Act of Violence (Fred Zinnemann, 1948)

It’s interesting how from the outset, we’re put in Van Heflin’s shoes, a character who we will soon find out did something well-meaning but utterly terrible during the war, thus making him anything but the vulnerable, innocent family man and potential victim. It certainly doesn’t put us in the shoes of bad guys to the outstanding extent of, say, P&P’s “49th Parallel”, which is to its detriment, mainly to the extent that Robert Ryan’s character is woefully underdeveloped. In the beginning, his crippled war veteran hell-bent on revenge for an as-yet unspecified reason is certainly depicted effectively as a foreboding boogeyman, the way the sound of his boat’s rusty oar can be heard way off in the distance, gradually getting closer and closer right when Van Heflin learns exactly who’s stalking him on that lake, or how Ryan’s lame leg scraping across the ground goes from one side of the screen to the other as the man stalks outside Heflin’s house, while Heflin and wife Janet Leigh stand there in terrified silence. It’s a lazy, but effective, use of sound to evoke suspense, but once the film turns from a cheesy suspense churner into a wannabe-character study, it loses its focus. Granted, Heflin is great in the scene where he admits his terrible war deed to his wife, evoking genuine guilt that’s been stewing inside him for years, unexpectedly forcing us to remain sympathetic with him, rather than the deranged but genuinely wronged Ryan, but we could’ve really had something here if more of an effort was made to study Ryan’s character. He had to live with that terrible day in the prison camp just as much as Heflin’s character did, from an entirely different point of view, and a deeper look at his alleged madness and lust for vengeance would’ve done this film well. Instead, he barely rises above his initial characterization as that far-off boogeyman, which I’ll admit is an effective way to symbolize the far-off but tangible sense of guilt that’s been haunting Heflin’s character for years and is now all too real, but for sure, a character played by the great Robert Ryan deserved better.

7.5/10

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