Monday, January 29, 2018
Noir Watch: Act of Violence (1949)
Format: TCM/ Noir Alley
If you're not watching Eddie Muller's Noir Alley series on TCM, you're missing out on a masters series about not just film noir, but films, film makers, film making, actors, social issues, fashion and the history of the mid-20th Century.
Since week one, the series has showcased films big and small that fit into the elusive canon of Noir (something Muller himself seems to poke fun at with his "Noir or Not?" series of videos on facebook), and we get way beyond the classics and into some interesting side street destinations. Not bad movies, but movies that didn't quite make the impact that made the movies household names 70 years on.
You can watch big Hollywood musicals and whatnot to get an idea of what was going on at the time those pictures were made, but I think Noir exists more in line with the concerns of folks living outside the spotlight and headlines of the day. As Muller pointed out in his pre-amble to Act of Violence (1949), maybe we weren't entirely great at coming to grips with all the things that could occur in the fog of war. And it was a bit daring to suggest that someone who served may have done less than honorable things before returning home.
The movie has a quintet of pretty stellar actors. Van Heflin plays an up and coming home-builder in a town growing up outside Los Angeles, marries to Janet Leigh. Robert Ryan plays a man coming back from his past, carrying a gun. Phyllis Thaxter, Ryan's girl who doesn't want to see him consumed by anger. And, in the kind of role I'm sure she relished, Mary Astor plays a hooker in that deeply coded way of the Hayes Office, where maybe she's just a girl who's down on her luck (no, she's a hooker).
Beautifully shot, this movie could be used as your template for what noir lighting and on-location sets ought to look like, complete with Angel's Flight used in one beautifully framed scene, and the dichotomy of home and hearth and the grittiness of the city never seemed quite so obvious. No detectives in this one, just people pulling and pushing on each other, and everyone willing to go too far as they wrestle with the past in the present.
We can talk about Van Heflin some other time, and Robert Ryan. And we should. I suspect that at this point its the noir fans who remember Van Heflin for anything but Shane and that Robert Ryan was not just in The Dirty Dozen and The Wild Bunch. These guys are fantastic, and willing to play less than wonderful men. And, of course, Mary Astor bites down hard on a part that's got some weight to it (Leigh and Thaxter are good, but it's a different weight class).