Film Score: Bronislau Kaper Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Starring: Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh and Mary Astor
Act of Violence seems to begin as something of a precursor to films like The Desperate Hours and Cape Fear, in which an average American family is terrorized by a crazed killer, but before long it turns into something quite different. It’s actually one of only films I’ve ever seen to tackle the subject of survivor guilt. This is a phenomenon in which people are placed in extreme circumstances--usually one of captivity--and in order to survive they must do things that they would never do otherwise, often things that go against their own personal morality. When they survive, they are suddenly left with the thoughts of shame at what they have done to survive, often at the expense of others. Director Fred Zinnemann and his brother knew about this first hand when they escaped from Austria and their parents didn’t, perishing in extermination camps during the war. The story is an original one by producer Collier Young, who would marry Ida Lupino soon after, and written for the screen by Robert Richards who would also pen Winchester ’73. Though it doesn’t really fit the category, it’s also one of the rare films noir produced by MGM.
The film begins with Robert Ryan limping through the city at night. He goes to his room, gets out his gun, and packs a bag to leave. After Ryan reaches a small town in California, he looks in a phone book and circles Van Heflin’s name. Heflin’s a contractor who has just completed a housing project. At the opening he’s there with wife Janet Leigh and their young boy and afterward, to celebrate, he goes on a fishing trip just before Ryan comes over to the house. When Ryan finds out where Heflin is, he rents a car and goes up there, hops into a boat and pulls out his pistol. Before he can take a shot, however, Heflin and his neighbor pull up anchor and leave. When Heflin is told Ryan is out on the lake, he leaves immediately to go home. Leigh, of course, wants to know why, but he’s acting so suspicious that she becomes worried. Ryan shows up that night, but the couple is hiding inside with the lights off, so he leaves. Heflin then explains that he was his commanding officer in the war and Ryan believes his bad luck is Heflin’s fault. But this is not the first time Ryan has disrupted Heflin’s life, as Leigh remembers them packing up and leaving the East in order to come to California. That’s when Heflin tells the story.
Heflin and Ryan had been friends in the war, flew dozens of missions and wound up in prison camp after they were shot down. When Leigh rightly figures out that Ryan wants to kill Heflin, she wants to call the police, but he stops her. There’s something he’s not telling her. This is confirmed when he gets in the car and leaves for a convention in L.A. in the middle of the night while she’s asleep. The next day Leigh sees Ryan at the house and gets scared, but her anger wins out and she confronts him. Then Ryan barges into the house and pulls a gun on her. Before he leaves, he tells his side of the story, and with that, Leigh has no choice but to go to L.A. and find Heflin. Again, she begs him to tell the police, but he says it’s no use. Then he confesses to what he really did when he was in the POW camp. Heflin, knowing his life will be destroyed if this gets out, tells Leigh to go home and she leaves. Meanwhile Ryan finds out he’s in L.A. and heads down there, leaving his girlfriend, Phyllis Thaxter, in the process.
It’s a disturbing story, to be sure, especially when the truth about Heflin’s character comes out. By then it’s difficult for the audience to know who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist. Van Heflin, for whom I have gained an increasing respect over the years, does a solid job as the hunted man, while Robert Ryan’s limp may be a bit too theatrical for the piece. Ryan’s also the less interesting of the two characters because, by necessity, less is known about him. Janet Leigh, in only her fifth film, is impossibly young. It’s difficult to call her performance distinguished because it really isn’t her yet, but simply a generic part. The real stand out is an aging Mary Astor--long in the tooth à la Bette Davis, who was two years younger--playing a barfly with mob connections, thinking that this might be the answer to Heflin’s problem with Ryan. Fred Zinnemann would go on to make some impressive pictures after this, High Noon for Stanley Kramer, and the Oscar-winning From Here to Eternity, but Act of Violence is impressive in its own right. It’s not classic noir, but it certainly deserves to be more well known and comes highly recommended.