Act of Violence (1948): “No law says you got to be happy”

Act of Violence (1948)

An under-rated film noir from director Fred Zinnemann, Act Of Violence is to my mind one of the great 40s noirs.  A strong story and fast-paced direction combine with brilliant moody photography from Robert Surtees to deliver a solid cinematic experience. The noir themes of the damaged war veteran and a protagonist desperately trying to break free of the past are woven into a dark scenario of entrapment.

Act of Violence (1948)

The idyllic family life of a vet, Frank Enley (Van Heflin), living the good life in a small town outside LA but harboring a dark secret, is torn apart by another vet, Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), with a gun and a terrible unrelenting need for vengeance.

Zinneman has compete control of his mise-en-scene. The movie’s opening scene showing a dark figure in long shot against NY harbor limping hurriedly towards a tenement in the rain at night, telegraphs the darkness to follow without a line of dialog. The tension is established when the man is seen in an apartment hastily packing a revolver and filling a suitcase before boarding a bus for LA. When he tracks down his target the bright world of a loving family, a successful business, community respect, and fishing on the lake, becomes progressively darker and dangerous, and the action moves from comfortable suburbia in daylight to dark threatening city locales at night. A fishing trip is cut short, but not before a strong wind across the lake occasions a sense of unease.  Back home, life for Frank’s unsuspecting young wife (Janet Leigh) and their small child is turned upside down when he returns a scared desperate man in terror of what lies outside his placid suburban garden.  First the lights go out, and then as each shade in the house is drawn down in turn, the dream is transformed into a nightmare.  A man with a limp shuffles outside and tries the doors of the house. In the darkness, a dripping kitchen tap which in the distraught silence is like the sound of a fast-beating heart, attests to the terror of the moment.  Later on with considerable irony, in the confines of an LA hotel fire-escape, Frank reveals to his wife the terrible truth behind this calamity, lamenting that there is nothing he can do to escape his pursuer.

Act of Violence (1948)

Shortly after, in flight from Joe, Frank running desperately down dark desolate and dirty city streets, lands in a bar, where he hooks up with an aging b-girl played by Mary Astor. She takes him home and in a calculated act of ‘charity’ then takes Frank to a dive to meet a shyster lawyer who she says can help him. A plan is hatched with a goon to get rid of the pursuer for 10 grand, and Frank spends the night at the girl’s apartment. Next morning he comes to his senses and confronts what has to be done.

The final climactic scene is played out in long-shot and in deep focus, night-for-night on a railway platform.  The stuff noirs are made of.

Act of Violence (1948)

Act of Violence (1948)

25 thoughts on “Act of Violence (1948): “No law says you got to be happy””

  1. Tony, this is indeed an underrated gem of a noir with some fine performances (Van Heflin, Mary Astor and Robert Ryan are all excellent here). I couldn’t agree more with everything you eloquently say. A quintessential entry in the noir genre from where I sit, this is a beautifully introverted essaying of responsibility and guilt.

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  2. Hi! Tony,
    I agree with Alexander,this is an “underrated” film that is considered a “noir” yes, I do own this film.
    (It’s included in Volume 4 of the Warner Bros. Film Noir boxset…along with several other films that are considered noirs…I must admit this is my favorite of the 4 WBs’ boxset to date, but that can change tomorrow if WB release(s) a boxset with 10 really hard-to-find (such as The Unsuspected, Chicago Deadline, The Brasher Doubloon, Deadline USA, and The Harder They Fall… films that are considered noirs.)
    Tks,
    dcd 😉

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  3. DVD, I own that box-set too, but I never got around to seeing the full contents. Tony’s authoritative and fecund review of the film has given me the “discipline” (much like one taking a film class and receiving a listing of the films needing to be watched) to finally look at it. In fact I will do so with Allan Fish here over the upcoming days during the hours spent looking at the plasma.
    As far as the review of the film I can readily point to the theme of entrapment, the camerawork of the celebrated Robert Surtees and the direction of the great Fred Zinnneman (HIGH NOON, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS)as reasons in and of themselves to check this film out, but most important of all is the recommendation of Mr. D’Ambra who unabashedly declares this “one of the great 40’s noirs” in a crowded noir decade that was at its height. “The stuff noirs are made of” indeed.

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  4. Meant to say “DCD” there, not “DVD.” sORRY ABOUT THAT Dark City Dame, I apparently have DVDs on my mind. What else is new?

    I want to add to Tony’s exemplary review that (again) he has crafted lyrical writing that a newcomer to this film would still want to check out. I am referring to lines like this:

    “The opening scene, showing a dark figure in long shot, against NY harbor, limping hurriedly towards a tenement in the rain at night, telegraphs the darkness to follow without a line of dialogue.”

