit.

"It was touchingly innocent," he continued, his voice flecked with a soft Austrian accent. "In Europe, you don't have any innocence."

Zinnemann had an eye for stories of conscience and courage, in the United States and elsewhere.

"The Men" (1950) told a searching tale of paraplegic war veterans adjusting to civilian life. It introduced a film unknown, Marlon Brando, fresh from his Broadway triumph in "A Streetcar Named Desire."

"High Noon" (1951) lifted the Western genre to new heights in its story of a marshal (Gary Cooper) tied by a sense of duty to the ungrateful community of Hadleyville.

"From Here to Eternity" (1953) brought Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr together in a legendary screen clinch while relating a powerful story of Army life in Hawaii before Pearl Harbor. It also brought Zinnemann his first Oscar.

"I've always been fascinated by the idea of conscience," said Zinnemann. "To photograph that conflict expressed in the actions or choices a person makes is very photogenic."

The director moved to London in 1963 as more and more of his projects took him to Europe, Asia and Australia - even as his abiding theme remained the same.

"A Man for All Seasons" (1966) brought Zinnemann a second directing Oscar. Adapted from Robert Bolt's hit play, the story of Catholic statesman Sir Thomas More's rebellion against Henry VIII proved not to be too arcane for mainstream audiences.

Based on a story by Lillian Hellman, "Julia" (1977) put to the test the friendship between two women - Jane Fonda's budding playwright and Vanessa Redgrave as the anti-fascist millionaire of the title.

Such films as "Oklahoma!" (1955) and "The Day of the Jackal" (1971) showed Zinnemann's versatility - a classic Broadway musical followed by a terrorist thriller.

"I didn't like to be pigeonholed," said the director. "I don't suppose anybody does. I've had a curiosity about different things and different styles.

"It's just that I should have made more pictures; it's one of the regrets I have - I should have done twice as many."

While some directors have tended to churn out movies, Zinnemann throughout the 1960s and '70s spent years between projects; a planned film of Andre Malraux's "Man's Fate" never materialized despite a 21/2-year preparation.

"There were years I wasted when nothing happened," he sighed, acknowledging his methodical pace. "Anyway, that's long ago."

His bitterness is evident, too, about the commercial and critical failure of what will be his last film - the 1981 "Five Days One Summer," with Sean Connery and an unknown named Betsy Brantley.

"It just didn't work," Zinnemann said of the film. "After that, like many of us, when you get a really vicious blow, it hurts; it makes you numb for a while."

When criticism "is professional," he said, "it doesn't hurt, but vitriolic hatred is something else. I was really deeply hurt and didn't think for quite a while about doing anything."

Zinnemann is eager not to sound a conclusively sour note: "Basically, I feel I've had a full life, and thank God I don't have to worry about the next meal or a roof over my head.

"I've enjoyed myself, because life is wonderful. Who needs to make movies?"

But his assessment of the business - and the world at large - sounds bleak more often than not.

"I'm not a great optimist about the future of mankind," said the director, linking his remark to the hermetic world of Hollywood. "Everything's tied in, and when it goes, it will all go at once in one big bang."

He described the rise of technology as society's "greatest benefit and greatest danger because it's all going too fast. It's going to come to a bitter end, and it's just a question of when."

Was he happy to have worked during the years that he did?

"All the people of my generation feel that," he replied. "We feel we were really fortunate."

Now, his sense of fortune revolves mainly around issues of health.

Gone are the days of dinner parties and screenings - his poor hearing won't permit either. And gone, too, is his beloved mountain climbing: "I used to do a lot of that; now, I can't even get to Berkeley Square," several streets away.

But, he said, "as long as my brain still operates, I'm OK. One never knows how long it's going to last."