"What did he tell you? Did he tell you that I'm crippled because of him? Did he tell you about the men that are dead because of him? Did he tell you what happened to them before they died?" Joe Parkson
This is as much a movie review as a tribute to Robert Ryan. Directed by Fred Zinnemann for MGM’s B unit, Act of Violence is one of those must-see jewels of postwar Noir that nobody wanted to see on its original release. It just patiently waited to be to be rediscovered. Maybe the audience wasn’t quite ready for a story about veterans that is like a wet blanket of despair and anxiety.
On the surface a straightforward suspenseful cat-and-mouse thriller, there’s a lot going on under the surface. The picture digs deep into dicey moral issues. It takes a harsh and honest look at the effects of postwar trauma in veterans who fought and then were left to their own devices. It manages to confront such themes as betrayal, guilt, courage, cowardice and the situational ethics of men required to survive in wartime. Act of Violence is the anti-companion piece to The Best Years of Their Lives whose drift was much more optimistic as to reintegration of veterans into society.
Classic Noir wouldn't be the same without Robert Ryan’s unforgettable contribution though he rarely ever played a conventional hero. (The same can be said about his Westerns). Appearing in at least ten films that can be called true Noir, Ryan’s towering presence is one of the cornerstones that built the city known as Noirville. Even if not all his films were first rate, his performances always were. There was a darkness in his portrayals that seemed to spring from his inner core and many of his characters gave the impression they lived in perpetual Hell. As an actor he understood the sickness that could live in men’s hearts. I always got the feeling that his characters would like to believe in the goodness of people but only have evidence to the contrary.
Ryan played gangsters, racketeers, psychos, mob bosses, corrupt businessmen and similarly prepossessing characters. His protagonists had a hellish temper and a short fuse. If he was miserable he made damn sure everybody else was too. A good beating could convince anybody to see things his way, the hell with the Geneva convention.
He was a hateful killer in Crossfire, a psychotic gangster in The Racket, an ugly racist in Odds Against Tomorrow, an unhinged control freak in Caught, a sadistic cop out of control but redeemed by love in On Dangerous Ground, an unbalanced mob boss in House of Bamboo, a charming bastard in The Naked Spur. Ryan occasionally showed that he could be different. In The Secret Fury he’s an all around nice guy and in The Set-up he’s the underdog scrapping for a shred of dignity. I have a particular fondness for boxing movies and I blame Ryan for this obsession entirely. But whatever he played one wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he ate nails for breakfast.
He didn’t shy away from uncomfortable characters. They were seething with suppressed rage - not to say unfathomable wrath - pain, loneliness and a deep self-loathing that seemed almost existential. Ryan fully embraced their tormented and troubled souls and revealed the inner workings of these alienated man who often had unexpectedly hidden depths and complexity. His cynical, misanthropic and bitter men always emotionally engaged the audience and somehow he managed to elicit some sympathy even for his worst characters because they were so absurdly charismatic.
With his steely gaze, contemptuous sneer and menacing stance he could make your blood run cold or give you those goosy-pimply goosebumps. There was a brooding intensity and ferocity about his performances that drew in the audience and occasionally we got a hint of charm and a killer grin which completely drive this girl wild. It is no surprise that women were attracted to him. He possessed a pretty lethal mixture of danger, violence and surprising tenderness. When Ryan goes bad, I go right after him.
During his lifetime he unfortunately never achieved the same (star) status and recognition as his contemporary tough guys Cagney, Bogart or Mitchum.
In reality he was the polar opposite of the characters he played so often. A committed family man, he supported many liberal causes and shunned the Hollywood spotlight. He was at best a reluctant movie star who didn’t play the Hollywood game and this is probably the reason why he never achieved real stardom.
Act of Violence’s opening scene packs a punch. We see a mysterious man, Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), limping down a deserted rain-slicked New York street at midnight, shrouded in deep dark shadows, hobbling up the steps to his dumpy digs, opening a drawer and taking out a loaded gun before boarding a Greyhound bus to LA. His room is bare. No belongings, no personal touches, no interests… except for his mission. On the journey out West he doesn’t close an eye. We know this guy means business.
The bus leaves the dark rainy city and heads to the sunny suburbs of SoCal. There the viewer meets the man Parkson is hunting: Frank Enley (Van Heflin), prosperous building contractor, all around nice guy, devoted family man with a beautiful wife Edith (Janet Leigh), a little boy and a nice house in the suburbs. The unimpeachable pillar of the community. Soon we learn why the guy with the limp is on Enley’s trail. Enley was Parkson’s commanding officer in the army, until they and several others ended up in a Nazi prison camp. There Enley cracked under the pressure. His men wanted to escape but he sold them out to the prison guards for food, a betrayal that cost most of them their lives.