    “A fishing trip is cut short, but not before a strong wind across the lake occasions a sense of unease.”

    and my favorite:

    “In the darkness a dripping kitchen tap, which in the distraught silence is like the sound of a fast-beating heart, attests to the terror of the moment.”

    Now let’s forget film noir or even film entirely. This is great decriptive and intoxicating writing on any count. Marvelous work here.

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  5. Ahh!…Sam Juliano, I though that you were sometimes referring to me as Dark “Vivacious” Dame…(Hence, DVD)haha!

    Definition of Vivacious:
    exhibiting or characterized by liveliness and high-spiritedness.

    dvd (Just Kidding!) 😉

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  6. HAHAHAHAHA DVD!! I mean DCD….hey, the way we are all headed, DVD could be an alias. A week doesn’t go by when one or more of these shiny mini-platters doesn’t infiltrate out homes and lighten our wallets! LOL!

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  7. …”hard-to-find (such as The Unsuspected, Chicago Deadline, The Brasher Doubloon, Deadline USA, and The Harder They Fall)….films that are considered noirs.”)

    Oops!…I think a “clarification” is needed here…”The Unsuspected” and “Deadline USA” are usually shown on TCM and the Fox Movie Channel, respectively, but neither film is available on dvd yet, but on the other hand, films such as: Chicago Deadline, The Harder They Fall, The Brasher Doubloon, Stranger on the Prowl and Strange Triangle are not available on dvd and are “rarely” if ever shown on television.(Therefore, I think that the latter 5 films do qualify as hard-to-find instead of, the former two films.)(Note: I added 2 additional titles)
    Tks,
    dcd 🙂

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  8. Yes! I agree that this is an excellent noir and certainly an underrated film.
    Robert Ryan is great as the silent and menacing stranger in the trench coat, who’s almost robotic in his mission to settle an old score.
    I love the moody sense of dread that enters this neighborhood of sleepy 1930’s bungalows with Ryan’s arrival, as he boldly (and in broad daylight) stalks Helfin’s family. He even overpowers Janet Leigh and invades their home – terrifyingly and without explanation.

    Mary Astor’s appearance (besides looking strikingly unglamorous and faded – only 6-7 years post”Falcon”) is unexpected and intriguing. I’m reminded of similar characters (tarnished women with an agenda as well as a conscience) like Valentia Cortese in “Thieves Highway” and Marlene Dietrich’s all too brief performance in “Touch of Evil.”

    The most memorable scene has to be Van Helfin at his wits end, exhaustedly running and shouting through a (white tiled?) tunnel near the middle of the film.
    You can’t go wrong with vacant, gothic, industrial L.A. at night as the ultimate in disorienting settings for a man to temporarily lose his way and his mind.

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  9. Thanks Brett for another welcome contribution to FilmsNoir.Net.

    I must admit I didn’t recognise Mary Astor when she first appears – as you say she is so far removed from her role in The Maltese Falcon and looking much older.

    I will add some more frames to the post to illustrate your inspired description of the scenes with Frank on the dark streets of LA: “vacant, gothic, industrial L.A. at night as the ultimate in disorienting settings for a man to temporarily lose his way and his mind”. Great stuff!

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  10. Great comment there Brett!

    I almost convinced Allan to watch this film with me last night, but he had nothing but DOCTOR WHO on his mind. Over this snowy weekend though I will watch it and will have a full report on this thread on Monday.

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  11. Events seem to be conspiring to get me to see this movie. Then I re-read Manny Farber’s essay on “Underground Films” which isolates Act of Violence as one of Zinnemann’s few good movies (a verdict I would disagree with, but whatever). Then I see it as one of the first films in Dave Thomson’s “Have You Seen…” And now here. Guess I’ll have to rent it.

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  12. Ah, perhaps I spoke too soon! It will be at least several weeks and knowing there were movies I decided to watch back in August and still haven’t gotten to…nonetheless, I’ll let you know when I do see it.

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  13. Sam, actually I’d say my favorite is From Here to Eternity. As for “best” probably High Noon – I enjoyed A Man for All Seasons, but didn’t find it especially striking in the visual department, despite some nice location work here and there.

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  14. This is certainly one of the best 40’s noirs. I ran across this several years ago and it struck me deeply with its nightmare imagery of inner-city L.A. and its existential themes. Noir fans will not want to miss it

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  15. What a great film with so much to recommend. A great theme on secretive guilt and revenge, Bruce Surtee’s evocative photography , Robert Ryan and Van Heflin’s performances and such a great ending. I wish Zinnemann had done more noir.

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