Categories
Mystery/Noir

Act of Violence

Someone once defined the essentials of film noir as “a dame with a past and a guy with no future”. One could add to that another line , which is uttered by Burt Lancaster’s character in The Killers and captures the driving mood of a subset of these marvelous films: “I did something wrong once”. The sin that can’t be erased, the guilt that attaches to it, and the inevitable doom it will ultimately bring has driven many a fine noir, including Act of Violence.

This 1949 film centers on a seemingly happy, All-American, family composed of war veteran and respected citizen Frank Enley (Van Heflin), his loving wife Edith (Janet Leigh), and their adorable toddler. I describe them as the people the movie centers on rather than as the protagonists because one of the many strengths of Robert L. Richards’ crackerjack script is that it’s not clear for some time (and even perhaps after you have watched the whole thing) who the hero of this movie is, or even if it includes a hero at all. At first it seems there’s an obvious villain: a limping, gun-toting, former soldier (Robert Ryan, who could always bring the sinister) who remorselessly pursues Frank Enley for reasons that are mysterious. Frank refuses to disclose the truth to his increasingly terrified wife, even as he begins to disintegrate under the strain.

Fred Zinnemann was yet to be his Oscar-laden self when he directed this film, but his enormous emerging talent is impossible to miss. He draws excellent performances from the cast and revels in a tone of moral ambiguity as he would in many of his later, more famous, movies (e.g., High Noon). He had to be happy with the high talent level of the cast, including Heflin in one of his best roles, and, in a real pleasant surprise, Mary Astor as a shopworn prostitute (It’s amazing how deteriorated she looks only a short time after being on top of the world earlier in the 1940s, but the downslope of her personal life didn’t impair her work here– I half wonder if it helped, she’s outstanding.)

The other major league talent associated with this film is the magnificent cinematographer Robert Surtees. His shots of almost every famous L.A. noir location are gems of this genre that you could enjoy on their own merits with the sound off.

Act of Violence is a must-see for film noir fans, but its appeal is greater than that. It’s an expertly written, shot, directed, and acted movie with powerful emotional impact that anyone who loves a good story well told should appreciate.

Categories
Drama

Patterns

The popular and critically-lauded Mad Men demonstrated that television is becoming the new American cinema for mature viewers now that movies in the theater are pitched more towards teenagers and young adults, particularly those in other countries who are not fluent in English (i.e., explosions and CGI are in, character development and dialogue are out). This is actually a return to the norms of the early years of television in which TV owners were more educated and urban than Americans as a whole, and thirsted for the high-quality productions that appeared (sometimes live, sometimes taped) on anthology shows like Playhouse 90 and Hallmark Hall of Fame. Many of the primarily New York-based actors on these programs went on to become national stars, and many of the writers did as well, including the magnificent Rod Serling. In 1955, Serling and Director Fielder Cook staged a live performance of a Man Men-style drama (which the creator of Mad Men saw and was inspired by) on Kraft Television Theater that generated such an enormous audience reaction that they re-broadcast it on television (again, live) and then turned it the following year into a theatrical release: Patterns.

The plot: Junior executive Fred Staples (Van Heflin) has arrived in New York City at the behest of tyrannical CEO Walter Ramsey (Everett Sloane). Staples is mentored by Bill Briggs (Ed Begley), the last of the old guard who founded the company along with Ramsey’s now deceased father. Briggs believes in putting people above profit; Ramsey regards this as sentimental twaddle and repeatedly humiliates Briggs accordingly. Staples learns that the company never fires executives explicitly, only bullies them into resigning after their replacements have been hired…and he is the kindly Briggs’ replacement-to-be. Compelling office drama ensues.

Cook and his cast deserve roses for the electrifying acting in this film, which brings alive what could have been an overly cerebral or stagy production. This is probably the only significant movie role that stage and TV actor Sloane played outside of his collaborations with Orson Welles (Citizen Kane and The Lady from Shanghai), and he makes film lovers feel the loss with a powerhouse portrayal of a hard-nosed man with significant flaws and a few offsetting virtues as well. Begley, a treasure among character actors, draws pity but also respect from the audience in a finely tuned performance. Heflin, who was not in the television version, gives an anguished performance as Staples, and Beatrice Straight is equally strong as his perceptive wife. The rest of the cast is also terrific in parts large and small.

