Act of Violence (1949 USA 82 mins)

Source: CAC Prod Co: MGM Prod: William H. Wright Dir: Fred Zinnemann Scr: Robert L. Richards from an unpublished story by Collier Young Phot: Robert Surtees Ed: Conrad A. Nervig Art Dir: Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters Mus: Bronislau Kaper

Cast: Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh, Mary Astor, Phyllis Thaxter, Barry Kroeger

Fred Zinnemann has said of Act of Violence that it was ‘the first time I felt confident that I knew what I was doing and why I was doing it’ (1). The confidence and assurance that he brings to this dark, relentless tale of war and vengeance is made clear in a viewing of this lesser known film in his oeuvre. Chronologically, it lies sandwiched between The Search (1948) and The Men (1950) , and maintains his study of the grim and turbulent efforts to restore order and sanity after the tragic impact of WWII, an issue that was close to the director’s heart. Both Fred and his brother George had escaped their native Austria for the US by the time of the Nazi invasion in 1938. Their parents, however, remained behind waiting for American visas, and “were overtaken by events and did not survive.they.died, separated, in the Holocaust in 1941 and 1942 – two out of six million.” (2) That Zinnemann had found prosperity away from his homeland, whilst both his parents lost their lives in the Holocaust perhaps goes some way in explaining his focus on these issues. Survival after the war can pose as many difficulties: physically, emotionally, and ethically, as what one does to survive during the war itself. In The Search, Montgomery Clift wanders the bombed wreckage of Germany with a young child, one of the thousands left orphaned or abandoned at the conclusion of the war. In The Men, Marlon Brando tries to piece together the wreckage of his life as a paraplegic after an injury sustained in battle. In Act the wreckage exists in the dark hearts of the two ex-soldiers, one rendered lame both physically and emotionally, the other living with overwhelming guilt, and driven by a desire to bury his actions of the past.

The moral landscape of this film is complex and difficult terrain; and Zinnemann effectively swings an ethical pendulum, never allowing us to categorise or pigeonhole his protagonists. Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is a loving husband and father, a prosperous building contractor and respected member of the community of Santa Lisa. We know from the opening frames that he is being pursued by the murderous Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan). Joe packs a gun and his eerie step-drag gait and fixed demeanour clearly paint him as the villain. But Zinnemann does not allow this to be a simple hunter/hunted tale; Joe is the tragic and haunted survivor of a concentration camp – Frank the man who betrayed his men to the Nazi’s in exchange for extra food. His efforts to silence Joe with the help of prostitute Pat (the terrific Mary Astor) and hitman Johnny (Berry Kroegar) tilt the apparently clean moral lines of this film into an abyss of guilt and blame, humanity and responsibility. Most effective is the slow release of information in Act – it comes at a considered, but leisurely pace, allowing long enough to force us to readjust our placement of each character on the morality continuum. We are kept in the dark as to Joe’s motives and Frank’s actions in the camp for much of the film, and Zinnemann feeds us morsels one at a time to keep the pendulum swinging.

Like the audience, Frank’s wife Edith (Janet Leigh) is also struggling to place the events that baffle her. Her interrogation of her husband over the dinner table is emphasised by the sole overhead light as she fires questions and struggles to understand the two men that seem to inhabit her husband’s skin. There are no easy answers for her either, but the appearance of Joe’s girlfriend Ann (Phyllis Thaxter) helps to put things in perspective for her. “They’re both sick with it”, Ann tells her, and behind this lies the crux of the story – war doesn’t end when peace agreements are signed, and immediately the targets of blame and responsibility in the film become murkier still. That the film struggled to find an audience is perhaps no surprise. Post-war trauma in a society earnestly focused on reconstruction and forward motion leaves Act out in the cold for its times. Nevertheless, it refuses to pretty up the issues it confronts. Indeed there is a certain irony in the slow demolition of Frank, a man who epitomises the energetic progress of the late ’40s and ’50s. A man intent on construction, the building of safe homes and communities, ultimately finds his own life pulled apart brick by brick by the past until he stands vulnerable and alone, exposed to the elements in the seedy streets of LA. The determined cheerfulness of the post-war boom is exposed as a brittle façade; behind the brass bands and manicured gardens lie the dark guilt and paranoia bred from wartime experience.

The inkiness of the black, shadowy LA streets develop a deep, lush mystery through Robert Surtees’ camera – lights are flicked on and off with great haste and shadows jump and consume whole characters who struggle to find the light. Reduced to single sources – street lights, coffee table lamps; the gloom eats at them, disfigures them, and casts a pall over their every action, their every thought. And as truth is slowly revealed, the world seems to tip awry, becoming a gruesome distortion of itself, a dark mockery of the light breeziness of our first introduction to Santa Lisa. The energetic, robust brass band of the local Festival at the beginning of the film becomes the drunken, leery cacophony of the band at the Builders and Contractors Convention in LA. The prim morality of Edith veers into the easy drawl of Pat, who has drunk too much, whored too much and seems only capable of making things worse even as she tries to make things better. It’s the chasm between these binaries, as well as the gaps Zinnemann exposes in our constructed, manufactured lives, which makes Act such an engaging and compelling work.

This was the director’s final film for MGM, concluding his seven year contract with the studio, and clearly one for which he had considerable affection. In his autobiography, he says of Act: “Personally, I like this picture very much. It would still be of interest to today’s audiences, I’m sure – the theme is a permanent one – and I fervently hope that it will never be colorized, but will be shown only in Bob Surtees’ masterful black and white photography.” (3) With films such as High Noon (1952), From Here to Eternity (1953), The Nun’s Story (1959) and A Man For All Seasons (1966) still to come, this film certainly shows Zinnemann in command of his powers. In this film he brings together the rich depth of Surtees camera, Kaper’s effective score, and impressive performances from his cast to create a complex, fascinating noir that exposes the grim truths behind the shiny, fragile façade of post-war America.


  1. Fred Zinnemann. An Autobiography. Great Britain: Bloomsbury, 1992. p 74
  2. Ibid. p 55
  3. Ibid. p. 74

About The Author

Mark Freeman is an academic in the Department of Film and Animation at Swinburne University. His most recent publication was in Digital Horror: Haunted Technologies, Network Panic and the Found Footage Phenomenon edited by Linnie Baker and Xavier Aldana Reyes. He is also an editor at Senses of Cinema and has interests in national cinemas, horror and reality television.

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