A limping figure comes out of the fog
Wow! I just watched an incredible film! Act of Violence directed by Fred Zinnemann, superb cinematography by Robert Surtees, excellent music by Bronislau Kaper, and magnificent performances by Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, and Janet Leigh. This film falls into that sub genre, Screwed Up Veteran Noir. A guy who got his mind bent by WWII tries to fit into his home life back here in the States but he can’t! When we first see Robert Ryan he’s just a shuffling silhouette coming out of a pre dawn NY cityscape, we follow him into a crummy Brownstone and up the steps to his apartment. The camera tracks following him in and tilts down as he opens a dresser drawer revealing the 45 automatic he pulls out from under his undies. Then it tilts back up showing his face for the first time.
A genius at portraying the dark and twisted
Zinnemann has defined this character with two elements , his limp and his gun, before showing us his face, Brilliant! Let me take a second to talk about Robert Ryan. He looks like a grown up Howdy Doody but grown up twisted, dark. American as apple pie but the apples are rotten, there’s a worm eating at the heart of them. Ryan portrayed racists, psycho veterans, Anti- Semites, Gay bashers, and he did it in a way that allowed you to see his humanity, he wasn’t ever a stereotype, he was always real. This was at a time when very few films took on these controversial subject matters. Not only did it take guts for Ryan to play these parts it also took a hell of a lot of talent! He exposed the dark underbelly of the American psyche, when everybody was blowing the happy horns of victory after the war, Ryan and some dedicated filmmakers(like Zinnemann ,Wyler, Dymtrk) dared to talk about the problems the returning Vets faced. And dared to portray some Vets as something less than heroes. Here he’s an obsessed veteran charged with a holy mission, to avenge his comrades savagely cut down in a P.O.W. camp during an escape attempt. He is like Ahab stalking the white whale Van Heflin, relentlessly pursuing him, the sound of his dragging foot striking fear into the hearts of those who hear it and realize it’s significance.
The Hero with a Terrible Secret
We first see Van Heflin at an awards ceremony, this brings to mind the scene in Rolling Thunder where William Devane, a returning POW is honored in his small town. Van is married to the delicious Janet Leigh, they have a darling tow headed son, they live in a Craftsman house in a picturesque small town.
The Beautiful Dream of the Returned Veteran
They’ve got it all until Ryan shows up , an evil reminder of a dark deed , a mortal sin Van committed in a POW camp.
Once Upon A Time they were Friends
The issues in this film are so real it elevates the story from the genre to a lofty psychological plane. Once it starts I dare you to try and stop watching it! Noir was a B genre, they were made fast, a lot of the conventions of noir , the stylish shots were partly created to save time as for example when you have two characters talking to each other but both facing the camera, this saves the time of doing reverses, moving the camera, relighting, etc. There is an incredible shot early in the film. Robert Ryan has just arrived in California, he gets off the bus and starts to cross the street, a cop stops him because a Veterans parade is coming by, he waits but cuts through when there’s an opening, the camera pans with him revealing that it was in a hotel lobby shooting through the picture window, it catches Ryan coming through the entrance and tracks back with him to the desk where he checks in. This is all in one amazing shot! Yet done in such a natural way that you might not notice it. Check it out!
All One Shot
Zinnemann is an actors director. 16 vastly different performers got Academy Award nominations for their roles in his films. Van Heflin is great in this film, the best work I’ve ever seen him do. I think Gregory Peck is excellent in Zinnemann’s Behold A Pale Horse , the list goes on and on. Another interesting aspect of Film Noir, for that matter any B genre film. Due to the lower budget, their was less risk for the studio. The filmmakers could try things they wouldn’t dare on A pictures, like the subject matter of this film. It’s only by taking chances that you reach the stratospheric heights. Compared to Act Of Violence Zinnemann’s From Here To Eternity is a soap opera. Don’t get me wrong it is a very good film but the studio is making a huge investment in that project, they can’t take chances, they have to make it appeal to as many people as possible.
Taking Chances on a Noir Track
The locations are great, at one point Van flees to Los Angeles to escape Ryan. Ryan tracks him and almost gets him, Van runs into the streets and passes the touchstone of great LA noir, Angel’s Flight! I didn’t know this was in there, what a great surprise!
The Quintessential Noir Landmark, The Train To Nowhere
Later Van is running from himself, he enters the 2nd street tunnel. He’s flashing back to his men in the POW camp trying to escape through a tunnel they dug. The entire flashback is executed with voices ringing in Van’s head as he runs, stumbles through the tunnel. It works amazingly well! Another noir budget cutting device, a creative solution to the flashback needed at this point in the film, it’s better than showing the Stalag, the dead men, the SS officer! It’s great! Also pay attention to the editing, jump cuts bringing us closer and closer to Van as he cracks apart, forced to face what he’s kept hidden inside. This is 1948 years before the French New Wave.
Flashback in a tunnel
The 2nd Street Tunnel
By the way I used this same tunnel as a location in my film One Night With You. Van goes down the mean streets of LA stumbling into a bar where he meets Mary Astor, an aging hooker, looking for kicks. She is incredible, the real deal, a woman pushing 40, not an ingenue with a wig. She’s terrific!
Mary Astor, once she chased the Maltese Falcon
The end of the film is sort of played out like a noir Western, with a shootout at the train station, it’s very good , maybe not up to the incredible heights of the rest of the film but very well done. The train station location if I’m not mistaken is the Glendale station dressed to be Santa Lisa, the fictional small town of our story. That station still exists, it’s a beauty, used in many films, even a silent Buster Keaton opus.
Next Stop, Glendale!
So please check this film out. I love stories about problems from out of the past showing up and haunting guys, about the problems of returned Veterans, about obsessed, relentless pursuers, about people trying to run away from themselves on the dark streets of a dirty noir city.
Down these mean streets…