Fred Zinnemann begins Act of Violence (1949) with a sequence that every movie buff should be familiar with: the opening shot of a limping Robert Ryan, dragging his way down the lonely city streets at midnight. He walks up the stairs to his apartment, and Zinnemann’s camera follows him as he limps across his room, bends down and opens up a dresser. The camera zooms in to reveal him taking a handgun out of the bottom drawer, and then the title flashes across the screen. There are no beginning credits.
It is anyone’s guess how Zinnemann was ever selected to direct the picture. Act of Violence is one of the great postwar film noirs, but nobody could have anticipated that Zinnemann—who had never directed a film noir before—was practically tailor-made for the job. Zinnemann was notorious in Hollywood for being one of those “arthouse” directors at MGM. He had achieved success directing Spencer Tracy in The Seventh Cross (1943) and Montgomery Clift in The Search (1948), but in between those years he had had a reputation for turning down jobs, rejecting bad screenplays and rebelling, constantly, against a Hollywood system that was always trying to conform him into a studio hack. By the end of the decade it seemed like he would never again get the chance to direct another quality film. Then Act of Violence fell into his lap, and his career officially took off.
The movie is currently only available on DVD through a Double Feature with John Sturges’ Mystery Street (1950), which is a shame; it deserves a DVD of its own, and there is so much about it that warrants continued discussions for future generations of moviegoers. A Criterion is perhaps too much to ask, but isn’t the unfortunate treatment of Act of Violence in recent years not unlike the treatments bestowed on every other film made by its director? Zinnemann is one of the most grossly neglected cinema auteurs of the 20th century; critics like Andrew Sarris have charged that he made “anti-movies for anti-moviegoers”, and this might account for the lack of public desire to examine Zinnemann’s work in the present.
But such contrarian arguments against Zinnemann would not hold water in critiquing Act of Violence, one of the first films to have confirmed his artistry. The screenplay by Robert L. Richards, based on a story by Collier Young, takes one of Zinnemann’s favorite themes—society’s crushing and unraveling of the individual—and puts it on display most beautifully. We follow the limping Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan) as he boards a bus to a small town, checks into a hotel, flips through the phone book and finds two matching names of the man he is going to hunt down. His target: a building contractor named Frank Enley.
What is Joe’s motive? We don’t know. When we first see Frank Enley (Van Heflin), he is carrying his baby boy up on his shoulders, smiling joyously in front of a large crowd in celebration of his latest completed housing project. He has a beautiful wife, Edith (Janet Leigh), and seems like an innocent family man. But later in the afternoon, Joe will track Frank all the way out to Redwood Lake, where—in the film’s first sequence of intense suspense—he rides a boat out into the middle of the lake; spots Frank fishing on another boat with his neighbor, Fred (Harry Antrim); hides behind a rock; takes his gun out and readies for the kill. Fortunately, Frank’s boat just misses him, and Frank and Fred return to the dock unscathed; but when Frank learns from the dockman (Will Wright) that a man went out on the lake looking for him, he frowns, packs up his gear and heads home. He knows who the man with the limp is. He knows that he’s still waiting for him out on the lake.
“Anybody been around while I was gone?” Frank asks his wife. Edith at first says no, but then pauses and remarks, “Oh, wait a minute! There was a man here—just after you left!” It is here when cinematographer Robert Surtees photographs Frank shrouded in darkness, with the shadows concealing the obvious fear on his face. He behaves strangely throughout the evening, refusing to answer the phone, refusing to talk about why he came home early, blowing up at Edith (“I just don’t want to talk to anybody or listen to anybody! I don’t want to see anybody! I want to spend a quiet evening in my own home! Is that asking too much?”), and then panicking even further when the doorbell rings. We can hear Joe Parkson’s creeping footsteps outside, and we can see the locked doorknob turning unsuccessfully as he tries to force his way into the house. The Enley’s baby son screams in the night because of a bad dream. Now the entire family is aware of the presence of the limping man with the gun.
From here, the pieces begin to fit together. We find out that Frank and Joe were together in the army, that Joe might be deranged, and that he might be holding Frank responsible for everything that went wrong between them during the war. Edith asks Frank, “When we packed up, all of a sudden; came out here from Syracuse; 3,000 miles across the country… was that on account of him?” But Frank continues to be maddeningly elusive—he even flees to an LA convention and pathetically leaves Edith to confront Joe herself. We finally get to hear Joe’s side of the story when he breaks into the Enley home and starts questioning Edith about her husband. "What did he tell you about me!??" he angrily demands. "What did he tell you? Did he tell you that I'm crippled because of him? Did he tell you about the men that are dead because of him? Did he tell you what happened to them before they died?" He tells Edith something truly bizarre: that he and Frank were POWs in a German prison camp, and that Frank was "a stool pigeon for the Nazis" who ratted out on his fellow inmates after they tried to hatch an escape plan.
Unfortunately, Joe is telling the truth. Frank did everything Joe says he did, which Frank confirms to Edith in a blistering monologue: “Do I have to spell it out to 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 paid me a price: they gave me food, and I ate it… I ate it!” One of the flaws of Act of Violence is Frank’s rather irrational insistence on refusing to go to the police and have Joe arrested. True, what Frank did at the prison camp was stupid, and it will no doubt attract unwanted press. But the fact that Frank sold out his men in hopes that they wouldn’t be harmed during the prison escape does make a big difference; and his position as a POW who would do anything to survive is equally understandable, even if Frank is not the most sympathetic character around. But, then again, if Frank were so rational, there would probably be no story. The rewards of Act of Violence are endless—provided that the audience is willing to suspend some of its disbelief.
