Saturday, April 6, 2019

Movie Reviews: Act of Violence

Act of Violence
directed by Fred Zinneman
Act of Violence is a noir film directed by Fred Zinneman, who also directed High Noon. Although Act of Violence is not quite as iconic as High Noon, it ought to be. It feels more personal as well. Perhaps it was, dealing as it did with issues of hard choices made during war and what they cost. The director immigrated to the US before the Nazi takeover of most of Europe. His parents weren't so fortunate. They died in a concentration camp. 

It's easy for people in today's world to talk about what they would have done were they enslaved in 1730s Alabama, facing a lynch mob or segregation in 1903 Florida, or locked up in a death camp in 1944 German occupied Europe. Talk is cheap. The reality is that heroism and self-sacrifice are rare. That's in part why we honor them so when we run across them.

Many people will do whatever they can do to survive for as long as they can survive. The threat or promise of death or mutilation can break brave men and women. Just about everyone has a breaking point. This film asks the viewer if someone is a hero because they held out as long as they could or are they a villain because they acquiesced or surrendered to evil? There aren't necessarily easy answers to these questions. They vex generation after generation.

Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is a real estate developer and philanthropist in post-war California. He's also a war hero. Frank is a former Air Force  bomber pilot who was shot down over occupied Europe. He survived in a German POW camp. Frank has an attractive wife Edith (Janet Leighfuture Psycho actress and mother of Jamie Lee Curtis) and a toddler. Everything is looking up for Frank. His future is so bright he's got to wear shades! But the news of Frank's success attracts attention: the wrong kind of attention. Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), a tall looming grim man with a bad limp, has been reading the newspaper articles about Frank's success. He travels across the continental United States, determined to find Frank and execute a prompt and furious vengeance on him. Joe used to be Frank's best friend. Joe was also in that German POW camp.

The movie asks the viewer to ponder the different natures of justice, retribution, and vengeance. When do they shade into each other? How are they different? What makes one legitimate and the other one not?

Sometimes it is true that people punish themselves more severely for misdeeds than others could imagine. And it's also true that many great philanthropists have done some callous or evil things early in their career without which they would never have been in the position to give away millions to charities and foundations later in life. Does a good deed wash away the bad?  Can people change? Can we redeem ourselves through acts and faith? Or, as some would argue, is it important to see that wrongdoers are punished no matter what?

As are most of the best noir films, Act of Violence was shot in glorious black-and-white.  Both the score and the cinematography put you in Frank's increasingly desperate state of mind. Frank's a mix of good and evil as are we all. You could watch this movie with the sound off and enjoy it almost as much because of the shadow and lighting. With the exception of the initial parade almost the entire film takes place at night or in darkness. Yet again it is odd to see how skinny Americans used to be. You might expect that of the lead actors and actresses of course but even the extras are predominantly slender. Leigh's role as Edith isn't just eye candy. She goes from from innocent to confused to supportive to angry to disgusted, sometimes all in the same scene. But Edith never stops loving Frank. She sees the good in him even when he can't see it in himself. 

During Frank's flight from home he runs into some sympathetic and shady characters including a world weary prostitute with a heart of gold (Mary Astor) and a sharp dressed worldly man who can make troubles disappear for a price (Berry Kroeger). Joe's girlfriend Ann (Phyllis Thaxter) knows the truth which Edith doesn't. But Ann still can't dissuade Joe from doing what he thinks is necessary. Can anyone? If you really want to know what noir is all about then this film should be on your short list. Although there is bleakness in spades, there is also hope. Fun fact: Robert Ryan was a pacifist, activist against racial discrimination, and WW2 Marine drill instructor.
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