Tuesday, May 11, 2010

No good guys

Perhaps one of the attractions of film noir and crime films in general is to take you to the bad side of town where you have no business going. In Act of Violence (1948), the protagonist played by Van Heflin stepped over to the bad side years ago, during the war, when he ratted out fellow Americans in fear of what would happen to them if their prison camp escape failed. Now mean and crazy Robert Ryan (and isn't he more fun when he's mean and crazy?) is back to exact vengeance.

Heflin is a respected local businessman, a nice guy with a nice wife (Janet Leigh) and the beginning of the film sets him up as the victim of a psycho. But as it unfolds, Heflin is the evil one, taking desperate steps to maintain his facade. This is my preferred form of noir without cops or a detective, but a flat-out contest between good and evil in which no one character completely embodies either.

What makes this lesser-known noir one you need to see is the performance of Mary Astor (best known today as the good bad girl in Maltese Falcon) as a burnt-out prostitute. Movies are often coy and cute about prostitutes. They turn up as "dance-hall girls" or "B girls" or just waitresses, but Act of Violence, while it doesn't use the word, is not evasive about how Astor earns her daily bread. Nor is it (or she) coy about her age. She appears, at age 43, without base make-up, just some lipstick and mascara. In Classical Hollywood terms that makes her realistically aged (yet still beautiful) face look absolutely ancient. Instead of a frilly negligee, she has an off-the-rack robe thrown carelessly around her. And she doesn't have a heart of gold. She "helps" Van Heflin by introducing him to a hired killer (pictured above), to do away with Ryan (which act in turn destroys Heflin). Astor does not receive the recognition she deserves for being one of the few Golden Age actors more interested in acting than in stardom--and at MGM, to boot.

Two visual elements that make this film beloved. First of all, the first-rate classic low-key, limited-source, low-angle noir cinematography by Robert Surtees (not to be confused, although I always do, with his son, Bruce Surtees), who was mostly a mainstream cinematographer of projects like and Ben Hur and The Sting, although he will always be a personal favorite for photographing The Last Picture Show. Second, some wonderful views of old Los Angeles before they tore it down--not a subject of personal nostalgia for me, but an important aspect of the connection between noir cinema and hard-boiled fiction, especially that of Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Jim Thompson.

Most importantly, Act of Violence in which the presumed villain never does anything villainous and the protagonist is punished (with death) through his own acts observes the noir principle--assume nothing, especially when it comes to good and evil.

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