Review: Act of Violence

Act of Violence is a film noir from 1948 starring two of the genres greats, Van Heflin and Robert Ryan.  This film also stars Janet Leigh in only her fifth film, and Mary Astor in a small part as a prostitute.  This film is also an early film by director Fred Zinnemann.

This film starts out showing our World War II vet, Heflin is happily married to Leigh and a successful business owner in suburbia California.  Heflin and his neighbor are packing for a fishing trip and heading up to a mountain lake for some R and R.  We soon see our dark stranger with a limp arriving in town and trying to locate Heflin.  He comes across as deranged and scary.  He approaches Leigh at their home and finds out Heflin is at the mountain lake.  He rents a car and heads up to the lake, rents a boat and tracks down Heflin.  The cat and mouse game continues between the two as we learn their history.

The interesting thing about this film is how we start out looking at Ryan as the villain, but our alliances change throughout the film as we learn about each man.

We have some wonderful cinematography in this, I especially enjoyed the scenes where Heflin is running to an unknown destination through the empty streets of Los Angeles.

This is a very interesting film as there really isn’t a bad guy or a good guy.  We don’t even have an anti-hero to root for.  We sympathies with both main characters in this film and understand where both are coming from.  The message I got out of this is we all have made mistakes, all we can do is, try to do the best we can from here on out.  Maybe the other message is let bygones be bygones.  We also maybe getting a taste of “not everybody in the suburbs are what they seem”.

This is a very good film all noir lovers should see, and if you are a fan of any of the four stars it is well worth your time.  They are all excellent and I have already mentioned in past reviews how much I like Heflin and Ryan and they both play something different then I’ve seen them play before and both do an excellent job once again.  Astor shows her range as she was playing a hardened street-walker in this and then going across the lot to play the mother in Little Women at the same time.  Leigh was just getting started in her career, but showed she could hang with the best, giving good depth to the scared, but strong loyal house wife.

Favorite Tidbit:  Even though this had four big stars in it and the film was very good, even being entered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1949, it still lost $637,000 at the box office.

Re-watching the Classics: The Maltese Falcon

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The Maltese Falcon has a lot of firsts, firsts that would change film, film-noir, fiction and popular culture forever.  The Maltese Falcon is considered by some as the first true film-noir movie.  It is the first movie John Huston ever directed who went on to direct 46 more movies, many of them considered classics and he is considered one of the best directors in history.  This is Sydney Greenstreet’s first film, at 62 years old, he was a stage actor for 40 years before this film.  Greenstreet went on to make 24 more movies in his career, 9 more with co-star Peter Lorre.  This book on which it is based is written by Dashiell Hammett, who some consider the first writer of noir fiction, if he isn’t he certainly is one of the earliest influential writers and a master of the genre.  His work has not only influenced the noir genre greatly, but has popped up in western and samurai movies and films from all over the globe.  I read the book many years ago, and may re-read it and give it, its own review later.  I can tell you that the book is amazing as well.

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This movie has one glaring non-first, this is the third time this book has been adapted to the screen, the other two where rather lack luster attempts(I have not seen either of them).  The reason this one worked so well is John Huston wrote the script just as the book was written.  The previous attempts all had a happy ending, Huston left the original book ending in his version.

The Falcon itself may be the most famous MacGuffin in film history, it is definitely the most valuable.  There are 4 know Falcons and 2 are made of lead.  These lead versions have gone to auction and sold for well over a million dollars.  That is 3x what the original film cost to make.

We have a bunch of the common themes we will find in noir movies for the next 20 years to even today’s neo noir films.  We have the hardboiled private detective with the overcoat and fedora hat, has anybody done this better than Humphrey Bogart?  We have the femme fatale in Mary Astor.  We have an unhappy ending that maybe not what the audience wanted. We have twists and turns, sometimes us as a viewer are not sure what is going on, does our hero know what is going on?  Most of the film is from our hero’s prospective, we are learning as our hero learns. We also have some underling moral issues that are there but not spoken, do to the movie code of the time.  Is our hero having an affair with his partners wife?  Is one of our thugs actually a gay man?  Is our femme fatale using sex and lies to get what she wants?

Our story starts at Spade and Archer’s office.  Spade and Archer are partners and private detectives.  They take on a case where a man needs to be followed because he has taken our clients younger sister and will not let them see her.  When Archer is on the job, he is shot and killed.  This is where are hero Sam Spade takes over trying to find out who killed his partner and why.  Our adventure is with Spade, he is in every scene of this film, except the scene where his partner is murdered.  We don’t know who to believe and who to trust, just like Sam Spade.  If you haven’t seen The Maltese Falcon yet, do it right now!

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In film noir and noir fiction for that matter we have two writers, that are considered the best of the era.  Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.  The debt about who is best will live forever.  I’ve read both of them and can’t pick a winner myself.  I think the winner is us, as readers of this classic fiction.  One thing they have in common is Humphrey Bogart, the iconic star that played both Hammett’s Sam Spade and Chandler’s Marlowe.  Who is your favorite Bogie detective, Spade or Marlowe?