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Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is living a life most men would envy. A former war hero, he now enjoys a thriving business as a respected contractor, is happily married to a beautiful woman (Janet Leigh), and has an easy-going lifestyle that allows him to get away often for weekend hunting trips in the mountains. Suddenly, Enley's world is turned upside down by the arrival of Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), a crippled war veteran who knew Enley during the war. Parkson begins a reign of terror on the Enley household, stalking them and playing psychological games. What does he want? Why is he doing this? It soon becomes apparent that Parkson knows a deep, dark secret about Enley, something that greatly contradicts his war hero status.
One of the first post-war film noirs to examine the effects of World War II on returning soldiers, Act of Violence (1948) is especially significant for tackling another controversial topic for its time - wartime ethics on the battlefield. The director, Fred Zinnemann, was just beginning to emerge as a major director and Act of Violence and his next two films, The Men (1950) and Teresa (1951) were all unique in that they addressed specific problems faced by returning war veterans.
In his autobiography Fred Zinnemann, the director wrote, "Perhaps the most vivid memory of making Act of Violence concerns the many sleepless nights we spent shooting exteriors in the eerie slums of downtown Los Angeles. The theme - the fatal flaw in a good man's character - is best expressed in R.L. Stevenson's remark 'A man's character is his destiny,' or, as one of the players puts it, 'You've done it once, you'll do it again.' Zinnemann also added that "the script offered a great range of possibilities for visual treatment; they were thoroughly explored by Bob Surtees, our cameraman....This was the last movie I directed for MGM, and the first time I felt confident that I knew what I was doing and why I was doing it."
According to author Eddy Muller in Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, "Robert Richards's screenplay was adapted from an unpublished story by Collier Young, an ambitious assistant to Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn. Young would soon embark on a career as an independent producer with his bride-to-be, Ida Lupino. The film was originally going to be a small indie production starring popular radio personality Howard Duff (who would, coincidentally, succeed Young as Ida Lupino's husband). Then Mark Hellinger picked it up, with the notion of pairing Gregory Peck with Humphrey Bogart." In the end, the project ended up at MGM with Van Heflin and Robert Ryan in the leads.
While Heflin and Ryan are excellent in their roles, Act of Violence is especially interesting for its female supporting cast - Janet Leigh, who was at the beginning of her career, and Mary Astor, who was near the end of hers. In her autobiography, A Life on Film, Astor recalled filming her scenes for Act of Violence while simultaneously shooting Little Women: "For two weeks or so I was with the Zinnemann company playing a sleazy, aging whore, with Van Heflin and Robert Ryan. It was such a contrast that it was stimulating - and reviving....I worked out the way this poor alley cat should look, and insisted firmly (with Zinney's help) that the one dress in the picture would not be made at the MGM wardrobe, but be found on a rack at the cheapest department store. We made the hem uneven, put a few cigarette burns and some stains on the front. I wore bracelets that rattled and jangled and stiletto-heeled slippers. I had the heels sanded off at the edges to make walking uncomfortable. I wore a fall, a long unbecoming hairpiece that came to my shoulder. And I put on very dark nail polish and chipped it. I used no foundation makeup, just too much lipstick and too much mascara..." So Astor, in her Act of Violence makeup and wardrobe, walked over to the Little Women set one day to see how things were going. The director, Mervyn LeRoy, didn't know Astor was moonlighting and according to the actress "took a startled look at me, came over to me, shocked, and said, 'What the hell have you got that kind of an outfit on for? What's the matter with you anyway - you look like a two-bit tart!' I was pleased." Astor also noted that "playing some of the scenes with Van Heflin, working with an artist like Zinnemann - after years of literally nothing - was a tonic. The way we worked, talking about it, thinking about it, using, discarding, trying something else. It was good. It was the way it ought to be - always."
Astor's co-star, Janet Leigh, revealed in her biography, There Really Was a Hollywood, that Act of Violence was "my most demanding role to date," adding, "I was fortunate to be in the company of these talents, and I knew it, and I worked like a demon to prove worthy. It was hard; there wasn't one easy scene. The tension began in the beginning and kept mounting to a crescendo, and I constantly had to overcome the liability of actually being too young for the part...If anything ever went wrong during a rehearsal or a shot, I automatically said, "I'm sorry," immediately assuming it was my fault. And it was many times. But not always. The cast and crew initiated an "I'm sorry" kitty. Every time I said it, I had to put a penny in the jar. It contributed three dollars toward the end of the picture party."
Producer: William H. Wright
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenplay: Robert L. Richards
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Editing: Conrad A. Nervig
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Van Heflin (Frank R. Enley), Robert Ryan (Joe Parkson), Janet Leigh (Edith Enley), Phyllis Thaxter (Ann Sturges), Mary Astor (Pat), Berry Kroeger (Johnny), Taylor Holmes (Gavery), Connie Gilchrist (Martha Finney).
BW-83m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford