According to Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart were at one time attached to play the leads in Act of Violence. I have no doubt what roles they would have played. Peck would have been the family man with a dark secret (not unlike his part in Cape Fear) while Bogart would have played the crippled war veteran out for revenge.
Instead, in 1948, film goers saw Van Heflin as the young businessman and Robert Ryan as the man out to kill him. These two don't have nearly the same star power- but with the addition of Janet Leigh and Mary Astor the credit list ends up becoming a dream cast (at least for film noir fans).
Although I enjoy the film greatly, Act of Violence is challenging to watch. For the first half of the film you just don't know who the hero is.
The opening scene in the movie introduces us to Robert Ryan's character Joe Parkson. He's quickly loads a gun in a seedy hotel room then limps on board a bus. We have a pretty good idea that this guy is not a cop and probably has a few screws loose. However, we're not sure if he's the bad guy. The bus leaves the dark rainy city with Parkson and heads to the sunny suburbs. There the viewer meets the man Parkson is hunting: Frank Enley (Heflin). He's standing alongside his beautiful wife (Leigh) receiving an award from the community.
With the two main characters introduced, movie goers would probably determine that Ryan is the black hat and Heflin is the potential victim. If you assume that you'd be wrong--mostly. Ryan plays wounded war veteran Parkson like a toy that's wound too tight. The grizzled actor was no stranger to suspense thrillers at this time. Between the years 1947 and 1950 Ryan was seen in Crossfire, Berlin Express, Caught, The Set-Up, The Woman on Pier 13, The Secret Fury and Born to Be Bad. He played a wide range or characters in those films including an eccentric millionaire, a down-and-out boxer, and a communist spy. In Act of Violence he does what he does best: playing a guy who's more than slightly unhinged. Ten years later he would perfect the character in Odds Against Tomorrow.
Van Heflin is his normal charming self here, at least at the outset. Heflin's most recent noir parts prior to Act of Violence were playing amiable glad-handers opposite Barbara Stanwyck and Kirk Douglas in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and Joan Crawford in Possessed. (He had finely honed the role of “charming lush” previously, in the 1942 thriller Johnny Eager.) In Act of Violence, however, he's a sober but likable man who (unbeknownst to virually everyone) betrayed his fellow soldiers during war. However, at the beginning of the film he appears to be living the American Dream.
Enley is a pillar of the community and is happy with his young family and career. After the award ceremony he packs and goes off on a fishing trip with a neighbor. There he finds out that someone is following him. He immediately knows it's Parkson. Enley ends his weekend early and rushes home. He enters his house in a controlled panic. With his puzzled wife watching, he locks the doors and pulls down the shades. His wife is confused and so are we. Why is he being followed? What does he have to be scared of? Why is he standing in the dark looking terrified?
Director Fred Zinnemann--who would direct From Here to Eternity a few years later--puts the viewer in a tough spot. Enley is a friendly and respectable guy in his community. However during the war as a POW he betrayed his men for food--a betrayal that cost some their lives. The guilt of his act was suppressed until Parkson came looking for him. He has no other choice but to run.
Not only does he run from Parkson but he leaves home in the middle of the night to get away from his family, he can't bear to tell the truth to his wife. So who does the viewer root for? The crazy guy trying to get revenge on his former best friend; or the man on the run that took the easy way out during war and is still running years later? Senses of Cinema puts it perfectly in their article on the film: “The moral landscape...is complex and difficult terrain; and Zinnemann effectively swings an ethical pendulum, never allowing us to categorize or pigeonhole his protagonists.” It must have been a hard task for Zinnemann, but he pulls it off.
Most viewers probably identify with Enley--a guy who has done some things he isn't proud of--though certainly most couldn't imagine themselves committing the kind of betrayal he's accused of. When Enley finally confesses his sins to his wife in a dank city alley (one of the best looking scenes in the film) he sounds like he's trying to justify his actions as much as explain to his wife what happened.
If Parkson was just your run-of-the-mill movie psycho it'd be hard to feel any compassion for him but viewers will. In this film Robert Ryan sports a face that looks like someone left it out in the rain. It was very easy, I imagine, for Ryan to play the ugly bad guy (as in Crossfire). The actor visibly plays his inner ugliness. However, in Act of Violence he's not as malevolent as he first appears. Parkson's a guy damaged physically and mentally by war. He's convinced himself that the only way to clear his mind is to kill his former Army buddy. In a twisted way it makes sense.
Like Enley, Ryan has a young love (played by Phyllis Thaxter). She catches up to him and tries to talk him out of doing anything crazy. She appears to be the only thing keeping Parkson from going totally bonkers.
Meanwhile Enley's wife begins searching for her man who used a middle of the night trip to a Los Angeles convention as an excuse to flee. Once she meets her husband's stalker face-to-face at their front door, she becomes frightened of what he might do to him.
When Frank Enley hits Los Angeles on the run the movie literally gets darker. Looking for a way out of the fix he's in, Enley gets involved with a group of parasites that just seem to be lying in wait for a sucker to show up. When Enley enters a seedy L.A. bar and meets Mary Astor the wheels are set in motion.
These scenes in the city are the best part of the film. While it's difficult to fully identify with either of the two leads, Astor is incredibly relatable. Her role as the brassy Pat two-thirds of the way in steals the movie. While Parkson searches for his prey, this woman of the streets gives Heflin shelter during his flight. However, while Parkson's girl and Enley's wife try as hard as they can to get their men out of trouble, Mary Astor's character actually introduces Enley to killers for hire.
Teaming up with Pat are Taylor Holmes (Nightmare Alley) as a slimy lawyer and Berry Kroeger (Gun Crazy, Cry of the City ) as Johnny (the trigger man). Enley realizes that the men are paid criminals and runs from the group. Drunk and delirious, he now appears to be as crazy as Parkson. After nearly walking in front of a train, Enley agrees to give Johnny thousands to kill his enemy. In the morning he wakes up in Pat's tiny room and realizes what he'd agreed to the night before. He rushes to stop Johnny from killing his ex-friend. What results is satisfying stand-off more reminiscent of classic westerns (like Zinnemann's High Noon) than film noir.
The pace of Act of Violence is quick. There are no opening credits, just the MGM logo and the film's title once Robert Ryan appears on the screen. Clocking in at 88 minutes, the film is streamlined for action. And it looks great. By 1948 most film noir shared a similar look: a combination of docudrama (like The Naked City) and German expressionism (used in the proto-noir Stranger on the Third Floor). Cinematographer Robert Surtees (a three-time Oscar winner whose only other noir was the Mickey Rooney's musically-inflected The Strip) uses the same style and does a fine job. Most of the LA scenes feature sparse lighting: dim street lights and table lamps serve as single source lighting in many instances. There's also a great shot of the old Angels' Flight when Heflin scurries down the dark streets of Los Angeles.
Act of Violence is a gloomy tale, but its ability to examine both sides of the issues contained in its action and its highly charged backstory make it a landmark in film noir, aided palpably by tremendous performances from the cast--particularly the lead actors. Bogart and Peck are a couple of swell guys, but the right duo definitely wound up top-lining this classic--and are two big reasons why it's a classic.