Act of Violence

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movieman1957
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Act of Violence

Post by movieman1957 »

Though mentioned in a couple of other places Act of Violence hasn't been discussed.

Robert Ryan plays a WWII wounded vet set on revenge of a fellow POW (Van Heflin.) The cast also includes a young Janet Leigh, Phyllis Thaxter and small part by Mary Astor.

SPOILERS

The film opens with little more than Ryan getting on a bus sporting a noticeable limp. At one point we get the title of the movie but no other credits. This seems to me, though unlikely, one of the earlier films where the credits were run at the end. We find out that Ryan is after Heflin and he means business. He follows him to his home and then on a fishing trip. Heflin figures out early who it is and he well knows why he has come for him. Heflin reluctantly tells his wife (Leigh) that he is after him and then it for awhile becomes a chase. Ryan follows Heflin to a convention where he meets Heflin long enough to get punched and then Heflin runs. He runs a lot and nowhere in particular. Ryan's girl, Phyllis Thaxter, now has come and is trying to stop Ryan. Heflin finally stops in what must be the seediest part of LA. He meets Astor who then takes him to someone who essentially wants to put a hit on Ryan for him. Heflin has been so exhausted he doesn't remember all of what he did and makes his way back to try and stop it. Eventually Heflin does succeed by sacrificing himself. In doing so Ryan has a new opinion of Heflin.

Heflin while in the war was an informer for the Nazis while he, Ryan and about 10 others are held as POWs. The Nazis being evil has starved them and Heflin delivers info that eventually gets everyone but Ryan killed.

The moral dilemma is is Ryan justified by coming to kill Heflin? Is Heflin a coward in both his war time and dealing with Ryan now? Could Heflin be blamed for either instance? Does the end and outcome of the film redeem Heflin and Ryan?

This is Heflin's film. He does a good job as a man who thought he left his past behind and is now caught up in it. Leigh is fine but seems too young. Ryan is good but I don't find him as menacing as it seems he should be. The middle part with Astor and other characters of questionable reputation seems to be too long and deep for its randomness.

I am sure that is way too long and involved but wonder what anyone else thinks.
Chris

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Re: Act of Violence

Post by moira finnie »

I would have to disagree slightly on your evaluation of Act of Violence. I thought that Robert Ryan was more than an avenging angel or just a guy with a grudge, but was a soul in torment whose pain drove him to hound Van Heflin. Ryan was filled with menace since what is inside him is boiling over and will scald all those touched by it--especially him. By the conclusion of the movie, Ryan was a man whose existence was completely warped by his need for revenge. Without his hatred for the anguished Heflin, and the ability to forgive his frailty, he had been so eaten alive by his own desire for revenge that he would never be whole again--as his girl friend Phyllis Thaxter had tried to tell him. The stunned and stricken look on Ryan's face when he sees what has occurred in the denouement seemed to indicate that he suddenly realized the weight of the pain that he has brought to the world. The film's theme of the unending cycle of violence, and the impossibility of ever "making things right" in this world really crystallized for me in that moment.

Also, Heflin's character, who was always concerned with appearances, appearing to be a successful businessman and a hearty one of the boys type on the fishing trip, never quite made me believe that he loved his child like wife enough to be honest with her. I had the impression that he had lived his entire life in fear of being exposed, one way or another, until, frantic and exhausted, he actively sought release from all his obligations in life and an end to his pain.

I agree that Janet Leigh looked far too young for Van Heflin, but as the film progressed, she seemed to mature as well in manner and dress. She seemed pole-axed when Heflin finally told her about his experiences during the war, she seems to stare ahead in that stair case where they had this conversation. By this time, her innocence is gone and she knows that nothing can ever be the same. She has joined the walking wounded, along with Heflin, Ryan and Thaxter. I haven't seen Act of Violence in a couple of years but I also thought that the scenes showing Americans celebrating their lives--at the ceremony in town where Heflin is honored and at the convention at the hotel--indicate a society desperately trying to avoid thinking about or dealing with the experiences of the recent past, which only leads to issues festering beneath the surface. I don't mean to read too much into the film, but I think it is one of the best Fred Zinnemann movies ever and can be taken on several different levels by different viewers.
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Re: Act of Violence

Post by movieman1957 »

As far as Heflin telling his wife I am not sure that is the kind of thing a man would ever really share. He is clearly ashamed of it but justifies it by being determined not to die at the time. I would think when he gets home it is something he can try to put behind him and not worry about anyone finding out. Of course, he finally must face it and he can't.

