Last night I watched an extraordinary film noir on the Turner Classic Movie channel that was new even to me, a long-time aficionado of the genre. Directed by Fred Zinnemann in 1948, “Act of Violence,” available from Netflix, confirmed once again my suspicion that the developing Cold War spawned many of the finest noir films. Since noir films are typified by a bleakness of vision, what other period could have topped the late 1940s for having the effect of destroying hope in a better world-except perhaps for the last several decades.
“Act of Violence” stars Van Heflin and Robert Ryan as two WWII veterans who have found themselves embroiled in a deadly revenge scenario. Heflin plays Frank R. Enley, a pilot who informs on his fellow soldiers in their bid to escape from a Nazi prison camp in exchange for food. Only one man has survived-Joe Parkson, played by Ryan-and he shows up in the beginning of the movie to kill Enly, who has tried to bury the past. He is now a successful building contractor enjoying the fruits of the post-WWII boom, while Parkson is crippled and half-crazed.
It was unheard of for an American GI who ratted out his comrades to be portrayed in as complex a fashion as Enly. While not a hero by any stretch of the imagination, he comes across as somebody who was just desperate to survive. Meanwhile, Parkson is nearly as flawed. He is intent on killing Enly even after he gets a chance to meet his prey’s young wife (played by a very young Janet Leigh) and their infant son. The “act of violence” becomes a ritual vendetta stripped of any ideological associations with the “good war”.
In keeping with noir conventions, the film takes place nearly entirely at night in all the usual places: seedy saloons, desolate railroad tracks, and empty urban streets. The characters are also drawn from the noir world. After Enly takes refuge in the aforementioned seedy saloon, he runs into a prostitute who takes interest in his problems and escorts him to a shady lawyer who convinces him to pay $10,000 to a hit man to get rid of Parkson. The prostitute is played by Mary Astor, Humphrey Bogart’s foil in “The Maltese Falcon”, while the hit-man is played by Berry Kroeger who specialized in such roles. He was a bad guy in “Gun Crazy”, another noir from the period written by Dalton Trumbo.
One scene strongly suggests that the bloom had faded from the post-WWII rose takes place in a hotel banquet room. Enly has joined fellow building contractor for a night of celebration following a day-long building contractors’ convention. The room is filled with drunken businessmen, while a weaving conga line reenacts the famous painting of George Washington in a headband leading his troops. It has the power of a George Grosz painting from the Weimar Republic.
If you haven’t heard of “Act of Violence”, you surely would be familiar with some of Fred Zinnemann’s other films. He followed up this movie with another decidedly unromantic view of WWII veterans. The 1950 “The Men” starred Marlin Brando as a crippled and embittered ex-GI in a veteran’s hospital. The screenplay was by Carl Foreman, who would be blacklisted in a couple of years. It was filmed at the Birmingham Paraplegic Hospital in Van Nuys, California, and included real patients and caregivers.
Two years later Zinnemann directed “High Noon”, again with Carl Foreman writing the screenplay. Everybody involved with the making of the film understood that it was an allegory on the witch-hunt taking the side of the victims. It was the opposite number of “On the Waterfront”, which essentially made snitching into a virtue. In a very informative Chronicle of Higher Education article on the movie from 2002, we learn:
In this spirit, High Noon set its sights on the political controversy settling over the most famous Western town of all. “What High Noon was about at the time,” its screenwriter Foreman admitted years later, “was Hollywood and no other place but Hollywood.” Translation: the Miller Gang were stand-ins for the gang from HUAC, the craven townspeople of Hadleyville were the cooperative witnesses who cowered before the committee, and the marshal followed the lone path of honor in a town without pity. Not too far under the surface, readily detectable by any viewer with the wits to spot a metaphor, High Noon acted out the high drama of conscience against expediency, personal codes against community values.
Zinnemann also made commercial potboilers like “The Day of the Jackal” and “Behold a Pale Horse”, all of which are available from Netflix and well worth seeing. He was a real craftsman and could turn any script into something remarkable.
It is too bad that “Redes” (“Nets”, as in fisherman’s nets), one of his earliest films, that was made in Mexico in 1936 is not available from Netflix or anywhere else probably. The movie’s cameraman was Paul Strand, the famous 1930s WPA photographer. An interesting comment on IMDB puts the movie into context:
I would certainly agree with the previous comment that this film is worth watching due to the poignant camera work of Paul Strand and the score of Silvestre Revueltas that intensifies the emotional power evoked by Strand’s cinematography (that Strand seems not cut out to be a cinematographer is hardly surprising – he was actually a prominent US photographer commissioned by Narcisso Bassols, then Mexican Minister of Education to make this revolutionary film).
I’ll also add that as a film this is an important socio-political moment as it marks the emergence of a Revolutionary national cinema very much in the collectivist spirit of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. The editing mimicks the Russian director’s use of separate cell blocks (shots) to translate the Marxist social dialectic of thesis + antithesis = synthesis into a filmic language labelled Soviet Montage. The film’s clearest example of this is the juxtaposition of ‘photographic’ images when the politician shoots Miro. Eisenstein’s influence permeates Redes (for example, real people acted in the film, replacing hired actors (except Miro), coping Eisenstein’s use of typage), as it did Mexican film in general during this Revolutionary era, due largely to his philosophy and the fact he actually went to Mexico and shot a film, ‘Que Viva Mexico!’ in 1932. For those interested in things Eisenstein, I would recommend Potemkin, Strike, and Oktober, the latter contains a barrel-of-gun scene which surely inspired the aforementioned murder of Miro.
I just want to conclude with a word about Robert Ryan, who specialized in playing half-crazed characters like Frank R. Enly or sadists like Captain Taggart in “Billy Budd”. In private life, Ryan was a stalwart liberal like Humphrey Bogart, Bert Lancaster, Paul Newman and other Hollywood A-list celebrities. During the 1930s, Ryan worked for the WPA just like Paul Strand. The Wiki on Ryan reveals the following:
Ryan was a liberal Democrat who tirelessly supported civil rights issues. Despite his military service, he also came to share the pacifist views of his wife Jessica, who was a Quaker.
In the late 1940s, as the House Committee on Unamerican Activities (HUAC) intensified its anti-communist attacks on Hollywood, he joined the short-lived Committee for the First Amendment. Throughout the 1950s, he donated money and services to civic and religious organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, American Friends Service Committee, and United World Federalists. In September 1959, he and Steve Allen became founding co-chairs of The Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy’s Hollywood chapter.
By the mid-1960s, Ryan’s political activities included efforts to fight racial discrimination. He served in the cultural division of the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and, with Bill Cosby, Robert Culp, Sidney Poitier, and other actors, helped organize the short-lived Artists Help All Blacks.
Ryan’s film work often ran counter to the political causes he embraced. He was a pacifist who starred in war movies, westerns, and violent thrillers. He was an opponent of McCarthyism who nevertheless served the anticommunist cause by playing a nefarious Communist agent in I Married a Communist. Even in films like Crossfire and Odds Against Tomorrow, which ultimately promoted racial tolerance, he played bigoted bad guys. Ryan was often vocal about this dichotomy. At a screening of Odds Against Tomorrow, he appeared before black and foreign press representatives to discuss “the problems of an actor like me playing the kind of character that in real life he finds totally despicable.”