Thursday, November 11, 2010

"Me? I'm a businessman. You and me are going to do a little business..."

Note: Another old draft I reread and realized was publishable. More new content soon.

Act of Violence (1948; d. Fred Zinneman, starring Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh and Mary Astor)

I'm a Van Heflin fan. That's kind of an odd thing to say, if only because his filmography, while not undistinguished, is fairly minor. An important supporting role in Shane, a lead in the original 3:10 to Yuma, and a bunch of roles in a mix of mostly forgotten films. However, he was one of the stars of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Kirk Douglass' debut! with Barbara Stanwyck), where his unshowy but solid performance provided the whole foundation of the film. Without him, there is no place for Stanwyck and Douglass' neurotic performances to go.

What I loved about his performance in that film is the way he played a tough good guy who is always one bad choice away from becoming a thug. He's got good impulses and empathy, but he usually bristles at the first sign of confrontation, holds onto grudges and loves to play the angles. And these might have served his character well in the army, but in Strange Love they keep pushing him to the edge of criminality.

So I feel vindicated by his performance in this film, where he plays a nice, hard-working family man... with a very dark secret. It's the polar opposite of his role in Strange Love, and he plays it like a craftman, carefully but with no showiness or cheap tricks. The rest of the film is like this, stripped down and sleek, with few frills, but it puts everything in service to the story.

Act of Violence starts with a limping man (Robert Ryan) in a rain-soaked trenchcoat going into his apartment, grabbing his gun and heading straight for the bus depot. He buys a ticket to California,  arriving on Memorial Day in a small town a couple hours outside of LA. He immediately gets a hotel room, ignoring all the festivities, and starts looking in the phonebook for Frank Enley.

Meanwhile, Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is at the dedication of a housing development he helped construct, where his business associates praise his hard work and joke about his distinguished war record.  After the ceremony, Frank, his wife Edith (a young Janet Leigh) and year-old son Georgie head home, where he packs for a weekend fishing trip at the lake with his neighbor Fred (Harry Antrim). He leaves a little bit before the limping man shows up, asking for Frank. Edith tells the stranger that he just left for the lake but he should be back by Monday. So the limping man, gun still concealed in his trenchcoat, sets out for the lake.

Bad timing and Frank's own surprising paranoia keep the limping man away for a day more, but when Frank leaves for a business conference in LA and Edith confronts the limping man, she finds out that Frank's distinguished service in WWII acquired an awful blot while he was in a POW camp and Frank's pursuer is his old army buddy Joe Parkson. As for how Joe got the limp... well, let's just say it's tied to that same POW camp. And by the way, we've still got another hour to go in the film. And we still haven't seen the titular Act of Violence yet...

For a movie that sounds like an '80's action film, Act of Violence is mostly devoted to building tension. Joe's unflagging pursuit of Frank hangs like a cloud over everything, even when Frank doesn't realize he's being chased. The first fifteen to twenty minutes, as we watch Frank barely evade Joe by sheer coincidence, is like a cinematic response to "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God", with doom waiting around every corner, never thwarted, just delayed. 

For a film noir, in fact, this film actually contains a fair amount of moral complexity. It never sinks into the easy nihilism that imitators usually pick up (i.e. everyone's flawed and corrupt). Instead, it shows the crucible of war, where a fundamentally decent man makes an awful decision in a moment of weakness and is punished for it. I don't watch the movie wanting Enley let off the hook (there's a sense throughout that Frank knows he deserves to be punished but is afraid to face that), but Parkson murdering him will not solve anything. In fact, it will just corrupt Parkson. Act of Violence actually manages to find a cathartic way out of this conundrum that doesn't feel cheap or sentimental, but offers a hope of redemption all the same. B+