Saturday, April 17, 2010

Act of Violence

I watched this again last night and thought I'd reprint this to reming you to watch it, too.
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 Classic movie called ACT OF VIOLENCE. I’d never seen it but as soon as I realized Robert Ryan (my favorite noir actor) was in it 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.

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, walks off with the picture. TCM ran several movies of hers a while back and she was great as a giddy spoiled heiress or somesuch in glitzy comedies. She was always approriately irritating (the movies encourage us to hate giddy spoiled heiresses) as in the screwball comedy masterpiece Midnight. In drama she was flawless. Hard to think of another actress of that time who could have played the role she did in Dodsworth with Walter Houston.

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 at odd moments there is real sexual charm in her weary looks.

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. Of course if you read much about how Ryan had to put up with--and finally push back against--Peckinpah's drunken directions, you see that his performance turned into a chore.

From IMBD:

Zinnemann again looks at the aftermath of war, 17 November 2003

Author: clore_2 from New York, New York

In SEVENTH CROSS director Fred Zinnemann depicted the isolation of a concentration camp escapee (Spencer Tracy) with MGM studio sets stepping in for actual locations – that would have been impossible at the time. In THE SEARCH he made use of a ruined Berlin to tell the story of a very young concentration camp survivor – a young boy separated from his mother – using the ruins as a metaphor for the many ruined lives.

In ACT OF VIOLENCE Zinnemann returns to the aftermath of war – this time telling of two prisoner-of-war camp survivors, one of whom was a Nazi collaborator, the other one a vengeful fellow prisoner who takes it upon himself to track down and kill his former friend. Cinematographer Robert Surtees makes great use of Los Angeles’ seedier parts of town – I was reminded of how his son Bruce Surtees made similar effective use of San Francisco in DIRTY HARRY –this is noir at its best, not only in cinematic terms, but with those “only come out at night” characters you expect in a top notch thriller.

Mary Astor is most effective as the barfly (couldn’t make her a prostitute, though it is more than obvious) – and after her performance in the garish DESERT FURY it’s nice to see her in black-and-white again. We first meet her in a pub in which Van Heflin runs for sanctuary, the lighting there has us admiring the way she has held up, but when we move to the harsher lighting of her apartment (the lamp hanging on a cord is unshaded), we realize that the first impression was too kind. It’s a magnificent performance – perhaps the best that I’ve seen of her.

Barry Kroeger, whose altogether too infrequent appearances included such noir classics as CRY OF THE CITY and GUN CRAZY, makes the most of his few moments as an underworld “enforcer” who would be quite willing to kill Ryan for a price. While Ryan seems to be a man who is on the verge of violence at any second, barely able to restrain himself, Kroeger is even more chilling. His calm, rational demeanor puts him in a different class of predator – he’s good at what he does and he’s used to doing it, like Alan Ladd’s character in THIS GUN FOR HIRE we can be sure that when committing murder, he feels “Fine, just fine.”

Janet Leigh appears as Heflin’s wife – it’s an early turn for her, and while it is a most stereotypically written “wifey” role, she invests it with all that she has, but the ending is such that we have to wonder just how she will react. Right before that we have a taut scene with Heflin about to confront Ryan while Kroeger is watching. The tension is almost unbearable, all done through editing and camerawork and not one line of dialogue.

Zinnemann would continue to look at war’s effects on those who came home in THE MEN as well as TERESA and in HATFUL OF RAIN – the man may be the most unheralded of classic film directors, but his resume includes Oscar winners such as HIGH NOON and A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS as well as such nailbiters as this film and the original DAY OF THE JACKAL.


August West said...

Robert Ryan was one of the most underrated actors that Hollywood ever produced. Even though he achieved fame, he always seemed to be stuck in the second cut of leading actors during his time. That was a shame. He always delivered powerful performances that were second to none.

Todd Mason said...

Ryan certainly carries the otherwise already strong ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW.

I've always felt Astor was the weak spot in THE MALTESE FALCON (except when she uncovers the crazy as she assaultz Cairo), but I suspect I'd like her better in this film (and playing the heedless heiresses in those others).