Is killing yourself easier than having someone else do it or is he just so out of it he sees this death as preferable? I don't know.

I understand Ryan being consumed by getting to Heflin. He certainly followed him as far as he could. Maybe it was the scene where he comes into the house with Leigh. She is upset but didn't strike me as scared to death as I imagine most anyone would. Maybe Thaxter's presence gave him a less evil aura. Maybe I was thinking more of the "bad cop" in the first half of "On Dangerous Ground."
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Re: Act of Violence

Post by moira finnie »

That's a really good point about Heflin's reluctance to tell his wife about his wartime experiences. I almost had the feeling in that scene that the character had almost convinced himself that it had never really happened until that moment. Unburdening himself to his wife didn't really give him any greater peace, however.

Your thoughtful comments have made me realize that I should probably see this film again. Thanks, Chris.
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Re: Act of Violence

Post by JackFavell »

Moira, I really liked how you set the film in it's context - as a post-war movie. I cannot imagine people flocking to see this film, especially veterans. It must have been extremely uncomfortable to watch at the time... and I assume that feelings about Heflin's character ran high at the time of this film's release.

I wanted to put down my feelings watching the film then get on to the meat of the story.

The film was really dark to begin with and got darker. I am talking visuals here, as well as theme-wise. Frank seems to be in the dark all the time.... the only time we see him in the light is at the beginning of the film during his big public moment and at the lake, where the clouds are rolling in. From, then on, he is hiding in the darkness of his kitchen, the streets of the city, and seedy hotels. He tries to come out in the light at the hotel where the convention is being held, but even the hotel is kind of grey and filled with a mob of drunks which gives the place a sinister air. The final "showdown", with the wind blowing and leaves scattering was fascinating. All the darkness throughout the film seemed to really set off Heflin's anguished and pale face. I gotta give TCM credit for showing a really great print. It reminded me of The Third Man, with stairways winding down into tunnels.....

Mary Astor! Mary Astor was a revelation to me! I cannot say enough about this woman as an actress. She was amazing. She fit her squalid surroundings like a soiled glove. There was such wistfulness in her eyes and voice, even though she is obviously low rent and always will be. She struck me as the female counterpart to Paul Muni's fugitive from a chain gang - "How do you live?" ....."I steal". Her whispered, intense questions to Frank and her phone conversation with Joe ("He's laughing ....") are at the same time very scary and very revealing. They show very much more about her than she ever finds out about Frank. She rarely raises her voice above a whisper. When she asks, "Are you crazy? What kind of a jam are you in?" we really see how heavy her life has been, how far down she has sunk - she can't even fathom how money couldn't solve a problem.

The scenes between Astor and Heflin are like spun sugar, very beautiful, very brittle, and very hard to pull off without it all crumbling into pieces. She is the voice of his inner pain sneaking out. She voices the rationalization of all that Frank has done. We sympathize with Frank through her, and we may even believe that one mistake is not the end of the world, like she says. But we are fooling ourselves, just as Frank is, because the dark is going to win out in the end. There is only one thing to do, but Frank can't do it. When Frank tries to throw himself under the train, but can't, we expect her to be sympathetic. But she has changed, very subtly. She can sympathize but can no longer help Frank. It's morning now. She got through the night, and that is what she needed.

Her character is like two halves of a coin, one side soft and nurturing, and one side harsh and corrupt. Frank would only bring her down. Her tone belies her upbringing and her background. Instead of protecting him, when he is sobbing on the ground, she berates him - "What's the matter with you?!? Are you crazy?" She tries one more time to protect him from Johnny, but fails. She has become harsh, the street has got her again. She is of the real world, and cannot stay hiding out, pretending in Frank's everlasting night. Once he throws his lot in with Johnny, she wants nothing more to do with him. From here on in Frank is on his own. One has to respect her character. she could have robbed him, cheated him blind, and left him for dead somewhere, but she didn't. She could have gotten money from Johnny for bringing him in the first place. But she didn't, her character will probably go down further and further, because she is not one thing or another - not good enough to be in real society, but not bad enough to take advantage when the power is in her hands. I really felt for her. This performance was on a par with Clair Trevor's in Dead End.

