Act of Violence

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Act of Violence
Theatrical release poster
Directed byFred Zinnemann
Produced byWilliam H. Wright
Screenplay byRobert L. Richards
Story byCollier Young
Music byBronislau Kaper
CinematographyRobert Surtees
Edited byConrad A. Nervig
Distributed byLoew's Inc.[1]
Release date
  • January 22, 1949 (1949-01-22) (NYC)
Running time
82 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1,129,000[2]

Act of Violence is a 1949 American film noir directed by Fred Zinnemann and adapted for the screen by Robert L. Richards from a story by Collier Young, starring Van Heflin, Robert Ryan and featuring Janet Leigh, Mary Astor and Phyllis Thaxter.[3] The film was one of the first to address not only problems of returning World War II veterans but also the ethics of war.[4]


After surviving a Nazi POW camp where comrades were murdered by guards during an escape attempt, Frank Enley (Van Heflin), returns home from World War II. He is respected for his fine character and good works in the California town of Santa Lisa, where he, his young wife and baby had settled after moving from the East. What his wife does not know is that Frank moved them in an attempt to escape his past. His nemesis is Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), once his best friend, who lived through the ordeal, but was left with a crippled leg. In exchange for food, Frank had alerted the Nazi camp commander to the prisoners' escape plans, thinking wrongly that the men would not be punished. Joe is now determined to exact justice on Frank, whose location he has learned from a newspaper story commending Enley for his civic endeavors.

Frank's wife Edith (Janet Leigh) is completely in the dark about his past, and Joe's girlfriend Ann Sturgess (Phyllis Thaxter) knows everything about her man, but cannot dissuade him from his passion to set past wrongs right by seeing Frank dead. Frank must confront the truth about his actions

Doggedly pursued by Joe, who stalks Frank's family at their house, Frank goes to a trade convention at a Los Angeles hotel, where Joe finds him, and they scuffle. Frank runs through downtown Los Angeles, ending up on Skid Row, where he is picked up by Pat (Mary Astor), who introduces him to a shady lawyer, Gavery (Taylor Holmes) and a hitman, Johnny (Berry Kroeger). A drunken Frank gives Johnny the information he needs to lure Joe into an evening meeting at Santa Lisa to kill Joe, the gunshot to be muffled by the noise of a train.

After waking from his drunken binge, Frank regrets the deal and tries to warn Joe at the station. Johnny is waiting with a gun, but before he can shoot, Frank jumps between the gun and Joe. Although wounded, Frank manages to grab Johnny as he speeds off in his car, causing it to crash into a lamppost. Both Johnny and Frank are killed. Joe, realizing what Frank has done, kneels by his old captain and tells the surrounding crowd that he will be the one to tell Frank's wife about her husband's death.



Principal photography on Act of Violence took place from May 17 to mid-July 1948, with added scenes shot in late August 1948. Filming on location, included scenes at Big Bear Lake, Big Bear Valley, San Bernardino National Forest, California, along with shooting at the MGM Studios in Culver City. Some of the nighttime city scenes were shot in the slum neighbourhoods of Los Angeles.[5]

Originally adapted from unpublished story by Collier Young, before he embarked on a career as an independent producer with his future wife Ida Lupino, the film was intended to be a small, independent film. Howard Duff was to be the star, but when MGM picked up the rights, Gregory Peck was to be paired with Humphrey Bogart in the leading roles. Robert Ryan was lent to MGM by RKO Pictures for the production.[6] Act of Violence was the third film made by Robert Ryan in 1948, following Berlin Express and Return of the Badmen.[7]

Director Fred Zinnemann said that Act of Violence was the first film in which he felt he had full control of all the aspects of film-making.[8]


According to MGM records, Act of Violence earned $703,000 in the US and Canada and $426,000 overseas, resulting in a loss of $637,000.[2]

Critical response[edit]

Bosley Crowther, reviewing the film for The New York Times, emphasized that it was a director's "tour de force. For this latter asset of the picture, we have Mr. Zinnemann to thank. He has pictured, at least, a visual setting for terror and violence and he has kept the pursued and the pursuer going at a grueling pace. In the former role, Van Heflin strains and sweats impressively. As his relentless pursuer, Robert Ryan is infernally taut. Mr. Zinnemann has also extracted a tortured performance from Janet Leigh as the fearful, confused and disillusioned wife of the hunted man and he has got squalid portraits of scoundrels from Mary Astor, Berry Kroeger and Taylor Holmes."[9]

Variety gave Act of Violence a positive review, writing "The grim melodrama implied by its title is fully displayed in Act of Violence...tellingly produced and played to develop tight excitement...The playing and direction catch plot aims and the characterizations are all topflight thesping. Heflin and Ryan deliver punchy performances that give substance to the menacing terror...It's grim business, unrelieved by lightness, and the players belt over their assignments under Zinnemann's knowing direction. Janet Leigh points up her role as Heflin's worried but courageous wife, while Phyllis Thaxter does well by a smaller part as Ryan's girl. A standout is the brassy, blowzy femme created by Mary Astor – a woman of the streets who gives Heflin shelter during his wild flight from fate."[10]

Film reviewer Roger Westcombe, writing for the Big House Film Society, considers Act of Violence unsettling, and wrote "Act of Violence...with a profundity, through its unsettling moral continuum, redolent not of Hollywood simplicities of good/evil but of the art one associates with Zinnemann's European background. This contains a clue. Fred and his brother escaped their native Austria in 1938, but their parents, waiting for U.S. visas that never came, perished – separately – in concentration camps. The 'survivor guilt' this awful closing engendered must resemble the emotional see-saw ride which fiction like the ethical pendulum of Act of Violence can only start to expiate."[11]

Currently, it holds a 90% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 10 reviews.[12]

Awards and honors[edit]

Fred Zinnemann was nominated for the Grand Prize of the Festival at the 1949 Cannes Film Festival for his work on Act of Violence.[13]



  1. ^ Act of Violence at the American Film Institute Catalog
  2. ^ a b c "The Eddie Mannix Ledger." Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study (Los Angeles).
  3. ^ Silver, Alain (2010). Film Noir: The Encyclopedia. p. 25. ISBN 978-0715638804.
  4. ^ "Film review: 'Act of Violence'." Harrison's Reports, December 25, 1948, p. 206.
  5. ^ "Original print information: 'Act of Violence'." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: May 7, 2016.
  6. ^ Stafford, Jeff. "Articles: 'Act of Violence'." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: May 7, 2016.
  7. ^ Jarlett 1997, p. 32.
  8. ^ Muller, Eddie (January 27, 2019) Intro to the Turner Classic Novies showing of Act of Violence
  9. ^ Crowther, Bosley. "Movie review: 'Act of Violence,' a Metro film with Van Heflin, Janet Leigh, new feature at Criterion.: The New York TImes, January 24, 1949. Retrieved: May 7, 2016.
  10. ^ "Film review: 'Act of Violence'." Variety. December 21, 1948, p. 6. Retrieved: May 7, 2016.
  11. ^ Westcombe, Roger. "Film review: 'Act of Violence'." Big House Film Society,'2008. Retrieved: May 7, 2016.
  12. ^ Act of Violence at Rotten Tomatoes
  13. ^ "Festival de Cannes: 'Act of Violence'." Archived October 3, 2009, at the Wayback Machine Retrieved: May 7, 2016.


  • Jarlett, Franklin (1997) Robert Ryan: A Biography and Critical Filmography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. ISBN 978-0-7864-0476-6.

External links[edit]