Saturday, September 13, 2014


Fred Zinnemann, 1948
Starring: Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh

Frank, a war hero, lives in suburban bliss with his wife and young son. While on a fishing trip with a neighbor, a former friend and war buddy, Joe Parkson, begins stalking him. Though Frank tells his wife that Joe is insane, damaged from his war experience, she eventually finds out the truth from Joe himself. He's there to kill Frank, because Frank betrayed Joe and their unit during the war, resulting in the deaths of numerous soldiers and Joe's disfigured leg. Frank was a Nazi informer, trading the location of their escape tunnel for food. Frank won't call the police, but flees to L.A., where Joe chases him through the city with murder on his mind.

Director Frank Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity) made a number of films about the war and about soldiers trying to survive in postwar life: The Seventh Cross (1944) with Spencer Tracy, The Search (1948) with Montgomery Clift, and The Men (1950), featuring Marlon Brando in his debut role. Zinnemann's excellent war films are likely inspired by his personal history. He fled Austria in the late '30s, but his parents remained behind and eventually died in concentration camps. Perhaps as a result, Act of Violence is an inspired meditation on guilt, personal responsibility, and the numerous gray areas of human morality.

Based on a story by producer Collier Young (husband of the period's only female noir director and a regular actress in the genre, Ida Lupino), there is something unique about Act of Violence. There are many film noir efforts concerned with returning veterans coping with a post-war world and transitioning away from a life of violence: The Blue Dahlia, Crossfire, Cornered, Kiss the Blood off My Hands, The Woman on the Beach, and more. Act of Violence is made up of a successful blend of bleak melodrama, suspense, and two powerful performances that convincingly portray good men who are forced to make bad decisions and are pushed to their limits by violence. Both Joe and Frank are painted equally black and depicted as equally flawed. It is difficult to identify with one more than the other, leaving the film with no true protagonist.

This is certainly one of Robert Ryan's best roles, which is saying a lot considering that he was a regular noir fixture in films like Crossfire, Caught, The Set Up, Woman on the Beach, The Secret Fury, and others. His grizzled face and menacing demeanor are used perfectly at the film's opening, which lacks a credits sequence and cuts immediately to a sweaty, anxious, desperate-looking Joe acquiring a gun and heading out towards an obviously dark purpose. Van Heflin (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Possessed) is his opposite: an assured family man living in a Californian domestic paradise. His secret, cowardly side is soon revealed and it is obvious the men are on equal footing.

The film's female performances are nearly equal to Ryan and Heflin. A very young Janet Leigh is his sweet, adoring, and ultimately realistic wife who admits that she knows he is no longer a hero, but just a regular man full of the same base nature that everyone contains. The unfortunately named Phyllis Thaxter (Blood on the Moon) plays a similar role as Joe's girlfriend, a desperate young woman trying to keep the man she loves from the brink of insanity, barbarity, and ruin. An aged Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon) nearly steals the film as a hardened prostitute past her prime, and there are memorable appearances from noir regulars Taylor Holmes (Nightmare Alley) as a lawyer of dubious morals, and Berry Kroeger (Cry of the City) as the enthusiastic murderer-for-hire.

Act of Violence is available on DVD as a double feature with Mystery Street and comes highly recommended. Not a moment of the film is wasted and there are plenty of menacing moments where Van Heflin's terror is equaled by Robert Surtees' (Ben Hur) mesmerizing cinematography. The exteriors of nighttime L.A. are breathtakingly beautiful and menacing in equal turns and provide a nice contrast to sunny suburbia. Through Zinnemann's excellent direction and Ryan and Heflin's performances, every setting becomes a place of terror, isolation, doom, and claustrophobia, from the picturesque lake to the rain-slicked city and Heflin's shadowy home.

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