You’re the same man you were in Germany. You did it once, and you’ll do it again. What do you care about one more man? You sent ten along already. Sure, you’re sorry they’re dead. That’s the respectable way to feel. Get rid of this guy and feel sorry later. He dies… or you die. It’s him… or you.
Revenge and redemption, guilt and remorse. Having written about so many classic westerns, especially those from the 1950s, these are words and themes that I find myself returning to time and again. Sure the western explored and exploited these ideas extensively, but it’s not a phenomenon confined to that genre. Film noir, that shadowy world of uncertainty and moral ambiguity, also turned the spotlight on these matters. Act of Violence (1948) tackled such thorny yet compelling issues head-on, using the war and its aftermath as the backdrop, challenging the viewer as much through its clever casting as its examination of the complex ethical questions.
Act of Violence is a film where the demarcation lines between what we traditionally think of as the hero and villain are both blurred and continually shifting. As viewers, we’re constantly thrown off-guard and never entirely sure where our sympathies should lie – the images may be shot in stark black and white but the figures playing out the drama on the screen never are. The dramatic opening, panning from a New York skyline down to a long shot of a limping figure furiously driving himself across a deserted nighttime street, plunges us headlong into the action. As the trench-coat clad figure hauls his crippled form up the narrow, rickety staircase of a seedy boarding house and proceeds to load an automatic, the title flashes briefly before us. This is Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), a veteran who has been broken both physically and psychologically. Boarding a Greyhound bus bound for Los Angeles, he disembarks in the small California town of Santa Lisa. This little settlement seems to embody all the optimism and hope for renewal of the immediate post-war years. Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is the epitome of the solid model citizen – the American Dream in motion – with his hearty demeanor, beautiful young wife and thriving business. Yet, despite this wholesome and eminently respectable exterior, Enley is carrying round a dark and shameful secret. And Parkson has come to town to kill him. As the action switches to Los Angeles and back again to Santa Lisa, the relationship between these two very different men and the traumatic past events that have scarred both their souls is gradually revealed. While neither one is a saint, the two of them, in their own ways, have been or have become sinners. Both are seeking to lay the demons of the past to rest in their own way and thus attain personal redemption. I think it’s fair to say that in the end both men fulfill their aims, just not in the way we or they initially expected.
Although the film is primarily concerned with redemption, it’s first necessary to take a look at the corrosive effects of its malignant cousins, guilt and revenge. At the heart of the story lies the way those two great emotional imposters eat away at the central characters before ultimately consuming themselves to allow a spiritual renewal to take place. It’s the way Enley and Parkson react to and are shaped by guilt and the thirst for revenge that leads to that ambiguity I already mentioned. The beginning of the movie, before all the circumstances have become apparent, suggests a fairly conventional plot – an innocent victim being pursued by a relentless and implacable enemy. However, as the details emerge, we’re forced to reassess that assumption. It’s no longer as clear-cut as we’d been led to believe and there is no readily identifiable hero or villain, at least not outside the subsidiary characters. What we’re left with instead is something of a classical tragedy, where two pretty regular guys have had their character flaws magnified and honed by the extremity of their wartime experiences. The horrors and violence of their shared past have affected both men profoundly and it takes an, ironically unconscious, act of self-sacrifice to allow them to break the shackles and redeem themselves.
Fred Zinnemann isn’t a name that immediately springs to mind when thinking about film noir directors, and Act of Violence is his one and only stab at dark cinema. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkably strong effort where the visuals are every bit as striking as the script. There’s a very noticeable contrast between the bright and airy world we see Enley occupying at first and the shadow drenched urban wasteland he moves towards in his attempts to evade Parkson. Zinnemann and his cameraman, Robert Surtees, project some marvelous images, often featuring a panicked Enley stumbling blindly through the underbelly of LA by night – an anonymous, pitiful figure dwarfed and made insignificant by the city’s architecture. They also manage to transform Enley’s home, which initially comes across as a kind of post-war idyll, into a murky and threatening place, reminiscent in its dark confinement of the prison camp where all his troubles began.
I mentioned the clever casting at the beginning and I feel that plays a major role in making the film a success. The two leads dominate the whole thing and their deceptively typical roles add greatly to the unexpected and unpredictable feel of the film. Van Heflin always had that stolid, comforting quality about him, possessing the look, manner and speech of a guy you could depend on. That aspect is certainly played up in the early stages, and the realization that this man isn’t quite as wholesome as we thought comes as a bit of a shock. With Heflin you tend to expect strength and inner resolve to be to the fore. He has that of course but, as the story progresses, the focus shifts to his weakness and frailty. Somehow, the desperation of Enley is made more credible by the fact it’s Heflin we’re watching. Increasingly, I’ve come to believe Robert Ryan was one of the greatest actors of his generation. This man was capable of convincingly playing a wide range of characters in just about every conceivable genre. Film noir was good to him though and the complex roles he was handed brought out his strengths. Parkson, the limping and obsessive veteran, offered plenty of scope for the intensity and suppressed rage he had a knack for. In the hands of someone less capable or lacking in subtlety the character simply would not work. Once again, first impressions should not be trusted as the menacing bogeyman figure at the start is fleshed out and transformed by the end.
The supporting roles are filled most notably by three fine actresses: Janet Leigh, Mary Astor and Phyllis Thaxter. In her one of her earliest roles, Janet Leigh impresses as the young bride who sees her illusions about the war hero she thought she’d married shattered. Phyllis Thaxter plays Ryan’s neglected girl, a loyal rock-like figure intent on saving her man from his own self-destructiveness. And finally, there’s Mary Astor. Once the arch siren of The Maltese Falcon, Astor gives a memorable turn as the jaded and weary prostitute who offers comfort to the disoriented and confused Enley in LA. These three women provide a stable core to the movie, their constancy contrasting nicely with the fluidity of their male counterparts.
Act of Violence is available on DVD as part of the Warner Film Noir Vol 4 set. The film is paired on one of the discs with John Sturges’ Mystery Street. It’s been transferred well with no noticeable damage and good contrast levels to show off Surtees’ photography. The extras consist of a commentary track by Drew Casper and a short featurette on the movie. As far as I’m concerned, Act of Violence has a lot going for it. The central themes are ones I’m always drawn to and I feel they’re intelligently presented here. What’s more the cast is exceptionally fine with good performances delivered by everyone involved. All told, we’re looking at a strong film noir that develops in an unexpected fashion, but one which is also very satisfying.
BTW, I just noticed that this is my 300th post, another little milestone passed.