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ACT OF VIOLENCE

(1948)

Starring Robert Ryan, Van Heflin, Janet Leigh; dir: Fred Zinnemann

A mere twelve months after his returning WWII veteran is revealed, in Crossfire (1947), to be an explosive Jekyll-and-Hyde race murderer, a noticeably more haggard Robert Ryan is seen zig-zagging unsteadily through the murky backstreets of AnyCity U.S.A., like some fugitive noir Frankenstein, in the stunning opening to Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence. If we didn’t already know Ryan is reprising another vengeful veteran, we soon will. (Such repetitions in film noir reinforce the genius conception - if not execution - of David Thomson’s multi-tiered re-mapping of the genre in novel form, Suspects.)

Few films can boast such a succession of bravura opening sequences. From the flare of light that first identifies Ryan in the opening scene, after we see his pistol being extracted, we go straight to his overnight bus ride, whose rain-streaming windows are reflected on Ryan’s face like tears pouring down his cheeks. Symbolically transported thus from urban darkness to the next scene, sunny Life magazine small town U.S.A., a Memorial Day parade for veterans is bisected by the limping Ryan cutting across it at a right angle to the young soldiers’ direction across the screen, to reach a shopfront where the radio voiceover informs us that "the outlook today is sunny". Ryan’s gammy-footed avenging angel shows us clearly how far from the truth this picture of happy prosperity is.

Not helped by its pointless and misleading title, Act of Violence is a lost minor classic of deceptive depth from the director of High Noon (1952), From Here To Eternity (1953), et al. Notwithstanding the strongly suggestive establishing scenes, its first third suggests a simple stalking-quarry thriller, albeit one very tautly handled (skills Zinnemann would later reprise in 1973’s Day of the Jackal). Like Crossfire and The Blue Dahlia (1946), Act of Violence is a major pillar of Hollywood’s exploration of ‘The Postwar Malaise’ (thriller division). "You can’t know what happened", Van Heflin’s Frank Enley tells his wife at a strained moment, though as events will show, her benign ignorance can’t last either.

Act of Violence also has strong overtones of the ‘threatened suburbia’ strand of (mostly ‘B’) crime flix from the time like Pitfall (1948), The Reckless Moment (1949), Tension (1950), Private Hell 36 (1954), Cry Terror (1958), etc. But Zinnemann’s film goes deeper still, into a shifting moral landscape that forces us to question our allegiances and subtly undermines comfortable positions we’ve adopted, at least as observers of the drama, and possibly by extension in scenarios further afield.

We see this shifting moral landscape through the eyes of Edith, (an incredibly young!) Janet Leigh, wife of successful building contractor and war vet Frank Enley who, it is clear from early on, is the target of Ryan’s Joe Parkson character. Like her, we are initially in the dark as to the deeper subcurrents which underlie a seemingly simple, albeit deranged, pursuit and like her we are morally untroubled at the outset despite feeling viscerally threatened.

Following a series of early escapes - one at a lake in full daylight and later at night in their house (thrown absurdly into darkness by Frank as if in postwar America this was the most natural thing in the world!), the threat becomes metaphysical when Enley decamps to a builders’ convention in L.A. and Joe confronts Edith at home with the story of Frank’s wartime behaviour. Cracks in the surface sheen have been opened and can only get wider - deliriously so as it turns out.

That these cracks in the surface image are in no way limited to the personal, but, like Clarkson cutting across the parade, extend to the corporate fabric of postwar U.S.A., is captured in a brilliant allusion when we cut to the convention where Frank has escaped. We see a hotel foyer full of drunken, carousing businessmen and quickly focus on a grotesque parody of the famous fife-and-drums painting of a war-ravaged George Washington in headband marching four-abreast that became the iconic symbol of The American Revolution, here reduced to a drunken conga line.

In fact throughout Act of Violence there is a constant, deliberate intertwining of the wartime military scenarios which the protagonists recall and the later civilian situations they enact. "You’re the same man you were in Germany", Frank is told in his final descent into criminality. The truth of this is shown vividly and shockingly as events spiral out of control (in time-honoured film noir fashion!), with Enley staggering around a nocturnal L.A. demi-monde that becomes for him the portals to a hellish underworld where he is clearly out of his depth. (These scenes gain an extra resonance for noir-hounds as many shots – looking down from the top of a long outdoor stairway, the ‘Devil’s Flight’ funicular railway - are straight out of Kiss Me Deadly!)

Frank’s agent-of-the-Devil is Mary Astor (!) as an ageing courtesan whose ennui reminds us of Marlene Deitrich’s (more benign) turn in Touch of Evil. Through her ministrations of temptingly amoral problem-solving we see the truth of Clarkson’s accusations - Enley’s weak-willed acceptance of easy solutions. But despite some longuers in these later stages, Enley’s outburst of conscience - ‘Frank don’t do it!" - appropriately filmed in a tunnel, is an incredibly powerful moment which sets us up for the final scenes.

Throughout Act of Violence there is a striking use of geometric compositions, including the veterans’ parade and a high overhead shot of the lake pursuit. In a highly unconventional framing of the climax, the future director of High Noon deploys a classic Western perspective – the Main Street showdown – only this long shot depends on one character’s obscured vision to foil Frank’s revived determination to save Joe Clarkson. Thus geometrically thwarted, Frank’s uncertain fate is sealed in one final act of penance. Bringing the story’s constantly changing moral equation a full revolution, this climactic scene allows Ryan’s Clarkson to emerge from the dust as a healer. And it’s believable, due to an early allusion to Frank and Joe’s original friendship (another late reveal which adds extra shadings to events).

Act of Violence was the most surprisingly powerful and affecting film of the entire Big House season, with a profundity, through its unsettling moral continuum, redolent not of Hollywood simplicities of good/evil but of the art one associates with Zinnemann’s European background. This contains a clue. Fred and his brother escaped their native Austria in 1938 but their parents, waiting for U.S. visas that never came, perished – separately – in concentration camps. The ‘survivor guilt’ this awful closing engendered must resemble the emotional see-saw ride which fiction like the ethical pendulum of Act of Violence can only start to expiate.

- Roger Westcombe