Friday, August 13, 2010


Ed here: I just finished watching Act of Violence again. I have even more respect for it now. Every aspect of it works. Below is my original review of it. I should've mentioned how vulnerable and lovely the very young Janet Leigh is in it and how well she acts her part. Phyllis Thaxter is also very good. By coincidence this morning I was reading one of my David Thompson collections of his film reviews and I ran across his take on the film. He thinks it's just about perfect in every way. And he's as taken with Mary Astor as I am. He points out that she was always beautiful, elegant and had few equals in comedy. To see her here as a faded hooker with a kind of beer joint sexuality is amazing. What a career she had.

Wednesday, July 20, 2006

Mary Astor in ACT OF VIOLENCE.

I usually eat lunch around twelve thirty, catch the news and then go back upstairs to my office to write again.

Yesterday I happened to be channel surfing when I saw the billboard for a Turner movie called ACT OF VIOLENCE. I’d never seen it but as soon as I saw Robert Ryan (my favorite noir actor) l knew I’d watch the whole thing.

I’m going to be lazy and let a reviewer from the Internet Movie Database do the heavy lifting for me but I do want to remark on Mary Astor’s performance. Astor is famous for two things, being in THE MALTESE FALCON with Bogart and having her diaries admitted as evidence in a divorce case. She certainly got around.

IMDB: "War veteran Frank Enley seems to be a happily married small-town citizen until he realises Joe Parkson is in town. It seems Parkson is out for revenge because of something that happened in a German POW camp, and when a frightened Enley suddenly leaves for a convention in L.A., Parkson is close behind. Written by Jeremy Perkins "

ACT OF VIOLENCE is hijacked in the middle of act two. Previously the picture belonged to Van Heflin and Ryan. But Astor, who figures prominently in the action far into act three, just walks off with the picture. TCM ran several movies of hers a while back and she was usually a giddy spoiled heiress or somesuch in a glitzy comedies. She was always approriately irritating (the movies encourage us to hate giddy spoiled heiresses). Then I saw her in Sincalir Lewis'' Dodsworth with Walter Houston and Ruth Chatteron and it proved to be one of the most subtle, endearing, intelligent performances I've ever seen by anybody.

But in VIOLENCE we see a side of Astor that is, to me at least, astonishing. As a middle-aged hooker, she manages to be a decent person and a con job at the same time. Her faded looks are spellbinding. She’s got those great facial bones and the still-slender body but she plays against them with a weariness that makes her the most interesting character in the movie. I couldn’t stop looking at her. She’s every bar floozie you ever met and yet she transcends the stereotype by having a kind of hardboiled street intelligence. And at least a modicum of honesty. And, to my taste anyway, she’s sexy as hell.

This is one of those movies you enjoy because you soon realize that you have no idea where it’s going. It’s the standard three-act structure but the writers and director Fred Zinnemann aren’t afraid to introduce new plot elements right up to mid-way in the third act. That rarely works but it sure works here.

The only melancholy part for me was knowing how bitter Ryan was about playing psychos. He needed the work but considered it his jinx. He was among the finest film actors of his time but never really got his due. It’s his savaged face (he was dying of cancer at the time) that haunts the final moments of THE WILD BUNCH. Grim Sam Peckinpah knew what he was doing. Not to mention his final performance shortly before his death in The Iceman Cometh,


Brian Drake said...

It is indeed one heck of a movie, though I don't recall liking the ending very much. I did, however, want to use Heflin's "confession" monologue in one of my acting classes, but I chose something from an Orson Welles movie instead because I couldn't work up the needed intensity Heflin's lines needed.

David Cranmer said...

I've never seen this film but have to cast my vote for Ms. Astor. She is a marvelous actress.

Mike Dennis said...

I saw this one the other day. I'd DVR'd it off TCM and watched it the next day. It really is a powerful movie, with the creepy photography, the angular shadows, and top-drawer performances, especially by Robert Ryan and Mary Astor.

A must-see for devotees of great black & white cinema.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

It's on the top of my Netflix queue on the basis of this rave.

Kenneth Mark Hoover said...

There was a Robert Ryan retrospective on TCM this weekend. Dunno if you caught it....