Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 82m 5s
This airtight film noir develops an unsettling premise that pits an obsessed loner against a devoted family man. As the showdown begins, a man with a persistent limp grabs a handgun and a small handbag before he boards a Greyhound bus bound for Los Angeles. That man is Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), and most certainly he is a determined man with a singular purpose. When he disembarks the bus out West, his progress is slowed by a Memorial Day parade of marching veterans. That interruption nicely sets up the story of a disenfranchised soldier whose life has stalled since WWII. Cut to Frank R. Enley (Van Heflin), flanked by his wife Edith (Janet Leigh) and young son Georgie. Enley is positioned as the polar opposite of Parkson. A commanding officer during the war, today Enley is a beloved man, honored for his involvement in the recent completion of a housing project. He then heads out of town for a fishing excursion, but abruptly returns home when he learns a fella with a limp is on his trail. Edith wants some simple answers as to what is going on, but her husband offers nothing of the sort:
"Edith, a lot of things happened in the war that you wouldn't understand. Why should you? I don't understand them myself."
After Enley returns from his aborted fishing trip, never again is he shown in the high-key lighting that characterizes his introductory sequence. Darkness will follow him relentlessly throughout the remainder of the narrative.
Like many other film noirs of the 1940s, ACT OF VIOLENCE questions the status of the war hero in post-war America. More specifically, can a man who experienced the horrors of military conflict ever return to a civilian existence? From the time Enley realizes his past is closing in on him, he becomes an edgy, paranoid mess that has obvious parallels to a film industry under HUAC scrutiny. His dark past concerns his role in an emotionally stirring event that involved atrocities committed against POWs in Nazi Germany. Enley and Parkson were confined to the same prison camp during the war, and Enley made a decision that precipitated US soldier casualties. Despite a loving family and an upstanding reputation in the community, Enley is as cornered as any noir protagonist to be condemned by a past transgression. There are things from which we cannot move on, there are broken things that cannot be fixed.
ACT OF VIOLENCE is among the most haunting film noirs that sprout from a tragic past that cannot be undone. Van Heflin is outstanding as Enley, a selfish heel masquerading as a selfless hero. A versatile actor, Van Heflin portrayed other noir heels convincingly in POSSESSED (1947) and THE PROWLER (1951). Robert Ryan is equally well cast in the role of the trenchcoat stalker Parkson, who is curt with everyone he encounters as he concentrates fully on his mission of vengeance. I love the way Parkson laughs at the idea of backing off in return for Enley's net business worth. Unlike Enley, Parkson cannot be bought. The Parkson character anticipates the volatile Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) from CAPE FEAR (1962).
Director Fred Zinnemann displays a tremendous eye for details that enhance the drama, as when Parkson, so anxious to confront Enley, opens the taxi door before the vehicle stops in front of the Enley home. Later it is Enley who cannot wait for his taxi to stop completely. Such behavior reflects the pervasiveness of the noir atmosphere, which is not limited to urban locales. Here the (fictitious) small town of Santa Lisa meets sudden disruption that will have a lasting impact on one of its key families. The suburban setting aside, the most distinctly noir visual schemes transpire with Enley facing alienation in a massive environment of alleys, stairways and city streets. It is one of the best "on the run" sequences of the noir canon, lensed by director of photography Robert Surtees in the Bunker Hill section of LA. That sequence brings Enley to Pat (Mary Astor), a prostitute in semi-retirement who factors in Enley's redemption.
The filmmakers are not content to stop with strong imagery, either. Various sound effects heighten Enley's feeling of entrapment, especially at his own home, where the sound of Parkson limping outside the place is creepy indeed. Also at the homestead, an alarm clock impersonates a ticking time bomb, while a swinging pendulum fulfills a similar function. Wind whips ominously through the city streets, and inside a large road tunnel, Enley succumbs to inescapable guilt as he cries out in desperation. The road tunnel sequence alludes to the unseen tunnel debacle in which American soldiers were slaughtered by Nazis. In both instances, cries go without an answer. After an appropriate buildup, the film delivers the type of conclusion best reserved for the film noir. The screenplay was written by Robert L. Richards (THE LAST CROOKED MILE ), who adapted the story by Collier Young (THE HITCH-HIKER , PRIVATE HELL 36 ).
A must-see film noir, ACT OF VIOLENCE is readily available on DVD through Warner Archive. I presume it is the identical disc included with FILM NOIR CLASSIC COLLECTION VOL. 4, released by Warner in 2007, which was the basis for this review. The DVD includes the groundbreaking MYSTERY STREET (1950), another unique and fascinating film noir, along with multiple commentary tracks, featurettes and theatrical trailers.