Cinematographer Boris Kaufman faced the challenge of how to avoid a television or play-like look in the theatrical version, and he hit it for six. He employs a number of low-angles that accentuate the height of the offices and buildings and the relative smallness of most of the drones who toil there. Because I don’t want to spoil the climactic moment, I will be vague about its details other than saying the decision by Cook and Kaufman to use a point of view shot was truly inspired.

The world portrayed here — all white male boardroom members with female secretaries in the office and wives at home in suburbia — may put some people off, but I take the success of Mad Men as a sign that most viewers can appreciate crackling drama even if it takes place amidst social arrangements that are today seen as retrograde. No matter what world it’s set in, Patterns is a first-rate movie that holds up beautifully a half century after its release.

p.s. Serling’s pungent script catapulted him deservedly to the status of hot new thing in screenwriting. He followed up Patterns immediately with another brilliant televised play, Requiem for a Heavyweight, which you can watch here. A few years later of course, he attained television immortality with The Twilight Zone.

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

The Prowler

This week’s film recommendation is an unusual, disturbing film noir that has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years: 1951’s The Prowler. Made by left-wing artists who were being harassed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, it’s a dark take on class resentment, sexual repression, and the ruthless pursuit of the American dream.

Many film noirs feature cops who are half-witted or on the take, but The Prowler is the only one I know where the central character is both a police officer and a calculating, manipulative psychopath. Van Heflin is mesmerizing as Webb Garwood, a flatfoot who is called to investigate a report of a prowler in a wealthy neighborhood. The call comes from Susan Gilvray, played with vulnerability by Evelyn Keyes (I previously raved about her work in 99 River Street). Webb lusts for Susan immediately, not just physically but also for her and her husband’s obvious status in society.

Susan is both flattered and scared by Webb. Sensing her ambivalence, he pays her several more visits until the lonely and repressed Susan — who wants a baby — gives in to his advances. Eerily, their liaisons are accompanied by the sound of her husband’s voice, a radio announcer who works at night. Webb now has the wealthy man’s wife that he wanted, but he knows he doesn’t possess her completely, nor does he have access to the money he wants to buy his own place in the world. But if her husband were out of the way, who knows what might be possible?

In terms of establishing character and framing the plot elements, the script of The Prowler is one of the best in noir. The screen credit went to Hugo Butler, but Dalto Trumbo wrote much of the script. He was blacklisted and couldn’t be acknowledged publicly as a screenwriter, but in what was probably an inside joke at the expense of the McCarthyites, he provides the voice of Susan’s husband on the radio (again, uncredited). Anyone who wants to learn how to write strong scripts should watch the scene early in the movie in which Webb and Susan discuss their experiences growing up in Indiana. As Webb explains how he blew his chance to get a college education, the audience understands immediately his smallness as a human being and his entitled rage towards people whom he tells himself have denied him what he deserves.

The film also demonstrates something many producers forget: Characters don’t have to be likable, they just have to be interesting. Neither of the principals are people you’d want as your neighbors, but it’s extremely compelling to follow the tenebrous twists of their relationship.

The direction, by the soon to be blacklisted Joseph Losey (probably best known for the thematically similar The Servant), is unusual and effective. He structures the scenes in play-like fashion, with long takes in just a few key, evocative sets. Those locations each have their own vivid bleakness, especially the ghost town in which the third act occurs. Congratulations are due to Art Director Boris Leven and Set Designer Jacques Mapes for tremendous work on a small budget.

The film suffers slightly from a lull between the first and third acts as well as some plotting improbabilities, but it’s still a bit surprising that it wasn’t more of critical and popular hit upon release. It may have been a bit ahead of what a 1951 U.S. audience wanted to see in a story focused on a police officer. It was however very popular in Europe, where Losey was soon to flee to escape political persecution. Later, the film was reappraised by U.S. film noir devotees and its reputation has deservedly grown.

The Prowler is in public domain, and has been remastered version by UCLA’s vaunted restoration team (with financial support from The Stanford Theater Foundation).

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