Weekend Film Recommendation: Act of Violence

Someone once defined the essentials of film noir as “a dame with a past and a guy with no future”. One could add to that another line
which is uttered by Burt Lancaster’s character in The Killers and captures the driving mood of a subset of these marvelous films: “I did something wrong once”. The sin that can’t be erased, the guilt that attaches to it, and the inevitable doom it will ultimately bring has driven many a fine noir, including this week’s film recommendation: Act of Violence.

This 1949 film centers on a seemingly happy, All-American, family composed of war veteran and respected citizen Frank Enley (Van Heflin), his loving wife Edith (Janet Leigh), and their adorable toddler. I describe them as the people the movie centers on rather than as the protagonists because one of the many strengths of Robert L. Richards’ crackerjack script is that it’s not clear for some time (and even perhaps after you have watched the whole thing) who the hero of this movie is, or even if it includes a hero at all. At first it seems there’s an obvious villain: a limping, gun-toting, former soldier (Robert Ryan, who could always bring the sinister) who begins pursuing Frank Enley remorselessly for reasons that are mysterious. Frank refuses to disclose the truth to his increasingly terrified wife, even as he begins to disintegrate under the strain.

Fred Zinnemann was yet to be his Oscar-laden self when he directed this film, but his enormous emerging talent is impossible to miss. He draws excellent performances from the cast and revels in a tone of moral ambiguity as he would in many of his later, more famous, movies (e.g., High Noon). He had to be happy with the high talent level of the cast, including Heflin in one of his best ever roles, and, in a real pleasant surprise, Mary Astor as a shopworn prostitute (It’s amazing how deteriorated she looks only a short time after being on top of the world earlier in the 1940s, but the downslope of her personal life didn’t impair her work here– I half wonder if it helped, she’s outstanding.)

The other major league talent associated with this film is the magnificent cinematographer Robert Surtees. His shots of almost every famous L.A. noir location are gems of this genre that you could enjoy on their own merits with the sound off.

Act of Violence is a must-see for film noir fans, but its appeal is greater than that. It’s an expertly written, shot, directed, and acted movie with powerful emotional impact that anyone who loves a good story well told should appreciate.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

2 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Act of Violence”

  1. Keith mentions Zinnemann’s classic High Noon. I rewatched this recently. I was struck by the lack of seriousness given to the ethical dilemma of Will Kane’s new wife Amy (Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly), compared to his. She’s a Quaker pacifist, in response to a violent family past. It’s a considered position. In the climax, she sacrifices her principles to shoot baddy Ben Miller – in the back! – to protect Will, following the counsel of Will’s old flame Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado). This is represented as the way it ought to be.

    How do other readers feel? If my impression is correct, is this inherent in the script or the result of Grace Kelly’s limitations as an actor?

    1. Coming exceedingly late to the party, for which my apologies. I had to go back and take a look at the relevant portions of the film, which I’d seen a very long time ago. I seem to recall that westerns (particularly the ones on television) had a trope where the person reluctant to use violence finally realizes that in this particular case it is the right thing to do. I don’t know enough about the history of the western to know whether Zinnemann was playing on a known trope or whether High Noon is an early instance. Regardless, the scene struck me as such a case: nobody goes lookin’ for trouble, but sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. And so does Grace Kelly.

      As for shooting a man in the back. women in westerns tend to be exempt from the chivalrous rules of engagement that bind heroes: they are allowed to beat up on other women and attack the bad guy from behind. Zinnemann does, however, set this up as a case where Amy had to think about what she was doing. She’s not in immediate danger (emphasis on “immediate”); she’s not in Miller’s physical space, so she’s entering the action from outside, so to speak; and as he has to reload, there’s at least a chance that Will Kane can take care of it himself.

      All of that having been said, I question the degree to which her pacifism is really a considered philosophical position. She says early on that it’s a reaction to the deaths of her father and brother, which suggests an emotional rather than a reasoned stance, rather as if one objects to animal acts in circuses, not because one considers the treatment of animals in that fashion to be inherently immoral but because one’s brother was a lion tamer who made a fatal mistake.

      Michael Gill, a philosopher writing on the OUP blog (“Moral Pluralism and the Dismay of Amy Kane”), argues that the whole set-up is meant to represent a problem of competing moral commitments: neither of Amy’s options is clearly the right one from a moral perspective.

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