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Films of 1948: Act of Violence

With just 21 feature-length credits, director Fred Zinnemann’s batting average was awfully high, thanks to legendary releases like High Noon, From Here to Eternity, The Nun’s Story, A Man for All Seasons, Oklahoma! and Julia. Yet among Zinnemann’s filmography is a picture that isn’t well known, didn’t score any Oscar nominations, or make much box-office bank: Act of Violence.

In the book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, Eddie Muller recaps the movie’s admittedly grim plot: “Act of Violence bristles with anger and guilt, the first postwar noir to take a challenging look at the ethics of men in combat. Enley (Van Heflin) is stalked by the apparently deranged Parkson (Robert Ryan), who seems bent on destroying his former friend’s tranquil life. The viewer empathizes with Enley, a solid citizen promoting growth and prosperity...[until] the truth about his war record leaks out.”

I won’t reveal why that truth explains Parkson’s quest to kill a reputed war hero. I’ll just say that Parkson knows a shocking secret about Enley from their shared past as POWs. New York Times’ critic Bosley Crowther hailed the film as a “tour de force” for its director and cast: “Van Heflin strains and sweats impressively. As his relentless pursuer, Robert Ryan is infernally taut.

Mr. Zinnemann has also extracted a tortured performance from Janet Leigh as the fearful, confused and disillusioned wife of the hunted man [and] squalid portraits of scoundrels from Mary Astor, Berry Kroeger and Taylor Holmes.”

Astor relished playing a woman whom she called “a sleazy, aging whore.” Ditching any hints of vanity, Astor writes in her autobiography, “I worked out the way this poor alley cat should look, and insisted firmly (with Zinney’s help) that the one dress in the picture found on a rack at the cheapest department store. We made the hem uneven, put a few cigarette burns and stains on the front. I wore bracelets that rattled and stiletto-heeled slippers. I had the heels sanded off at the edges to make walking uncomfortable. I wore a long, unbecoming hairpiece...I put on very dark nail polish and chipped it. I used no foundation makeup, just too much lipstick and too much mascara – both smeared just a little...and the camera helped with ‘bad’ lighting.”

At the time, Astor was pulling double duty at MGM, shooting Act of Violence on one sound stage and Little Women on another. During a day off from Little Women, Astor swung by the set in full “alley cat” mode. Director Mervyn LeRoy, who “didn’t know I was moonlighting in another production...took a startled look at me...and said, ‘You look like a two-bit tart!' I was pleased." Astor also noted that "playing scenes with Van Heflin, and working with an artist like Zinnemann, was a tonic. The way we worked, talking about it, thinking about it, using, discarding, trying something else...It was the way [filmmaking] ought to be – always."

In addition to the war-record revelation that drives Parkson’s fatal obsession (and several other nail-biting moments along the way), the final four minutes of the drama pack a surprising twist you won’t see coming.

Now that you know the back story, watch Act of Violence via this free link:

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