Act of Violence (1949)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann. Written by Robert L. Richards. Story by Collier Young. Photography, Robert Surtees. Editing, Conrad A. Nervig. Art direction, Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters. Music, Bronislau Kaper. Cast: Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh, Mary Astor, Phyllis Thaxter, Berry Kroeger, et al. An MGM film. 82 minutes.
Except for the setting of this movie (in California, along with too many thousands of others, in all genres), it is a pretty effective work. It starts out quickly and directly, from the first images. So does tension which will not ever abate. There are asides, embellishments or "fioriture."
Tall, limping WWII veteran Robert Ryan, packing a revolver, travels to a small California town with vengeance written all over his face and his heart. A prominent citizen, Van Heflin, is his prey. Heflin, who has done well as a building contractor, is being celebrated by the locals after a project has finished.
He has a pretty young wife (Janet Leigh), a very young boy, good business and a nice home. (Remember that this was 1948 or so. What passed for nice houses would be grade C today).
The two men had been P.O.Ws in a German camp, with Heflin the ranking officer and Ryan his friend and second in command of a group of twelve airmen. When Ryan informed Heflin that the men were digging a tunnel, Heflin was entirely against the planned escape as hopeless, but as his opposition fell on deaf years, he betrayed the plot to the Nazi commandant. As a result ten men died horrible deaths. After the war, survivor Ryan set out to avenge the dead.
When panicked Heflin discloses his dark past to his wife, he tries to find excuses, to rationalize his treachery, to blame the Germans' own treachery for not keeping their promise to thwart the escape without killing anyone. But not so deep down he acknowledges his guilt, his having traded his denunciation for precious food.
Heflin's terrible guilt and terrible fear are grippingly shown through economical dialogue and acting. The hunter-hunted motif is developed mercilessly, but it is the theme of guilt that dominates the movie, in believable film noir visual, atmospheric style and, above all a "noir" conscience.
Where the story goes from there I cannot reveal except that it encompasses a friendly prostitute (good acting by Mary Astor), the involvement of the underworld, and inexorable "no exit" development. The movie -- powerfully dramatic and tragic-- does not cop out, attempt to adorn matters, invent solutions. Strong stuff.
(One relatively amusing thing for us today is that when Heflin is asked about the worth of his business, he says 20 thousand dollars, a small fortune then, peanuts today.)
Austrian-born director Zinnemann (1907-1997) made his debut in Hollywood around 1937. His films are humanistic, intelligent, thoughtful. He had made over two dozen movies in America. Arguably, the best was The Seventh Cross (1944). Made during WWII and starring Spencer Tracy, this was the story of a group of anti-Nazi Germans who escape from a German concentration camp in the mid-1930s.
Just before Act of Violence, he filmed made the classic The Search which was the first role of Montgomery Clift and the first Hollywood shot in post-war Germany. In this gem, American GI. Clift cares for a Czech boy, a displaced person, and reunites him with his mother. A warm, highly praised movie, it was mostly known only in film society-type circles.
Act of Violence which followed has remained largely unknown, probably because of its depressing subject. Then came the works that made of Zinnemann a household name, starting with The Men (1950, Marlon Brando's screen debut) and several more, including Member of the Wedding, High Noon, A Hatful of Rain, The Nun's Story, From Here to Eternity, The Sundowners, A Man for All Seasons, The Day of the Jackal, Julia.
War, politics and their effects were never far from Zinnemann's mind, along with matters of principles, morality, conscience and psychology. He died at age 90, leaving us a major legacy of works that rise to great heights.