Frank Enley (Van Heflin) was lucky to survive his time spent as a prisoner of war in a Nazi camp during the second World War. When he returns home and settles down in a small California town, he is known as a war hero and a well-respected member of the community.
Frank’s Wife, Edith (Janet Leigh), knows that Frank moved them across the country from the East in order to escape his past, and to separate himself from the person he was before and during the war. She doesn’t know the details, though.
When a stranger named Joe (Robert Ryan) comes knocking at the Edith’s door while Frank is away on a fishing trip, she comes to suspect there may be a much darker element to his past than he’s let on.
Act of Violence was directed by Fred Zinnemann. The screenplay was written by Robert L. Richards from a story by Collier Young.
Act of Violence packs in quite a bit of suspense, and the most tense scene involving a canoe since Leave Her to Heaven! Even though I was spoiled as to the exact source of Frank’s anxiety by FilmStruck’s description, I still found the film very engaging and intriguing.
For a viewer going in blind, I imagine the film would be even more gripping. Robert Ryan carries quite an ominous mood along with him, and the film does a great job of bringing a sense of mystery to his character before we find out exactly why he’s hunting Heflin.
As a consequence of the fact that this secret is successfully kept by the film for a while, the dynamic between the two characters is very interesting, as is the audience’s relationship to them. By the end of the film, there’s a bit of a role reversal, Joe becoming somewhat more of a sympathetic figure. Neither man is totally demonized, nor totally heroic. The film explores trauma, violence, and the moral quandaries faced by both men. What Frank did was stupid, but not malicious, and very much driven by his own stress/his struggle to survive.
Frank has gone to great lengths to keep his secret: dropping friends and refusing to collect his military pay or wear his Army jacket, not to mention moving his young family 3,000 miles across the country. Heflin’s performance is very good, full of anxiety. He only gets more tortured as the film moves along. (That scene with the tunnel and train was captivating, and a little terrifying!)
A subtle and steady performance is given by Janet Leigh, and Robert Ryan of course is solid. Also a fantastic addition to the cast is Mary Astor, playing a cynical prostitute who tries to help Heflin. “I’ve seen all the troubles in the world,” she says in one scene, “and they boil down to just those two. You’re broke, or you’re lonely, or both!”
It all wraps up with a wild ending in which no character gets away consequence-free. A fitting ending for a film that kept me gripped from its first minute to its last. Recommended!