Act of Violence (1948)

Directed by Fred Zinnemann

Cinematography by

Robert Surtees


After surviving a Nazi POW camp where the rest of his comrades had been murdered by guards during an escape attempt, Frank Enley (Van Heflin), returns home from World War II. The “war hero” is respected and praised for his fine character and good works in the California town of Santa Lisa, where he, his young wife and baby had settled after moving from the East.


What his wife does not know is that Frank relocated them in an attempt to escape his past. His nemesis is Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), once his best friend, who also lived through the ordeal, although he was left with a crippled leg. In exchange for food, Frank had alerted the Nazi camp commander to the prisoner’s escape plans, thinking wrongly that the men would not be punished, and Joe is now determined finally to exact justice on Frank, whose location he has learned from a newspaper story commending Enley for his civic endeavors.

Frank’s young wife Edith (Janet Leigh) is completely in the dark about his past, while Joe’s girlfriend knows everything about her man, but cannot dissuade him from his passion to set past wrongs right by seeing Frank dead. Frank must confront his dark past and the truth that he is a coward, not a hero.


Doggedly pursued by Joe, who has traveled cross-country to stalk Frank’s family repeatedly at their house, Frank goes into hiding, leaving his confused wife behind. While away at a trade convention in Los Angeles, Frank enlists the aid of a past-her-prime prostitute, Pat (Mary Astor), who introduces him to a shady lawyer and a hitman, Johnny (Berry Kroeger). Frank lures Joe into meeting him at night outside the lonely Santa Lisa train station, where the hitman plans to drive up and kill Joe, the gunshot muffled by the noise of the train.


After waking up from a drunken binge, Frank regrets the deal he has struck and tries to warn Joe at the station. Johnny is already waiting in his car with a gun, but before he can complete the job Frank jumps in front of the shot. Although wounded by the gunshot, Frank manages to grab Johnny as he speeds off in his car, causing it to crash into a lamppost. Both Johnny and Frank are killed in the crash. Joe realizing what Frank has done, kneels by his old captain and tells the officers that he will be the one to tell Frank’s wife.


Ryan, Heflin as hunter and prey in look at WWII’s dark aftermath

30 August 2001 | by bmacv (Western New York) – See all my reviews

This grim look a couple of demobbed soldiers continuing their private war at home rarely get mentioned in lists of essential noirs; maybe, upon release in 1949, it was just a little too close for comfort — hinting a truths the victorious American public were unwilling to acknowledge. If so, the film has yet to be rediscovered –or reappraised. Van Heflin is living out the modest American dream in sunny California when into his life strides an old combat buddy, Robert Ryan (at his most menacing, which is nothing to sneeze at). To his wife’s (Janet Leigh’s) consternation, Heflin takes it on the lam, and slowly we learned what happened, or may have happened, over in a POW camp in the European Theater of War. As Heflin’s flight takes him into seedier and more sinister surroundings, he links up with Mary Astor, living on the vague border of prostitution. (After helping to launch the cycle with her spectacular turn as Brigid O’Shaugnessey in The Maltese Falcon, Astor appeared in disappointingly few film noir; her expert performance here makes one wonder why, why, why?) Though the script opts for a strange and bitter “redemptive” ending, the acrid taste of Act of Violence lingers long.


Zinnemann again looks at the aftermath of war

Author: clore_2 from New York, New York
17 November 2003

In “Seventh Cross” director Fred Zinnemann depicted the isolation of a concentration camp escapee (Spencer Tracy) with MGM studio sets stepping in for actual locations – that would have been impossible at the time. In “The Search” he made use of a ruined Berlin to tell the story of a very young concentration camp survivor – a young boy separated from his mother – using the ruins as a metaphor for the many ruined lives.

