Friday Noir: Zinnemann commits honorable ‘Act of Violence’
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Screenplay by Robert L. Richards
A recurring theme among war veterans, be it in film or in real life, is how many are haunted by the memories of their so called exploits and other various horrific scenarios which unfolded before their unfortunate eyes. Austrian-born director Fred Zinnemann, whose parents were unlucky victims of WWII, takes this notion of a shameful wartime past returning to plague a U.S. veteran to a near literal degree in his 1948 picture, Act of Violence.
Frank R. Enley (Van Heflin) is living the ideal life on the outskirts of Los Angeles. He is blessed with a successful career, has a caring and supporting wife, Edith (Janet Leigh), a new baby, and a lovely two story house located in a quintessentially American suburban neighbourhood. Shortly after Frank leaves the home one day with a neighbor for a two day fishing expedition, a towering, angry looking figure named Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan) arrives at the Enley household, asking for Frank. Edith shares the details of Frank’s whereabouts, but before she can extract any information as to the identity of this intimidating figure, he dashes off. Clearly, Joe has some significant interest in locating Frank, although why remains unclear., until the stalker increases the pressure on the Enley’s always missing Frank by a hair, but never giving up. With his wife demanding explanations, quixotic ideals of escaping his dilemma melt away rapidly, forcing Frank to confess. Their pasts were forever linked by one psychotic episode back in the war when both were prisoners of the Nazis…
Learning a little bit about director Zinnemann’s tragic familial background informs the viewer as to what sort of film he has constructed. It is quite compelling and thought provoking to discover that despite such a terrible personal event, which could have compelled him to make a reactionary picture,the director has chosen to develop a story for which determining who is black and who is white is not as simple as one might assume. Rather, Zinnemann prefers a far more messy, ambiguous route, both in theme and in narration, which in many ways strengthens the former but does not always help the latter. More on that later.
The quest beckoning Frank in Act of Violence goes far beyond any notion of escaping Joe or possibly evening the straw between the two. Both those possibilities are indeed tackled throughout the story at times, but the heart of the matter is redemption of oneself and, if one wants to read a bit more into the story, vanquishing one’s inner demons. In a serene scene, Frank finally admits to his wife that back in the war he had ratted out some of his fellow POWs while in the hands of the Germans. The group, among them Joe, had voted to dig their way out of their confined space. Frank was tempted by the Germans to reveal this delicious little detail and in return, they would give him proper food and ensure that, while caught, his comrades would not be harmed. Needless to say, the Germans kept the first promise, but broke the second (hence Joe’s limp). Here was a situation in which desperation and hunger drove Frank to do the unthinkable, that is, betray his brothers in arms. Something deep inside him, maybe the reflex of self-preservation, got the better of him. Under remarkable duress and faced with tantalizing prospects (food in this case), Frank gave in. Zinnemann and the screenwriter intelligently play on this later, once Frank escapes Joe’s grasp by a whisker in a bar and flees through the empty streets in a seedy part of L.A. Confused by his drunken stupor and once again under heavy duress (this time courtesy of Joe, the man he once betrayed) Frank decides to off Joe with the help of a hitman (Berry Kroeger). The internal struggle is not done, however, as his past guilt and current desire for self-preservation continue to wrestle it out. Has he made the correct decision or should he take a step in a different direction and confront Joe in a more humane way?
Thematically, therefore, the film is a solid piece of film noir drama, blending in plenty of impressive ideas together to make a near harrowing film. Act of Violence is a few notches away from being truly great, however. For one, as fine as as an actor as Van Heflin can be, he is a lesser actor than Robert Ryan, especially when the latter is playing the near delusional, aggressive antagonist of sorts. The casting and performance does make sense in the grander scheme of things since, given how much more of an imposing presence Ryan is, there is a genuine fear instilled in the audience seeing how this Heflin chap would be obliterated if he actually faced his Ryan man to man, but by not having the same screen presence, his scenes are not always as compelling as those featuring Ryan doing his thing. The film also pads on plenty of characters in confusing manner, such as Ann (Phyllis Thaxter), who is Joe’s girlfriend, and a the many off bit people Frank encounters while drunk in L.A., most notably the aging hooker Pat (Mary Astor, The Maltese Falcon). Astor, a tremendous actor, gives a provocative performance, but one wonders what exactly her character is adding to the story. There must surely be some links connecting these additional people with the story of Frank and Joe, but one strains to make sense of them.
While not as neat as it could be, Act of Violence is nevertheless a clever of example of genre bending, in this case a war movie with film noir. In fairness, when considering the difficult questions raised in the film and the terribly uncomfortable situation the protagonist/antagonist finds himself in, a bit of messiness might not be such a bad thing in order to get some ideas across.