I would have liked more of Ryan. The main problem with this film is that Ryan and Heflin cannot speak for themselves - it would ruin the suspense and the flow of the movie. They need others to do it for them. As Heflin needed Astor to help us sympathize with him, to ask the question - was what he did so bad? Ryan needs Phyllis Thaxter to voice his thoughts and fears. I really thought Thaxter did a good job with what she was given, but her role is the throwaway one in the film. She actually annoyed me, but I realize that she was needed in the film to disclose Ryan's character. I liked the Leigh/Thaxter scene a lot. And she got the best line in the movie - "You aren't going to bring those men back, you are just going to smash up a few more lives."

I loved Janet Leigh in this film. It is now my favorite of her performances. I have never liked her much, but she really was great here, changing moods quickly and sincerely. I felt her growing anxiety. Her scenes with Heflin are good, but her scenes with Ryan were magnificent. I wished they had done more movies together, because they worked so well off of one another. Maybe Ryan brought out something in her. The changing emotions on their faces was wonderful. Leigh has a moment where she runs into the house to hide from Ryan, then resolves to confront him. I loved her for that.

Ryan has a stunning moment at the beginning of the film - Leigh says, "He never did anything to you!" and Ryan does this incredible take, like someone slapped him across the face. He can't believe she thinks this way, even if she doesn't know what really happened. I only wish he had had more to do in the film as a whole. He is the wound up spring that stays coiled in order for the action to take place around him. Lose that tension and the whole film falls apart.

The tunnel scene - I thought Heflin was outstanding throughout the film, but even more so here. His battle with himself... screaming out, "Don't do it!" knowing all along it was too late, well, it was tremendously moving. He was really, really great. I wish he had had more vulnerable roles like this one in his career. He was super and I haven't even got the words to say more right now. His attempt to hide from responsibility, from his past was futile. "They were dead and I was eating ..." this speech was so perfectly done.... but then he acted the movie perfectly from start to finish.

I have to go now, but I wanted to get some of this out. The movie is very thought-provoking. In answer to at least one of your questions, movieman......I think that Frank's mistake was not the informing itself, it was hiding the fact from everyone.... not taking responsibility for it and taking his punishment in the first place. He masqueraded as an upright member of society, but the truth will out in the end.
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Re: Act of Violence

Post by moira finnie »

Wow!! JF, your beautifully written analysis of this movie is incredible. NOW I know I'll have to rent this movie pronto to look for all the things that you and Chris have pointed out about it again and to think more about all you've said. Btw, did you know that Mary Astor was simultaneously playing Marmee in the MGM remake of Little Women in the same period when she was playing the character of Pat in Act of Violence?
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Re: Act of Violence

Post by JackFavell »

That just blows my mind! Marmee and Pat at the same time is too much of a leap for me to get my head around!
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Re: Act of Violence

Post by CineMaven »

Wellllll...if that isn't a testimony to the talents of Mary Astor and her range. She's one of the unsung actresses. She was more than just the girl in "THE MALTESE FALCON."

I enjoyed "ACT OF VIOLENCE" very much. Ryan as usual...good. The pent-up anger he exhibited was like a tightly coiled snake ready to release. Whew! YOU wouldn't want to get in his way. I've likened him to a cyborg...the terminator, if you will. But of course he's much much more than that; a man in pain, in prison with the past. No escape b'cuz he refuses to walk through the door.

One of my new favorite character actors is VAN HEFLIN. It's taken me a long time to warm up to him. I was biased becuz he didn't have matinee idol looks. But his talent finally bludgeoned me over my thick-headed skull and I realize what a treasure he was to have in a director's motion picture. My sympathies were with Heflin up until he threw his lot in with Johnny. But his walk through that tunnel (of his past?) and got all teary-eyed and anguishly cried out "Don't do it Johnny!" redeemed him for me.

"ACT OF VIOLENCE" would be seen totally different if the events of the story had unfolded in chronological order.

I'm shuddering as I imagine how the scene played out when Ryan goes to tell Leigh that Heflin is dead. Whew! I'm also shuddering b'cuz NYC got about 15" inches of snow yesterday. Yuck! I guess all the more reason to stay indoors and look at classic films, ey.
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Re: Act of Violence

Post by Mr. Arkadin »

Act of Violence has many ties to Ivan Passer's Cutter's Way (1981), which also deals with the symbiotic relationship of two men, who find completion in each other.