Consider the ways in which the film is structured, and then compare it to the director’s later works. Zinnemann specialized, more or less, in movies about hunts, and told his stories from the points of views of the ones being hunted. Frank Enley—like Will Kane in High Noon (1952), Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (1966) and Lillian Hellman in Julia (1977)—is thrown out by society and left to be devoured by the hyenas. He’s paranoid, and quickly becomes delusional himself, as evidenced during the sequence in which he walks down a dark tunnel, hears the echoes of the massacre at the prison camp and cries out, “DON’T DO IT, JOE!” It is a plea not just to the Joe of the past, but to the Joe of the present who is hunting him.
The women in Act of Violence are like a blissful light in the darkness conjured up by the men in this criminalized noir underworld. Edith stands by Frank as long as she possibly can; she refuses to give up on him, even when she finds out that he is guilty of some incredibly serious things. Joe’s former flame, Ann (Phyllis Thaxter), wants to put a stop to Joe’s mission, and attempts to convince him to wash down his thirst for blood. Pat (Mary Astor), a friendly hooker, spots Frank in a bar, takes him to her place and offers her support. “What is it: love trouble, or money trouble?” she asks him. “Listen, Frankie, I’ve seen ‘em all. I’ve seen all the troubles in the world; they boil down to just those two. You’re broke, or you’re lonely. Or both.” Like Edith, Pat believes that Frank shouldn’t be penalized just because he made one mistake—this is one of the film’s principal themes. She introduces Frank to the old lawyer Gavery (Taylor Holmes), believing that he can help sort out Frank’s problems. But when Frank spills out his troubles to Gavery in a private room, we can see the shadows of the hitman Johnny (Berry Kroeger) creeping under the door, as he sits outside and listens. Pat immediately catches on that these two men may not be so trustworthy after all.
This is another one of the principal themes of Act of Violence: the class difference between hired killers and self-made killers. Johnny and Gavery, like the Jackal in Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal (1973), have no qualms whatsoever about their jobs; they see killing not as a moral issue, but as a business. In a slick sales pitch, Gavery warns Frank, “It’s up to you: he dies, or you die. It’s him… or you.” On the other hand, Joe Parkson is like Artiguez in Zinnemann’s Behold A Pale Horse (1964): he’s wrestling with a bit of self-doubt. Should he kill Frank? Should he not? Ann lectures Joe nonstop about the error of his way of thinking. “What are you going to prove anyway, with your vengeance, your violence?” she cries. “You aren’t going to bring those men back—you’re just gonna smash a few more lives!” The movie also considers what happens when innocent Americans are faced with the possibility of having to defend themselves with guns; this is represented when Edith buys a gun, brings it home and mutters, “I don’t even know how to shoot it.” Well, neither would most people.
Every actor is cast to perfection. Van Heflin had previously worked with Zinnemann on Kid Glove Killer (1942), and here, as Frank Enley, he paints a shattering portrait of one of the most tragically flawed protagonists in film noir. Robert Ryan, as Joe Parkson, trudges on throughout the film with his unforgettable limp; like Thornton, the character Ryan would go on to play most memorably in The Wild Bunch (1969), Joe Parkson holds a vengeful grudge against an old friend and is hellbent on chasing him down—and yet, by the end of the film, is left regretting his failure to be a little more forgiving. Mary Astor has great fun as Pat, the kind of dame that Brigid from The Maltese Falcon (1941) might have eventually become (had she not been hung by her sweet neck). As the hitman Johnny, Berry Kroeger, an Orson Welles lookalike, fills every scene he’s in with an uncomfortably poisonous aura. And Janet Leigh, with her brunette hair, is almost unrecognizable at such a young age; she makes Edith a character who is warm, brave and understanding. “Ever since I first knew you, Frank, and up until yesterday, I thought you were the finest, most wonderful man in the world,” she tells Heflin, in their last scene together. “Now I know that you’re like everybody else. You have faults and weaknesses… that doesn’t mean I don’t love you, or that I don’t want to be your wife—because I do.” It is one of Leigh’s very best performances.
Is there redemption at the end? I think so. The finale of Act of Violence takes place at a train station in which Frank and Joe find themselves striding dangerously towards each other, Johnny lurks in a car off to the side, and a train ominously comes barging into the scene screaming off its whistle—sort of like the train in High Noon. There is a struggle, and it ends in disaster. But when Act of Violence closes, we are left confidant that heroes who could not find a way to redeem themselves have finally done so; that villains who persisted in their taste for blood have taken that taste with them to the grave; and that antiheroes who initially could do no right, from here on out, will be determined to do no wrong. We are also left with the sense that a director who was not finding happiness in Hollywood at the time had found it at last. “This was the last movie I directed for MGM,” wrote Zinnemann in his autobiography, “and the first time I felt confident that I knew what I was doing and why I was doing it. Personally, I like this picture very much.”
This piece is a contribution to the For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and Farran Smith Nehme of The Self-Styled Siren. The blogathon runs from February 14 - 21. Please make a generous donation whenever you can.