Act of Violence is one of the many 40s and 50s Noirs that probed the wartime traumas of returning servicemen. Literally as soon as the war was over and the heroes were home, Noir started producing anti-heroes. The damaged war veteran with a psychological trauma became a staple in crime films of the period. To name just a few: The Blue Dahlia, The Clay Pigeon, High Wall, The Breaking Point, Cornered, Dead Reckoning, Ride the Pink Horse, Nobody Lives Forever, 99 River Street, The Chase, Martha Ivers, Somewhere in the Night, The Crooked Way.
When the war ended a generation of former soldiers found themselves adrift, surrounded by a public who had no idea what they endured and couldn’t share their experiences. They had faced violence and death, seen their buddies maimed and killed and had acquired a capacity for violence that couldn’t simply be switched of. In essence the returning vet was a displaced person who came home to unemployment, troubled marriages, broken dreams and a country that had taken a turn for the noir and changed into alien territory. They had left pieces of themselves behind in places they never wanted to visit in the first place. After being primed to take no prisoners in the violent theaters of war, many found it hard to settle back into peaceful civilian life.
Too often people didn’t want to know what soldiers had been through. In a way understandable as postwar society was focused on reconstruction and moving forward. So some of them turned into walking time bombs. The best years of their lives had been spent in hellholes and they weren't about to wait for the Good Life on the installment plan.
Broken in body and mind, servicemen came home desperately trying to forget what couldn't be forgotten. “He’s sick with it”, says Edith to Parkson’s girlfriend Ann about her husband. “They’re both sick with it”, replies Ann.
War doesn’t end when the peace agreement is signed and besides their physical wounds, many returnees carried heavy psychological baggage. The wounds had only healed superficially, but pick off the scab and it would start bleeding again.
It doesn’t take Robert Ryan more than a few minutes to establish a mood of menace and impending violence. Back from the dead and making a beastly nuisance of himself, he’s a man with a gun and a score to settle. He may be on home soil, but this vet is still operating behind enemy lines. He’s out for blood. His hate is the gasoline in his veins, the thought of revenge is the only thing that keeps him alive. We can see it in his eyes. There’s nothing but the single-minded resolution to kill in them.
Parkson’s limp is a visual symbol for the psychic scars he drags around with him (Eddie Muller, Noir Alley intro), it’s a reminder of Enley’s betrayal. In the beginning Parkson is clearly painted as the villain, an obsessed mental case straight from the psych ward and we’re frightened for the guy he’s hunting. But in Noir nothing is as it seems. We slowly learn that Parkson’s moral outrage and vigilante tactics are justified.
When Johnny came limping home, he couldn’t let go of the past. His life stopped on the day his buddies died. Vince Keenan calls Parkson very aptly “yesterday’s man” in his Noir City Magazine article Ryan’s Vengeful Vet. A man with a past but no future. Noir’s classic alienated loner.
Noir has always been the genre of the disenchanted and no more so than here. One of the best scenes of the movie is Parkson not even sparing one glance for the parade of veterans on Memorial Day. It tells us all we need to know about his war. Here’s a guy with nothing to celebrate. Rosy reminiscences of wartime heroics are not for him.
Years of war hadn’t been kind to many soldiers and not every man came back a hero. Enley’s supposedly spotless war record is hiding dark secrets.
His introduction is completely different. No rain, no darkness, no shadows, no dirty city. When we first meet him it’s a beautiful sunny day in small town Santa Lisa where Enley - revered war hero - is honored by his community for finishing a housing project.
Small town America is always a crucial symbol of healthy life in many Hollywood movies, standing for innocence, simplicity and decency. Not only is Enley the embodiment of the American Dream, he’s also the embodiment of progress, reconstruction and postwar prosperity. He and his construction company are the hope for a new and better tomorrow. Enley himself though stands on extremely weak foundations.
It doesn’t take long for his life to unravel once Parkson appears to undercut the apple-pie wholesomeness. Noir is a genre where danger (or evil) frequently pervert the ordinariness of familiar locations and here they turn a comfortable home into a jail cell.
Coming home early in a panic from a fishing trip after he’s spotted Parkson, Enley closes all the doors in his house, pulls down the blinds, turns off the lights and refuses to answer questions to the confusion of his wife. He’s standing in the dark looking terrified, listening to Parkson sneaking around the house dragging his leg. The sound of limping takes on a second meaning. For Enley it is a rebuke, the sound of his guilt. Parkson is the film’s conscience that won’t stay buried.
Slowly but surely Enley is falling apart and later we see him running through a dark tunnel in the Bunker Hill neighborhood, having flashbacks about his screaming men being slaughtered by the prison guards. It’s interesting to note that the violence in the film is mostly psychological. Parkson and Enley don’t actually meet until the end of the movie and then Parkson doesn’t get a chance to lay a hand on Enley.
