Movies We Like
Act of Violence
It’s always been puzzling to me why this almost unbearably bleak noir hasn’t made it to the forefront of the pack of truly exemplary films noir in critical circles. If we are to use the canonical criteria for noir of noted local author, former peeping tom, and current all-around creep, James Ellroy, as best summed up by a two-word description, “you’re fucked,” then noirs don’t come much more noir-ish than Act of Violence. We hear a lot about noir embodying the postwar anxieties of the United States. Well, Act of Violence lets those icky feelings boil to the top and builds its plot around a hornet’s nest of postwar guilt, fear and anxiety.
Van Heflin plays Frank Enley, a WW2 veteran living an idyllic life in a small California town. He’s a family man, and a pillar of the community. The film opens with a crowd gathered to cheer him for his latest real estate development and he is described as having proved himself in battle, as well as in business, an all-around great guy. He bounces his little son on his shoulders while listening to his tribute with his wife. But this blissful scene is contrasted with the severe image of Robert Ryan, dressed in a trench coat and fedora in some New York slum, brandishing a gun, and lurching towards a Greyhound bus leaving for California.
Ryan, playing a veteran named Joe with a bum foot, stalks cross country in search of Frank. When he makes it to California he obsessively sets out to find Frank and, if he knows him, it doesn’t appear that this will be a happy reunion. It’s interesting that the film initially works to confuse our allegiance to its characters. Frank is immediately established as what appears to be the good guy. He’s successful, well liked, and seems to have it all, while Joe seems to be as mangled in spirit as he is physically. Frank and his wife, played by Janet Leigh, have '50s sitcom banter about his going fishing with a neighbor, while Joe seems like some kind of maniacal 1940s version of the Terminator, stalking his way across the country. He’s a scary loner.
When Joe starts showing up at Frank’s house and scaring his wife he finds out that Frank has left for the weekend to go fishing out at a lake. Joe heads for the lake and rents a boat with the intent to kill Frank. He misses his chance but later Frank spots Joe out in the water and is spooked so he packs up and leaves. Back at home Frank tries to play down the threat posed by Joe to his wife, Edith. But knowing he is now under siege, he takes off for Los Angeles.
Until he confesses to his wife about who Joe is it's hard to get a read on what exactly is going on. But Frank knows very well who Joe is. They served together in the same unit during the war and Joe is the last surviving member of their unit whom Frank betrayed to the Nazis. In a confession of startlingly tortured pragmatism, Frank explains to his wife that while his men died after he ratted them out, and were left unidentifiable by the dogs that mauled them, Frank not only survived but also stayed comfortable, eating at the invitation of the Nazis.
After Frank’s confession to Edith, who went to confront him at the convention he was attending in LA, he takes off for the desolate wasteland of Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles. The movie makes great use of the crumbling Victorian homes and sense of isolation that came from that ghost town within the city. It was a place for troubled people to try and escape. He meets up with a haggard prostitute named Pat (Mary Astor) who tries to help him in her seedy way. But things go from bad to worse and Frank falls in with some conniving mobsters who, having learned what Frank did during the war, have a vested interest in knocking off Joe and blackmailing Frank for what they now have on him. It’s really tawdry, depressing stuff. Ruined in a single day, Frank went from hearing tributes to what a great success he is to a Bunker Hill drunk getting taken for everything he’s got by the mob. They try to cheer him up about his prospects and excusing his actions during the war by telling him, “So what if you didn’t have what it takes?”
The next day, Frank, having wrestled very publicly and badly with his demons, tries to make amends before Joe is killed off by the mob. He dies taking a bullet meant for Joe. Joe and his girl walk off to tell Frank’s wife the news. As they say on the Noir City posters, “No happy endings.”
The acting, shadowy cinematography, use of atmospheric locations such as Bunker Hill, and ace directing are all just superb. Van Heflin makes his character both achingly sympathetic but disturbingly damaged. Robert Ryan is the ideal heavy: a man consumed by his own anger. While his anger is justifiable his actions are frightening. Janet Leigh as Edith, Frank’s wife, is heartbreaking. More than anything she is terrified for Frank’s wellbeing. Knowing every last detail of the ugly truth Frank confesses to her doesn’t shake her commitment to him. Mary Astor is haunting as the down and out barfly and hooker trying to do something good but associating with the wrong people. More than anything Act of Violence is a tragedy. It’s a film with sympathetic characters that do monstrous things and a portrait of a country basking in newfound prosperity but wrestling with the trauma inflicted by war.