Noirvember Review: ‘Act of Violence’

One of the themes explored during the era of film noir was the very topical idea of how the Second World War had affected those who fought on the battlefield. Sure the men who came home may have physically survived but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually countless of them were still carrying the scars of combat. While Americans largely moved out to the suburbs and started having 2.5 kids there was a dark undercurrent often ignored. While most movies carried over the “Hurray America” attitude of the war, films like Thieves’ Highway, Pitfall, and Cornered showed the American Dream was also a nightmare. Perhaps no movie conveyed this message better than the sadly underrated 1948 masterpiece of a film noir Act of Violence.

A stranger limps off a bus arriving in Los Angeles and checks into a hotel for an undetermined amount of days. As it would happen his arrival coincides with the honoring of veteran and former POW Frank Enley. Eager to put the war behind him, Frank along with his wife (played by a young Janet Leigh) and child has established himself as a respected civic-mined citizen. But this stranger is on his trail, relentlessly pursuing the war hero with deadly intentions. Seemingly lurking in the shadows no matter where Frank goes is none other than his old battle buddy Joe. We discover that the reason Frank made it out of the POW camp was because he sold out his buddies who were trying to escape, under the assurances from the Nazi commander that they would “take it easy” on them. But this comforting promise was a lie as the hopeful escapees were bayonetted and left them for dead. Against the odds, Joe survived and now he wants revenge on the man who betrayed his compatriots. Now Frank has to keep the truth of what he had to do from his increasingly curious wife while trying to avoid the man pursuing him filled with righteous vengeance

The cat-and-mouse nature of this story is terrifying, violent, and gripping. Realizing the opportunity this movie presented, Austrian-born director Fred Zinnemann leaped at the chance to ensure his dark vision for this story made it onto the screen. Zinneman had begun his career at MGM making B-grade mystery films, while he did not like churning out these features, they did get him noticed. Act of Violence came his way shortly after he had discovered both of his his parents had died and this no doubt influenced the bleak and cynical world he created in this movie. This movie is no traditional good guy vs bad guy conflict, instead it is simply two broken men who inevitably have to confront one another over their parts traumatic past. One man was a “stool pigeon” to the Nazis in the hopes of sparing his men a death sentence under an “officer’s agreement”. The other man a victim of that betrayal, who suffered thanks these good intentions. Hoping to hold influence over them are the women in their lives. Frank’s wholesome wife has discovered his secret creating a moral dilemma, contrasted with Joe’s girlfriend who knows exactly what is happening and is desperate to stop his quest for revenge. This is a unsettling and thought provoking film, and thanks to cinematographer Robert Surtees it looks gorgeously dark and moody all along the way. The screenplay was penned by Robert L. Richards, a victim of Joe McCarthy’s Blacklist, pulls no punches with his work on this script as he slowly but steadily builds towards an inevitably bloodsoaked climax.

One of the things working in Zinnemann’s favor was the incredible cast assembled for Act of Violence. The film’s original producer, Mark Hellinger, had A-list box office draws Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart lined up. But when he passed away, the film moved to producer William H. Wright, who while passionate about the project, cut down the budget meaning Peck and Bogie were no longer in price range. That being said you can not heap enough praise on the performances of Van Heflin and Robert Ryan. When it comes to bringing tough guys in noir to life Robert Ryan was an icon of the genre. In this movie he is downright scary, a mentally tormented man who is now single-minded in his mission of vengeance. His co-star and onscreen nemesis Van Heflin is perfect as an increasingly desperate man. A chapter in his life he thought was over has now come back to haunt him at a time when he is building a family and career. Stealing every scene she is in is the great Mary Astor as savvy prostitute who tries to help Frank out by connecting him with a shady lawyer and unscrupulous hitman who could take care of the situation. The actress considered this role to be one of her favorites and considering she had a career that stretched back to the silent era that is saying something.

Unfortunately Act of Violence did not do well at all at the box office as it was perhaps too far ahead of its time. Mass audiences were likely not interested in a dark and cerebral look at the trauma of returning veterans. True, Best Years of Our Lives was a massive hit tackling this topics a few years before; but while it pulled no punches in showing the realism of what veterans go through it did end on a hopeful note. On the other hand Act of Violence is void of hope or joy, it is an unsettling thriller that will leave audiences shaken to their core.