Monday, April 23, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Act of Violence (1949) at the Noir City Film Festival

Sunday was a wonderful day, enjoying an annual pre-TCM Festival excursion with friends just arrived in town. We toured Iverson Ranch, where countless movies were filmed, and also visited Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery, the final resting place of both Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Photos from our day trip will be posted here after the festival.

That evening we all attended the last night of the Noir City Hollywood Festival. Closing night feels a bit like the start of the TCM Fest, as a number of people arrange to arrive in town a few days early in order to catch the tail end of Noir City. It was great to say hello to several online friends in person last night!

The closing night double bill consisted of ACT OF VIOLENCE (1949) and NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948). It was such a long day that we didn't end up staying for NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES, but it's a film I love and recommend. I first reviewed it back in 2011, then saw it in 35mm at Noir City in 2013, and then had the ultimate viewing experience, seeing it in nitrate at UCLA in June 2017. I hope that eventually the Criterion Collection will release this special film; star Gail Russell was also in MOONRISE (1948), out next month from Criterion, so perhaps there's hope!

I had never seen ACT OF VIOLENCE and was thoroughly impressed in all respects. It was well written by Robert L. Richards, based on a story by Collier Young, had excellent direction by Fred Zinnemann, and was beautifully photographed at L.A. locations by Robert Surtees. There's even a great shot of the Angels' Flight Railway, a classic staple of L.A. film noir.

The entire cast was outstanding, as one would expect with actors the caliber of Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, and Mary Astor. The performance which really blew me away, however, was that of 21-year-old Janet Leigh, her fifth film in an unexpected career which had begun just two years previously, after Norma Shearer spotted her photo at a ski resort.

As the film begins, WWII veteran Frank Enley (Heflin) is riding high: He has a successful business as a home builder, a lovely young wife named Edith (Leigh), a baby boy (Larry and Leslie Holt), a nice house, and an all-around good life.

Having just been honored at a civic ceremony, Frank heads out of town for a fishing trip with a friend, only to become frightened when he learns a man with a limp (Ryan) has been inquiring about him at the lakeside dock. Frank cuts the trip short and hurries home, startling Edith as he locks the doors and pulls the shades.

Joe (Ryan) is a fellow war veteran with a score to settle with Frank. Although Joe initially seems to be the bad guy, terrorizing the family and clearly intending to kill Frank, Frank soon confesses to Edith the reason Joe is after him: Frank had done something very bad when they were in a POW camp. The shocked Edith forgives Frank, but will Joe? And can Frank forgive himself?

Playing the two tormented men, Heflin and Ryan are as good as one would expect, and part of what makes the film so compelling is that each actor plays a fully rounded character, neither hero or villain. Heflin aptly conveys a man caught in a waking nightmare, trying to lock out the terror just outside the door; the sound of Ryan's limping walk only adds to the nightmare quality. The despair on Frank's face near the end, realizing it's unlikely he can hang on to his life with his wife and son, is shattering.

Mary Astor is also due plaudits as a worn-out barstool flunky with odd little tics, such as picking at her fingernails. It's hard to recognize her as the beautiful woman who played Leigh's mother that same year in LITTLE WOMEN (1949), let alone as the mother from MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944) half a decade before.

For me, however, the film is anchored by Janet Leigh's performance as the young wife. The film's dramatic arc is continuously mirrored in her expressive eyes, taking her character from the proud wife with shining eyes through worry, fear, resignation, and compassion. I've always liked her, but I was tremendously impressed with her performance in this and suspect working with director Fred Zinnemann helped draw from her an extra measure of excellence. Watching Edith's life collapse around her in the space of hours is heartbreaking; in a sense, it's Leigh's film, as Edith is the one caught between the two men, and she's the one left to pick up the pieces and carry on.

Phyllis Thaxter has a small role as the woman in Joe's life, trying to convince him to set violence aside. Connie Gilchrist plays Leigh's neighbor. The cast also includes Barry Kroeger, Taylor Holmes, Harry Antrim, and Will Wright.

The movie is a fast-paced 82 minutes. Most of the credits, incidentally, come at the end, and they're quite effectively presented in that format.

A fun bit of trivia: "Redwood Lake" was actually Big Bear Lake, and the words "Big Bear" can be seen on a boat in the background when Ryan's character arrives at the lake.

ACT OF VIOLENCE is available on DVD as part of the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4 or in a two-film set with MYSTERY STREET (1950), reissued by the Warner Archive.

Highly recommended.


Blogger Jerry Entract said...

Hi Laura!
So glad you've finally seen this powerful movie, at what has obviously been a terrific festival. You're so right - a very fine, grounded performance from Janet Leigh,amazing depth at only 21 years. She may well also have been inspired by playing against two such strong and versatile lead actors.

11:37 PM  
Blogger DKoren said...

How neat that you got to see this for the first time on the big screen. This movie blew me away when I first saw it on DVD, for all the reasons you've stated, and I absolutely loved how it was filmed. The lighting is exquisite, all those contrasts in light and shadow, black and white. What a neat experience! Looking forward to seeing the pics of the day.

8:14 AM  
Blogger Hamlette (Rachel) said...

Haven't seen this one yet, but it's been on my radar a while. Definitely sounds like an amazing cast filling out a fascinating story!

5:45 PM  

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