Act of Violence (1948)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity (1953) & A Man For All Seasons (1966)) this thrilling drama stars Van Heflin (Johnny Eager (1942)) as a man who finds himself being pursued by another (Robert Ryan – Crossfire (1947)) from his past. His wife is played by Janet Leigh (Psycho (1960)) and a woman who later assists him is played by Mary Astor (The Great Lie (1941)). Under Zinnemann’s masterful direction the film’s story grabs you from the start and doesn’t let go until its end. Heflin who seems to have a penchant for playing unsympathetic characters must account for a past failing which crippled Ryan’s who’s playing a typically intense character and the one intent on making Heflin’s pay for it. Leigh in only her fifth film is not given much to do besides emote and cry. However the nearly unrecognizable Astor in the twilight of her career makes an impact as a woman who’s been around that meets Heflin’s character in a seedy bar and has nefarious connections who can “help”. Given Heflin’s character’s complicity it would be incorrect to classify this one as noir though three time Oscar winner Robert Surtees’s B&W Cinematography does give it that feel.
Frank Enley (Heflin) has established a nice construction business such that he’s received community recognition for his work. He lives in a nice suburban home in Santa Lisa California with his wife Edith (Leigh) and two year old son. Unfortunately the accolades Enley’s received calls attention to his whereabouts to Joe Parkson (Ryan) a man who forced Enley to pick up his family and move from Syracuse some years earlier. The film actually opens with the limping Parkson retrieving a gun from his own apartment back East and boarding a bus to Los Angeles. His pursuit leads him to Enley’s residence right after he’d departed for a fishing weekend with next door neighbor Fred Finney (Harry Antrim). Fred’s wife Martha is played by Connie Gilchrist. When Parkson arrives at Enley’s home Edith exhibits the innocence of the 1940’s when she tells him where her husband has gone. Parkson doggedly pursues Enley to the lake and it is clear that his intent is to kill him. Familiar character actor Will Wright plays a man who rents cabins and boats at the lake that tips off Heflin’s character that he’s being sought by a limping man. Enley instantly knows he’s got trouble and to the surprise of his neighbor abruptly ends their holiday.
The scenes which follow eventually reveal (e.g. to us and his wife) Enley’s reason for avoiding Parkson. Both were in the war together a bombardier crew that was shot down and taken to a German P.O.W. camp. After nearly starving to death Parkson and some other men try to get their Senior officer Enley to join them on an escape attempt. Knowing that the last men who tried were all shot and killed by their captors Enley tries to persuade them not to do it. Convinced he could save his men’s lives Enley tells the German Commandant about the escape plan and thinks he’s made a deal to not harm them. Of course the Germans shot & killed the would-be escapees though Parkson apparently wounded did survive and make it to safety. While describing the situation to his wife Enley admits to himself that his motivation was hunger and that he’d eaten well for the information he’d provided.
Parkson’s girlfriend Ann (Phyllis Thaxter) also arrives in Santa Lisa; the primary reason for her character is to fill in the blanks regarding Parkson’s motivation. She tries unsuccessfully to stop him. Parkson’s pursuit of Enley continues to a trade convention in L.A.; Dick Elliot plays a drunk conventioneer). When Enley sees Parkson he punches him and then runs off through the streets where he eventually turns up at a seedy bar near closing time. There he meets Pat (Astor) who recognizes Enley as a “fish out of water” and decides he must need help. After she learns that he has a business worth $20000 she takes him to an after hours (e.g. illegal) bar where she introduces him to Gavery (Taylor Holmes) a lawyer who’s really a “fixer”. In somewhat of a drunken stupor Enley “agrees” to hire a thug named Johnny (Berry Kroeger) to take care of Parkson.
*** SPOILERS ***
When Enley later realizes what he’s done and learns that Johnny has effectively planned a hit on Parkson he tries to intervene. Justice is served when Enley’s efforts are “rewarded” and he is the one shot by Johnny when he accidentally takes the bullet meant for his pursuer. Only injured Enley lurches at Johnny who’s attempting to flee the scene in his automobile then struggles with the brute hanging out the window of the car as it eventually careens into a light pole and explodes into flames killing them both. Parkson limping and vainly pursuing the car is met by Ann and tells her he didn’t do it. When someone in the crowd recognizes Enley and asks “who’s going to tell his wife” Parkson replies “I will” then walks away from the crash scene with Ann arm in arm.