Tuesday, January 12, 2010

#99: Act of Violence (Fred Zinnemann, 1948)

Released: December 21, 1948

Director: Fred Zinnemann; Screenplay: Robert L. Richards based on a story by Collier Young; Cinematography: Robert Surtees; Music: Bronislau Kaper; Producer: William H. Wright; Studio: MGM

Cast: Van Heflin (Frank R. Enley), Robert Ryan (Joe Parkson), Janet Leigh (Edith Enley), Mary Astor (Pat), Phyllis Thaxter (Ann Sturges), Berry Kroeger (Johnny), Taylor Holmes (Gavery), Harry Antrim (Fred Finney), Connie Gilchrist (Martha Finney), Will Wright (Boat Owner)

- "You'd better check with your husband... I don't think he'd like that."

Here is another movie early in this countdown that I rate a bit lower than most other observers, but still an outstanding noir, coming from a director not normally associated with this type of film. It is an obvious precursor to classics like Cape Fear, and for the first thirty minutes or so it is every bit the equal of the later Mitchum-led film. Ultimately, it fails to maintain the tension created in the opening third, but the entire way through it is a feast for the eyes and a textbook in noir cinematography.

Possibly the high point of the entire film comes in the opening, wordless sequence. Cinematographer Robert Surtees employs the traditional darkness and shadows of the noir world to film a man limping past a nearby harbor. The camera follows him as he enters an apartment, methodically retrieves a revolver and picks up a suitcase. He then proceeds to a bus depot and hops a Greyhound for Los Angeles. The man, we come to learn, is Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), a World War II veteran who survived years in a Nazi POW camp. He is trekking cross-country in order to confront a former WWII comrade who was housed in the camp with him. Joe is convinced that Frank Enley (Van Heflin) was the cause for the massacre of a number of inmates as they tried to escape from the camp. Joe was only wounded in the shootout, but the experience leaves him determined to get even with Enley. So he begins to stalk him like a lion does its prey, terrorizing Enley and his young wife Edith (Janet Leigh). His late-nights visits terrorize the couple, to the point that Enley has to physically retreat from his own home. After years of trying to bury his traitorous act, Enley is clueless as to how to respond to the reappearance of his former pal.

The lead performances are solid enough. I have to be honest that Robert Ryan has never been a personal favorite of mine, so if a movie depends upon him exclusively to carry a film, it’s probably going to fall short for me. Van Heflin fits the role of the ideal husband and businessman craftily hiding a dark secret. But the true stars remain Zinnemann and director of photography Robert Surtees – and in all honesty, I’m going to focus on Surtees, a man whose name should be more well-known than it is. Those that don’t immediately recognize his name will certainly be familiar with his credits – King Solomon’s Mines, Ben-Hur, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Graduate, The Last Picture Show, and The Sting just to name a few. What is the best cinematography that he produced in his career? That’s a highly debatable topic, but I would argue that The Last Picture Show is the only one that might outdo his work in Act of Violence. Surtees and Zinnemann combine to produce some of the most iconic shots in all of film noir. Just look at the screencap below, of Enley running out of a tunnel as if being pursued by some inescapable horror. That, to me, is a perfect summation of this entire style and era of films.

For me, the story at times falters, and there were certain episodes that had me scratching my head. For instance, I understand Enley’s need to just get away from the situation when Joe suddenly appears, but just running off by himself and leaving his wife to fend for herself seemed… bizarre. Little things like that, which probably did not bother others, but that stick with me. Stylistically, though, Act of Violence is top-flight noir, worth viewing if for no other reason than to marvel at the aforementioned opening sequence and the well-paced finale in which Frank makes peace with his past.


  1. Dave, excellent review as usual. Admittedly, I would rank this little gem higher than you have but that is ok (ha!). What I find most interesting is your acknowledgment about Robert Ryan considering he has been in so many noirs and good ones. He is one of the best, IMO at playing crazy! Even when he is on the side of the law, he is a bit off-kilter.
    An interesting film dealing with guilt and the aftermath of war. This is a film I have wanted to get around to writing about myself.

    I am well acquainted with Robert Surtees work and I agree "The Last Picture Show" is one of his best works, if not # 1. I’m sure our good friend Sam Juliano will have something to add about this. Surtees also did good work with "The Graduate." I actually give him a lot of credit for the look of that film, Nichols was still a novice at that point, usually new directors, if they are smart, have experienced cinematographers by their side, and Nicholls is smart.

