Director: Fred Zinnemann
Producer: William H. Wright
Screenwriter: Robert L. Richards
Cinematographer: Robert Surtees
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Studio: MGM Pictures 1948
Main Acting: Van Heflin and Robert Ryan
Many film noirs deal with the aftermath of World War II and the effects it had on the surviving combatants and their families. Act of Violence is one that is explicit in drudging up the pain that was still fresh on the minds of most viewers. Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is a former POW who has made it home and is looked upon as a war hero in his community. He succeeded in claiming a stake in the American dream: he’s got a good family, a stable job, and a loving wife (played by Janet Leigh). He leads an idyllic life in a normal suburb with citizens that respect and admire his bravery and courage. The fact that a menacing ex-soldier who walks with a limp shows up to rattle this perfectly cozy world indicates a past that maybe is not as admirable as everyone was lead to believe. Past infractions come bubbling up to the surface and we realize that the world is not as sunny of a place as Enley has created for himself. The grim reaper has arrived and he is looking to collect for past sins. Though this figure of death is not a supernatural being with cloak and scythe, but a crippled former comrade who is determined to set things straight.
Robert Ryan plays the role of Joe Parkson, similar to that of a slasher-film boogieman. He is relentless in his pursuit of Enley and is obsessed with having his former captain atone for his immoral choices during their determent. We soon learn that the war hero actually aided his German captors with quelling an uprising and American prison break (which Parkson led) in exchange for food and leniency. All this information has been kept from Enley’s wife and the rest of their community. Since all the soldiers, except for Parkson had been killed, he is the only one privy to such damaging information. During the initial stalking phase, we feel sympathy for Frank because we believe the false lie he has fostered upon us and all his immediate associates. He abandons his wife (similarly to how he deserted his fellow compatriots; his lack of moral fortitude is still present) and is hunted down by her at the Builders Convention. Then we learn the ugly truth about his misdeeds. His explanation is simply not satisfactory and we are resigned to the fact that his American dream is a big lie forced upon the world by the spilled blood of innocent soldiers.
“Do I have to spell it out for you? Do I have to draw you a picture? I was an informer. It doesn’t make any difference why I did it. I betrayed my men. They were dead. The Nazis even payed me a price. They gave me food and I ate it. I hadn’t done it just to save their lives. I talked myself into believing that he would keep his word. But in my guts from the start, I knew he wouldn’t. Maybe I didn’t even care. They were dead and I was eating and maybe that’s all I did it for. To save one man…me.”
Besides a critique on the suburban normalcy and conformity that can often disguise possible dark secrets about our dreams and aspirations, Act Of Violence also touches on the subject of survivor’s guilt. This must have been something that was affecting many people at the time. These two men have endured a trying ordeal and have not been able to put those demons to rest. Parkson is Enley’s demon rising from a fog-bound past, while Parkson’s demons are his slain friends that never escaped the POW camp. Both are almost apathetic towards vanquishing these deep-down, tumultuous feelings once they come to the forefront. Enley, while trying to evade Parkson, also grows wearily defeated. He finally realizes he cannot run from the guilt and welcomes death as a final escape from all the pain. Parkson has denied himself the pleasures of life and the love of his caring girlfriend. He has a one track mind that is motivated by his overriding sorrow of surviving where others perished. Even at the conclusion, Ryan’s face does not show traces of the weight that was lifted. He is afforded a certain comfort, but it feels more like a respite than a permanent satisfaction. He still has to deal with living and continuing on with the burden of life while others are gone forever.
Act Of Violence is a noir classic that happens to also be my favorite Fred Zinnemann film. I know this is an extreme minority opinion, but I must be honest with myself and everyone reading. Many scenes really stand out for me. Enley’s slow descent into a moral abyss is steady and irreversible. After seeing Parkson enter the builders convention, he flees in horror and is shown running endlessly down a flight of stairs into the underworld he will now frequent. He is as far away from the movie’s beginning as possible. The sunny suburbs have turned into a shadowy purgatory that is inescapable. The montage of his entrance into this void is lovingly accompanied by some ominously rousing music by Bronislau Kaper. In his new dwellings, he meets an opportunistic prostitute played by Mary Astor. Her beauty from The Maltese Falcon is now replaced by an aged, rough existence. The iconic shot of Van Heflin running through a darkened tunnel while hearing the voices of his past is powerful stuff, “Don’t do it, Joe!!!” The agony on his face is excruciating and explodes with pained ferocity. This tunnel setting was later used for a similar scene from Andrew Niccol’s 1997 sci fi/neo noir, Gattaca. It’s a nice little nod to a great 1948 film noir that doesn’t get enough credit as a major work.
What finally becomes of Enley is sad but also merited. In film noir, wrong choices must be corrected with the ultimate price you can pay. Our protagonist lived his life under false pretenses and took part in unspeakable atrocities. His fate was sealed long ago in that German prison. He feasted on the sustenance of doomed souls and accountability was in order…