This week in the Best of Film Noir, we’re looking at a great film, Act of Violence. Many critics and film noir aficionados consider Act of Violence to be an almost perfect example of noir, and also a very disturbing film. It is the first post-war film to take on a couple of difficult topics: the effects of World War II on returning soldiers and wartime ethics on the battlefield. Both subjects are handled well in this great film noir.
The Best of Film Noir – The Noir Hero
What’s interesting about Act of Violence is its weaving of two complex main characters into one story. First, there is WW II veteran Frank Enly, brilliantly played by Van Heflin (isn’t that a great name :)). He is a family man, living a quiet, comfortable life in a small town outside of Los Angeles. But he’s harboring a dark secret.
His life is torn apart by another vet, Joe Parkson, played by Robert Ryan. We know right from the beginning, when we see Joe in a seedy hotel, that something is not quite right with him. He loads a gun, then limps out of the hotel. And we know that Joe is no cop – he is up to no good. As the story progresses, we know that Joe has at least one screw loose. What we don’t know (until late in the film) is who our noir hero is.
The Best of Film Noir – The Setting
We don’t really have a femme fatale in Act of Violence, so I want to concentrate on another aspect of the movie – the use of setting. For anyone watching a movie, or reading or writing a book, setting can play a critical part in the reception of the work (the movie or book). Put characters in a setting that doesn’t match your story, it doesn’t work.
The setting is key in Act of Violence. We go from scenes that are light and positive (Frank getting an award, daytime scenes), scenes that are literally filled with light, to dark and gloomy scenes as the story progresses. This change of scene sets up the entire rest of the movie. It makes for a dark movie, but it’s also fantastic, and it’s one of the reasons why the movie is considered in best of film noir lists.
The Best of Film Noir – The Pace
Another great aspect of Act of Violence is its parred-down nature. The film runs barely 88 minutes, but it’s jam-packed with action and each scene gets across just want it meant to, no more, no less. There is no dragging in this flick. As a storyteller, I study Act of Violence just to see how this was done.
The Best of Film Noir – The Supporting Cast
Most of us haven’t heard of Van Heflin and Robert Ryan. Certainly when Act of Violence was made, neither was a household name. But starring alongside them was Mary Astor (a huge star of the silent era) and Janet Leigh (of Psycho fame). One (Astor) was at the end of her career, the other (Leigh) was at the beginning of hers. Both actresses claimed in their autobiographies that their roles (Astor as a whore, Leigh as the wife of Frank Enly) were demanding. Astor also said that, after years at literally nothing, working with director Fred Zinnemann was a tonic. Act of Violence is worth watching just because of these two, if for nothing else.
So grab your popcorn and get comfy for a dark, but great example of the best of film noir.
This week, get the first book in my Reed Ferguson mystery series, This Doesn’t Happen In The Movies, for only 99 cents!
Reed is a wannabe private eye who loves film noir and crime fiction, and these mystery novels are consistently well-reviewed. The second in the series Reel Estate Rip-off, and the short story Elvis And The Sports Card Cheat, are great additions to your library. And stay tuned for an announcement about the new Reed Ferguson mystery, The Maltese Felon, available soon!
5 Star Review
There is little doubt that Renée Pawlish is a promising new voice to the comic murder/mystery genre. Quite noticeable…is Pawlish’s adept development of the plot coupled with her ability to contrive clear, concise and playful prose with almost perfect pacing.
Norman Goldman, Bookpleasures Publisher and Editor (Amazon top reviewer)