  2. I also wanted to mention that I thought Mary Astor did a great job here also along with the always reliable Van Heflin and an underrated Janet Leigh.

  3. Indeed John! Surtees is a master of black and white and his work on THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, atmospheric, sandy and wind-swept is a model. I've spent a good part of my life celebrating and promoting the film, so thanks for mentioning this. ACT OF VIOLENCE would probably rate higher with me as well, though I understand Dave is right in saying that the first third (which includes that excellent wordless sequence at the beginning)can't possibly be maintained. I'll agree it isn't quite in a league with CAPE FEAR, but as you rightly assert it's a formidable pre-cursor. Robert Ryan is quite good here too.

    Again, a succinct and persuasive capsule piece.

  4. I also agree that Astor and Van Helflin were superb.

  5. I enjoy this film a lot. I wouldn't disagree that the plotting is occasionally sloppy, or that the second half doesn't live up to the superbly executed tension of the first half, but it's still a fine noir. What makes it really great, for me, is the sound design, particularly the way Zinnemann creates slow-burning suspense from the sound of Ryan shuffling around outside Heflin's house in the dark.

  6. Guys - I know that that most would rank this one higher, and as I said, if the tension created in the opening 25 minutes or so could have remotely come close to being maintained, it would have been way up.

    But that screencap is one of the great shots in all of noir, or film in general, I think... such a great image.

  7. Dave, I liked this one a lot when I saw it but I haven't really thought about where I'd rank it. It did seem a bit drawn out with Heflin among the lowlifes, but given my expectation that Ryan would prove a psycho who'd have to be put out, I was pleasantly surprised by the film's eventual direction. As for Robert Ryan, it depends on the film. He figures prominently in one of my all-time favorites, Odds Against Tomorrow, but I find his leading-man turn in On Dangerous Ground a little overrated. In any event, you've treated this one fairly.

  8. Thanks, Samuel. Perhaps I take the movie to task just because my expectations were built up so much in those opening 20 minutes or so. At any rate, I do obviously like it, just feel a bit let down in the middle third.

  9. I can't agree with you here Dave. Act of Violence is one of the great noirs.

    A strong story and fast-paced direction from Zimmerman combine with brilliant moody photography from Robert Surtees to deliver a solid cinematic experience. The noir themes of the damaged war veteran and a protagonist desperately trying to break free of the past are woven into a dark scenario of entrapment.

    Zinneman has compete control of his mise-en-scene. Yes, the movie’s opening scene showing a dark figure in long shot against NY harbor limping hurriedly towards a tenement in the rain at night, telegraphs the darkness to follow without a line of dialog. The tension is established when the man is seen in an apartment hastily packing a revolver and filling a suitcase before boarding a bus for LA. When he tracks down his target the bright world of a loving family, a successful business, community respect, and fishing on the lake, becomes progressively darker and dangerous, and the action moves from comfortable suburbia in daylight to dark threatening city locales at night. A fishing trip is cut short, but not before a strong wind across the lake occasions a sense of unease. Back home, life for Frank’s unsuspecting young wife (Janet Leigh) and their small child is turned upside down when he returns a scared desperate man in terror of what lies outside his placid suburban garden. First the lights go out, and then as each shade in the house is drawn down in turn, the dream is transformed into a nightmare. A man with a limp shuffles outside and tries the doors of the house. In the darkness, a dripping kitchen tap which in the distraught silence is like the sound of a fast-beating heart, attests to the terror of the moment. Later on with considerable irony, in the confines of an LA hotel fire-escape, Frank reveals to his wife the terrible truth behind this calamity, lamenting that there is nothing he can do to escape his pursuer. The final climactic scene is played out in long-shot and in deep focus, night-for-night on a railway platform. The stuff noirs are made of.

  10. Tony - I would point out to others that your review of this one at FilmsNoir.net (from which I believe part of his response comes from?) is outstanding and I recommend that everybody check it out... typically great work on that one.

    We'll just have to disagree on the strong story. For the first 20-25 minutes it is, but I still think it founders a bit in the middle. Plus, I continually compare to a similar film like Cape Fear, which I find to be far superior. But I know that I'm in the minority rating this one where I do, which is what makes countdowns like this interesting.

  11. Absolute gem. And I love Van Heflin very much.