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Act of Violence (Dec. 21, 1948)

Act of Violence
Act of Violence (1948)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence opens with a shot of New York City at night. The Chrysler Building is silhouetted against a dark gray sky. Bronislau Kaper’s musical score is ominous and intense. Robert Ryan crosses the street toward the camera. He’s wearing a hat and a trench coat, and his stride is determined despite his limp.

The sound of his limping walk is distinctive. Step, drag, step, drag, step, drag, step, drag. It’s a sound that will haunt the film.

He walks upstairs to a shabby rented room and pulls a semiautomatic pistol from a dresser drawer. He slaps a magazine into the pistol, checks the barrel and the ejection port, and then the title of the film appears onscreen in block letters.

Act of Violence title

Now that’s the way to start a movie. Zinnemann, his cinematographer Robert Surtees, and his editor Conrad A. Nervig build more suspense and engagement in the first minute of Act of Violence than most movies are able to muster in their entire first reel.

It helps that the film drops us right into the action. Most movies in the 1940s began with screen after screen of opening credits; a time-honored cinematic tradition. Act of Violence and Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night are the only films from 1948 I’ve seen that eschewed that hoary convention, and both films immediately arrest the viewer.

After the opening, Ryan’s ominous character Joe Parkson takes a Greyhound bus to California, where the viewer meets the other star of the film; Van Heflin. Heflin plays Frank Enley, a World War II veteran, housing contractor, and family man with a beautiful young wife named Edith (Janet Leigh) and an adorable baby boy. (Janet Leigh was just 21 when this film was made. Heflin and Ryan were both in their late 30s.)

We know right from the beginning that Joe Parkson wants to kill Frank Enley, but we don’t know why. For awhile, all we know is that Enley was Parkson’s CO in the war, and that Parkson has a vendetta against him.

Van Heflin and Robert Ryan

M-G-M didn’t produce very many noirs, but when they did, they were glossy affairs with high productions values and great actors, like The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Undercurrent (1946), Lady in the Lake (1947), and High Wall (1947).

Act of Violence is a stylish thriller that looks and feels ahead of its time. The cinematography is meticulously constructed and dripping with noir atmosphere, but it never feels studio-bound and uses real-world locations beautifully. The sound effects in the film sometimes do a better job of creating suspense than any musical score could.

All the actors in Act of Violence are really good. Van Heflin was a sad-eyed Everyman, and Robert Ryan had a physically intimidating presence, but enough charisma to make even his most villainous characters magnetic. Apparently Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart were originally slated to star in Act of Violence, but I can’t picture anyone but Heflin and Ryan as these characters.

Janet Leigh has a pretty thankless role, but she has enough star power to make it interesting. Phyllis Thaxter doesn’t have much to do as Joe’s girl Ann, but she’s fine. Mary Astor is wonderful in an unglamorous role as a barfly obsessed with “kicks” who Frank meets on a business trip to Los Angeles, and the always-creepy Berry Kroeger is great in a small part.

I thought Zinnemann’s previous film, The Search (1948) was a minor masterpiece, and I feel the same way about Act of Violence. Zinnemann’s best work may have been ahead of him, but Act of Violence is an exceedingly well-made, visually inventive thriller with enough moral ambiguity to keep it interesting. I think our cultural views have evolved since World War II in ways that make the central conceit of the film even more ambiguous than it probably seemed when the film was first released.

I don’t want to go into more detail for fear of spoilers, but for me there’s a great deal of meaning packed into Enley’s statement to his wife, “A lot of things happened in the war that you wouldn’t understand. Why should you? I don’t understand them myself.”

The Iron Curtain (May 12, 1948)

The Iron Curtain
The Iron Curtain (1948)
Directed by William A. Wellman
20th Century-Fox

William A. Wellman’s The Iron Curtain was the first appearance of Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney together in a film since Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). This really has no bearing on The Iron Curtain, but I love the movie Laura and Andrews and Tierney are one of my favorite screen couples, so it was fun to see them play completely different roles.

The Iron Curtain is the fictionalized tale of Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet code clerk who was stationed at the U.S.S.R. Embassy in Ottawa and discovered that American military secrets and other products of Soviet espionage were being transmitted through his office.

There is the obligatory text preceding the film that tells the viewer that all the documents presented appear exactly as they did in actual court records, as authenticated by the R.C.M.P.

This is a standard opening for a docudrama, which in the late ’40s was sort of a subgenre of film noir, with dramatic lighting, expressionistic camera angles, and subjective storytelling applied to true stories of espionage or miscarried justice, like The House on 92nd Street (1945), 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), Boomerang (1947), and Call Northside 777 (1948). These films used actual locations, documents, and occasionally even the actual participants in historical events to add sizzle to their “ripped from the headlines” plots.

When Gouzenko first arrives in Canada he’s the perfect apparatchik, devoted to Marxism and to the Communist Party. When one of his fellow Soviet embassy workers, Nina Karanova (June Havoc), shows him her spacious, well-decorated apartment, he berates her for her laxity and for being seduced by the trappings of Western decadence. But a chain of events conspires to force Gouzenko to experience some character development. His wife, Anna Gouzenko (Gene Tierney), joins him in Ottawa, and together they experience the friendliness and good hearts of their North American neighbors, and realize that they might have more in common with their “enemies” than they thought. At work, Gouzenko is haunted by the drunken recollections of Maj. Semyon Kulin (Eduard Franz), who murdered some of his own men to force others to “volunteer” for a mission during the war.

When Gouzenko discovers that he is passing classified information from the embassy back to Moscow — American nuclear secrets, the details of a supposedly secret meeting in Canada between FDR and Churchill, details of sleeper agents — he experiences a crisis of conscience, and has to decide if he should turn documents over to the Canadian Minister of Justice and put his life and the lives of his wife and child in danger.

The Iron Curtain is a slick, well-made thriller that doesn’t generate suspense through over-the-top elements like chases or shootouts, but rather through grounded, real-life elements like the threat of the NKVD, the Soviet Secret Police.

When the story of Igor Gouzenko was originally covered by the media in February 1946, it was the beginning of public awareness of the Cold War. The revelation that our former allies were running a spy ring in North America had a profound impact that would last for decades. The Iron Curtain is the earliest film I’ve seen to tackle the looming Soviet menace, and it’s more tasteful and factually accurate than some of the outré Red Scare flicks the ’50s would give us.

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