The happy daytime scenes in Santa Lisa are sunny but once Enley’s sins catch up with him and he leaves his pastoral sanctuary and tries to flee his consequences - in the middle of the night leaving his wife behind - all his scenes take place during shadowy nighttime, within a dark seedy urban netherworld full of whores and thugs that almost swallow him up. But then darkness had been his inevitable destination from the beginning.
Enley has managed to bury his guilt deeply in his subconsciousness. When he finally confesses his guilt to Edith, initially he’s trying to justify his actions by saying he betrayed his men to save them, but if that story were any lamer it would walk on crutches.
“Do I have to spell it out to you? Do I have to draw you a picture? I was an informer! It doesn’t make any difference why I did it; I betrayed my men! They were dead! The Nazis even paid me a price: they gave me food, and I ate it… I ate it! I hadn’t done it just to save lives…They were dead and I was eating and maybe that’s all I did it for - to save one man. Me. There were six widows. There were ten men dead, and I couldn’t even stop eating. ”
Survivor’s guilt can be a terrible thing. There is a level of self-disgust so deep in these words that we know then that there is only one way out for him in the end.
Here’s another recurring Noir theme. The claims of the past are relentless. "The past is never dead. It isn't even past”, wrote William Faulkner. The past is a debt collector, silently waiting to demand its pound of flesh.
It was a courageous role for an actor to take. Playing a coward and squirming worm isn’t necessarily good for the image.
Zinnemann takes his time to let the viewer know what’s going on. Ambiguity is something no good Noir can do without, and here it is taken to the extreme. The release of information is slow. Motivations and intentions are kept in the dark as long as possible. Sympathies shift and fluctuate constantly. For the first half of the film we just don't know who the hero and who the bad guy is. Is there even a good guy and a bad guy?
Who do we root for? The obsessed guy bent on revenge or the guy who took the easy way and is still running? As always it is not that simple. There is no black and white, no clear cut lines.
“The moral landscape of this film is complex and difficult terrain; and Zinnemann never allowing …us to categorize or pigeonhole his protagonists.” Mark Freeman, Act of Violence, Senses of Cinema
To Zinnemann’s credit he doesn’t give us pat answers. He offers each man a measure of compassion.
If we feel sympathy with Enley at all it is because of his wife and her attempts to understand his crimes. If she loves him there must be some good in him.
Edith symbolizes prewar normalcy. Young, innocent and untouched by the ugliness of war, she is a light in the darkness, assuring her husband of her love even after she knows the whole truth.
“Ever since I first knew you, Frank, and up until yesterday, I thought you were the finest, most wonderful man in the world. Now I know that you’re like everybody else. You have faults and weaknesses… that doesn’t mean I don’t love you, or that I don’t want to be your wife—because I do.”
Special mention has to go to Mary Astor - looking like someone put her through the wringer - playing over-the-hill street-wise hooker Pat who gives Enley shelter one night after he decides to get plastered and go on the run. She’s hit rock bottom and broke but she gets her kicks, you know. Her desire to make a quick buck mixes nicely with her very real concern for Enley. She’s another one of those wised-up and disillusioned characters that populated Noir. There is an underlying sadness about her because her life has been one big failure. “So you’re unhappy. Relax. No law says you gotta be happy.”
For Pat there’s only two kinds of trouble in the world, love trouble or money trouble. In most Noirs that would be spot on. But Enley’s particular predicament lies outside even her quite considerable experience.
For a while Pat and Enley are fellow travelers in the shadowy underworld of Noir. He anaesthetizes his guilty conscience with booze, she introduces him to contract killers. In a drunken stupor Enley promises hitman Johnny - played wonderfully with chilling ice-cold amorality by Barry Kroeger - several thousands to get rid of Parkson. This blurs the line between good guy and bad guy even more. Mr. Nice Guy is willing to stoop so low and hire a hitman to kill his enemy.
If there is an out and out villain in this piece it’s neither Enley nor Parkson but the hired killer. Johnny - who sat out the war in a cushy office - is the one who has no qualms whatsoever about his profession; he sees killing not as a moral issue, but as a business. Killing is a job, and a job is a job is a job.
When he emerges from his 80 proof haze and can think straight again, Enley tries to stop Johnny. Which brings us to the showdown at a train station, a finale that plays like a final standoff in a Western.
Some viewers found the ending a bit too pat. It is without a doubt a screen writer’s ending, not a real world one. But I am a sucker for the redemption angle and I don’t subscribe to the notion that every Noir must end in abject misery.
Johnny has come to kill Parkson and Enley finally does the right thing. He takes the bullet which was meant for Parkson. Both Enley and Johnny die in the ensuing car crash. Parkson goes to tell Enley’s widow.
Enley finally finds redemption, if only in death. For Parkson Enley's sacrifice is a spiritual renewal. Like Tosca he can forgive now that his enemy is dead. He can hopefully let go of his hate and regain some of the humanity he had lost.