Act of Violence (1949)

A former prisoner of war, Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is hailed as a hero in his California town.

However, Frank actually aided his Nazi captors, and he closely guards this secret!

Frank's shameful past comes back to visit him when fellow survivor Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan) emerges, intent on making the turncoat pay for his betrayal. 

As Joe closes in on Frank, the traitor goes into hiding, abandoning his wife, Edith (Janet Leigh), who has no clue about her husband's wartime transgressions. When Frank begins to truly fear his nemesis, played by the relentlessly limping Robert Ryan, he begins to speak of him as if he were speaking of the stalking figure of death itself. 

And his paranoia is total:

"You don't know what made him the way he is - I do!"


Act of Violence has one of the most complete 'film noir settings' as an opening set of shots.

First it's the city at night; then through the cold and the rain comes a man in a long coat and hat. He's limping badly, as he's the film noir figure of the weakened male ... The music is brash and bursts across the screen in fits and starts before settling on a quiet, dead-of-night-style eerie theme, which follows this wounded and lonesome avenging figure of fear up some stairs and into a city appartment.

In a crummy upstairs room, this hulk of a shadowy figure pulls open a crummy drawer and after a little raking within, pulls put an automatic pistol, which he then loads, checks and pockets. Then he stuffs a crummy bag with some small clothes from a crummy drawer and leaves, limping into the noir night, the empty, rainwashed streets, under the towers of the dark and dirty city. 

 
This man with the gun in the hat and coat is Robert Ryan, and this is one of the ultimate and most typical openings of any film noir.



Later on, after this has spilled into a momentary anti-climax, Robert Ryan's menace continues in the high country, on a lake (across which he rather ridiculously rows). And thereafter begins the strange story at the heart of Act of Violence.

Van Heflin is the supposed lead here, and he plays a land developer in Los Angeles in the booming years after World War 2, and we even see him cutting the ribbon on a new housing community that's opening up.

He has a lovley young wife played by Janet Leigh, years before she played Marion Crane in Psycho, and she loves everything about him in that way that film noir sometimes presents that perfect suburban view ... as in Mildred Pierce, Pitfall and a few others.

Robert Ryan though is the bad conscience and even though he limps, he moves with determination, this much is established early!  And he unexpectedly shows up, throwing the post-war paradise into chaos.

Van Heflin


Next, Van Heflin's actual wartime history emerges, showing a rather untypical and degraded picture of cowardice and betrayal, things he's kept hidden from everyone, including his wife, but which his own conscience and Ryan as well, won't let him escape. And it turns out Ryan's evil coated and hatted noir figure has been trailing him from coast to coast.

Janet Leigh

Heflin's disintegration is thereafter quite sudden and profound, and perfectly capped off when he's trying to explain what happened to his unbelieving wife. He flees into the city, his descent marked by an erratic and discordant piano score. He runs and runs from the sweet streets of the bright city, through residential areas which become seedier and more broken down the further he goes... and he winds up on LA's skid row, meeting a party girl who's seen much better days played by Mary Astor, who gets him to confide in her and introduces him to Johnny (Berry Kroeger), someone who can arrange to have all his problems taken care of ... for a price.

Van Heflin and Mary Astor on Skid Row

The conclusion is a classic western style film noir showdown on a breezy night beside the railroad tracks, is beautifully done, and a fitting climax to a very underrated film noir special!


"Some of the ugly encounters which he has with the underworld are grotesque and technically revolting. And they move fast and grimly. But that is all.For this latter asset of the picture, we have Mr. Zinnemann to thank. He has pictured, at least, a visual setting for terror and violence and he has kept the pursued and the pursuer going at a grueling pace. In the former role, Van Heflin strains and sweats impressively. As his relentless pursuer, Robert Ryan is infernally taut. Mr. Zinnemann has also extracted a tortured performance from Janet Leigh as the fearful, confused and disillusioned wife of the hunted man and he has got squalid portraits of scoundrels from Mary Astor, Berry Kroeger and Taylor Holmes.Technically "Act of Violence" touches all the bases in its circuit chase. But it is as though it were doing it on the strength of a long, foul ball."

Review of ACT OF VIOLENCE by Bosley Crowther, January 1949.

Lost and Lonesome Men in the Noir City - - Van Heflin in ACT OF VIOLENCE (1949)

Gavery: [Persuading Frank that Joe Parkson needs to be eliminated] 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.



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