In “Act of Violence” Zinnemann returns to the aftermath of war – this time telling of two prisoner-of-war camp survivors, one of whom was a Nazi collaborator, the other one a vengeful fellow prisoner who takes it upon himself to track down and kill his former friend. Cinematographer Robert Surtees makes great use of Los Angeles’ seedier parts of town – I was reminded of how his son Bruce Surtees made similar effective use of San Francisco in “Dirty Harry” – this is noir at its best, not only in cinematic terms, but with those “only come out at night” characters you expect in a top notch thriller.


Mary Astor is most effective as the barfly (couldn’t make her a prostitute, though it is more than obvious) – and after her performance in the garish “Desert Fury” it’s nice to see her in black-and-white again. We first meet her in a pub in which Van Heflin runs for sanctuary, the lighting there has us admiring the way she has held up, but when we move to the harsher lighting of her apartment (the lamp hanging on a cord is unshaded), we realize that the first impression was too kind. It’s a magnificent performance – perhaps the best that I’ve seen of her.


Barry Kroeger, whose altogether too infrequent appearances included such noir classics as “Cry of the City” and “Gun Crazy,” makes the most of his few moments as an underworld “enforcer” who would be quite willing to kill Ryan for a price. While Ryan seems to be a man who is on the verge of violence at any second, barely able to restrain himself, Kroeger is even more chilling. His calm, rational demeanor puts him in a different class of predator – he’s good at what he does and he’s used to doing it, like Alan Ladd’s character in “This Gun For Hire” we can be sure that when committing murder, he feels “Fine, just fine.”


Janet Leigh appears as Heflin’s wife – it’s an early turn for her, and while it is a most stereotypically written “wifey” role, she invests it with all that she has, but the ending is such that we have to wonder just how she will react. Right before that we have a taut scene with Heflin about to confront Ryan while Kroeger is watching. The tension is almost unbearable, all done through editing and camerawork and not one line of dialogue.

Zinnemann would continue to look at war’s effects on those who came home in “The Men” as well as “Teresa” and in “Hatful Of Rain” – the man may be the most unheralded of classic film directors, but his resume includes Oscar winners such as “High Noon” and “A Man For All Seasons” as well as such nailbiters as this film and the original “Day of the Jackal.”


Critical response

Bosley Crowther in his review for The New York Times, emphasized that it was a director’s “tour de force”. “For this latter asset of the picture, we have Mr. Zinnemann to thank. He has pictured, at least, a visual setting for terror and violence and he has kept the pursued and the pursuer going at a grueling pace. In the former role, Van Heflin strains and sweats impressively. As his relentless pursuer, Robert Ryan is infernally taut. Mr. Zinnemann has also extracted a tortured performance from Janet Leigh as the fearful, confused and disillusioned wife of the hunted man and he has got squalid portraits of scoundrels from Mary Astor, Berry Kroeger and Taylor Holmes.”

The staff at Variety magazine gave Act of Violence a positive review. They wrote, “The grim melodrama implied by its title is fully displayed in Acts of Violence… tellingly produced and played to develop tight excitement … The playing and direction catch plot aims and the characterizations are all topflight thesping. Heflin and Ryan deliver punchy performances that give substance to the menacing terror … It’s grim business, unrelieved by lightness, and the players belt over their assignments under Zinnemann’s knowing direction. Janet Leigh points up her role as Heflin’s worried but courageous wife, while Phyllis Thaxter does well by a smaller part as Ryan’s girl. A standout is the brassy, blowzy femme created by Mary Astor – a woman of the streets who gives Heflin shelter during his wild flight from fate.”

Film reviewer Roger Westcombe, writing for the Big House Film Society, considers Act of Violence unsettling, and wrote, “‘Act of Violence’ … with a profundity, through its unsettling moral continuum, redolent not ofHollywood simplicities of good/evil but of the art one associates with Zinnemann’s European background. This contains a clue. Fred and his brother escaped their native Austria in 1938, but their parents, waiting for U.S. visas that never came, perished – separately – in concentration camps. The “survivor guilt” this awful closing engendered must resemble the emotional see-saw ride which fiction like the ethical pendulum of Act of Violence can only start to expiate.”



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