Act of Violence (1948)

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*. There’s a special type of humiliation experienced by film buffs when they fail to recognize a major actor. And it’s a big man who will publicly confess to such a lapse. I was patting myself on the back for spotting Taylor Holmes in Act of Violence, which he came to fresh from playing the same role (a slimy lawyer) in Kiss of Death. Something about that face says you can’t trust it. But then I was mortified as the final credits rolled (there are no opening credits). Edith Enley had been played by Janet Leigh! Admittedly this was one of her first appearances, but how had I not recognized her? Watching it again, I have to say she just doesn’t look very Janet Leigh-like.

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*. A remarkably bleak film, tragic and with no real heroes. Everyone, even poor Mary Astor, is damaged goods.
*. Take the first appearance of Robert Ryan’s Joe Parkson, limping down the foggy street. What kind of a hero limps? So is he the hero? Well, there’s the title on the screen and he’s the only guy we’ve seen thus far, so . . .
*. Sticker shock. When Robert Ryan asks about a hotel room and is told it will be “three-fifty” for a single room I was initially a bit surprised. But the clerk must have meant $3.50, not $350 (though the subtitle reads “350”). Now you have to keep that in mind when Van Heflin says he’s willing to pay Ryan off with $20,000, or tells the arranger Gavery that he will pay $10,000 to have Ryan killed. Using the same scale of inflation those numbers would be $2 million and $1 million respectively. Which seems awful steep, at least for the hit.
*. I find it remarkable, or at least worth noting, that Frank and Joe never actually get together or exchange any words. Over the phone Van Heflin uses an intermediary (Mary Astor) and the two don’t directly communicate. When they confront each other at the convention a punch is thrown and that is it. In the final showdown they only walk toward one another before they are interrupted. Frank calls out to Joe but there is no response. And at the very end there are no dying words of confession or final gesture of absolution. Nothing at all passes between the two leads. This had to be a conscious decision.
*. In Drew Casper’s commentary he draws attention to how Zinnemann introduces Frank and Joe so differently, and thus “pits one character against the other before any verbal, before any visual confrontation between the two leads takes place.” But the thing is, no dramatic confrontation ever does take place.
*. How common was it at the time to show a woman in pyjamas instead of a nightdress? Leigh’s jammies struck me as rather modern, at least for Hollywood, but I’m not sure what the conventions were.
*. It’s clichéd to talk of the use of shadow in noir, but just count the number of shots in this film where a character is placed either partially or entirely in shadow or darkness. Even in little ways you might not notice.
*. There’s something archetypal in Frank’s dark night of the soul, as though he’s descending (literally), into progressively seedier and more barren locations, finally arriving at a place that is not just a literal but a mythic underworld. There he meets a whore, the devil (the crooked lawyer Mr. Gavery as tempter), and one of the devil’s henchmen. He is drunk and experiences visions, ultimately escaping by way of his own tunnel to freedom. The morning after we feel that he has perhaps not been purified, but at least made stronger by going through the ordeal.
*. From the trailer: “The manhunt no woman could stop!” Ah, women. Their hearts are in the right place and they show genuine concern, but in the end they are lied to and cut totally out of the loop. Hell, Mary Astor’s Pat doesn’t even get paid! I hope she at least got her “kicks.” Of course women were often portrayed as irrelevant in movies of the time, but their marginalization seems quite stark and deliberate here.

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*. I really wasn’t expecting it when Johnny threw his drink in Astor’s face. They got me with that one. I wonder if it was improvised. It’s a wonderful moment.
*. You can’t think Zinnemann wasn’t remembering the final showdown of this movie when he came to do High Noon. He even works in a series of clocks counting down to the fatal moment. Casper is right in seeing in it a “dry run,” and I would even argue (contra Casper) that the use of triangulation here is also present in the climax of the later film.

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