Act of Violence (Fred Zinnemann / U.S., 1948):

Fred Zinnemann’s best movie, in that film noir unease forces a tremor into the cautious craftsman’s decorum. New York’s silhouetted cityscape sets the stage; Robert Ryan limps out of the darkness, grabs a pistol and boards a bus to California, his presence is the one shadow at a sunny Memorial Day parade. The man he’s after is a humble war hero and community bedrock (Van Heflin), who unveils a new suite of track homes while wife (Janet Leigh) and son beam from the cheering crowd. The crippled stalker is Heflin’s former bombardier friend, they have unfinished business, the truth about starving prisoners and a betrayal "to save lives" comes out during a noisy contractors’ convention: "They gave me food and I ate it. There were six widows, there were ten men dead, and I couldn’t even stop eating!" ("Happy Days Are Here Again" fuels the carouse outside.) Two years after the homecoming of The Best Years of Our Lives, the cost of war descends upon the American household and the country’s booming economy—Ryan is only half of a pas de deux of maimed survivors and demonic deals, a character’s crack ("With money you can fix anything") can’t hold back retribution anymore. Exposed and pursued, Heflin rushes through the diagonals of nocturnal Los Angeles and comes upon Mary Astor’s superb rendition of a worn barfly, whose exhausted pronunciation of the word "kicks" contrasts with the sensible hand-wringing of Leigh and Phyllis Thaxter. "Yes, I got money," the desperate hero mutters: His vengeful foe laughs at his offer, Heflin wakes up to realize he’s hired a killer. Zinnemann constructs this as a grid of darkness which, from the hero drawing the curtains and turning off the lights at his home to his dazed walk down the Guilt Tunnel, illuminates rather than obscures the haunted past and tentatively hopeful future of men and nations of war. Cinematography by Robert Surtees. With Berry Kroeger, Taylor Holmes, Harry Antrim, Connie Gilchrist, and Will Wright. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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