Both films deal with a protagonist who is morally adrift and wounded veterans who are not really antagonistic, but perhaps represent the pangs of conscience, which push characters Van Heflin and Jeff Bridges to live up to principals and ethics neither believed he had courage to face, let alone act upon.

Whereas Act of Violence uses dark and light, is shot in black and white, and employs hard diagonal lines which create isolation, Cutter’s Way uses soft lighting and gorgeous color imaging. This is especially noted in Cutter and Moe’s house, which is bathed in gold, amber, and warm browns as Passer uses the beauty of light and color to establish distance and heartbreak in their relationship, not unlike Godard’s Contempt (1963).

There’s another parallel to Heflin’s betrayal, where Vietnam Vet. Cutter (John Heard) tells his friend Bone (Bridges) “I watched the war on TV like everybody else. Thought the same damn things. You know what you thought when you saw a picture of a young woman with a baby lying face down in a ditch, two gooks. You had three reactions, Rich, same as everybody else. The first one was real easy: ‘I hate the United States of America’. Yeah. You see the same damn thing the next day and you move up a notch. ‘There is no God’. But you know what you finally say, what everybody finally says, no matter what? ‘I’m hungry’”

While each film relates the basest instincts of survival (consumption of food), with inhabitants behaving in bestial terms (“I got my kicks”), Ryan and Heard’s characters are pure in the sense that they are willing to stand for something in a world where honor has no value. The tragedy is that what they desire is revenge, which has now crippled them emotionally as well physically. There is no room for love in their obsessions (as women have good cause to know), and the fruit of their anger is watered with self-pity.

Act of Violence and Cutter's Way are works that deal with the embrace of personal responsibility, where one man's sacrifice creates change of perception in another. Corruption flows through both films, and in both films, it's the past which realigns the present.
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Re: Act of Violence

Post by moira finnie »

Ark, how nice to see you posting. Your thoughtful analysis makes me want to go back and see Cutter's Way after these many years. I do remember it being extremely painful to watch back in the day, when all those fresh wounds had not healed or even had a chance to form scar tissue. I'll have to give it another try. Maybe it won't be as painful now. I can certainly see the parallels between the two films now that you have pointed them out to me.
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Re: Act of Violence

Post by Mr. Arkadin »

Hi Moira. Yes, Cutter's Way is in many ways a tragic film, but like Act of Violence it's also inspiring. While most noir films seem to deal with a discarding of values or object fatalism, there are a few movies like On Dangerous Ground (1952), Force of Evil (1948), and the aforementioned titles that introduce the idea of redemption and awakening. In all these films, characters learn the value of life as well as its fragility.
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Re: Act of Violence

Post by kingrat »

I recently saw ACT OF VIOLENCE for the first time and loved it. David Lean spoke of Zinnemann's "narrative juggernaut," and does that ever describe this film. Zinnemann shows us the absolute minimum we need to get going and thrusts us into the action.
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Re: Act of Violence

Post by WisconsinMark »

I recently screened Act of Violence for a sophomore high school English class I was teaching, both as an introduction to film noir and as part of a unit on "mainstream" American life in the post-war period (we had already covered the beats and the hippies as the non-mainstream). The "texts" were as follows:

Novel: Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
Short Story: John Cheever, "The Swimmer"
Film: Act of Violence
Television: "A Stop at Willoughby" (The Twilight Zone)
Television: Mad Men (Episode One, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes")
Music: Representative songs by Frank Sinatra

I would have liked to include The Best Years of Our Lives, but it is such a long film, I didn't have time.

The underlying theme of the unit was the malaise that was the shadow of post-war prosperity. Thus we have, in Act of Violence, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and Mad Men, men whose war experiences (and specific individuals from their war-time pasts) come back to haunt them. (Although we didn't get to that point in the Mad Men plot, I mentioned it to the class.) Other commonalities include:

Suburban life (all the examples)
The importance of the house (all the examples)
Financial pressures / "keeping up with the Joneses"
Heavy drinking (all the examples)
A wife "in the dark" (about husband's war experiences, mistresses, etc.)
The baby boom/children underfoot
Work dissatisfaction/corporate angst
Advertising and public relations as the symbolic professions
Commuting by rail (as transitional zone between work and home)

It was a very rewarding unit. The students' written assessments were the best work they did all semester; they really seemed to "get it."
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