Two Admirable Films from MGM: A Post-War Suspense & a Sharp
mirasreviews | McLean, VA USA | 09/23/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
""Act of Violence" (1949) and "Mystery Street" (1950) are both crime films produced by MGM , but they have little else in common. Warner Brothers is billing both films a "film noir", a label that suits "Act of Violence", though that film is not archetypal noir, but is less apt for "Murder Street", which is only superficially or intermittently noir. It's more a straightforward, technophilic murder mystery. "Mystery Street" is very well-plotted, however, and both films offer memorable performances. The versatile Van Heflin plays a man hounded by guilt and then by his past in "Act of Violence". And Elsa Lanchester gives a scene-stealing supporting performance as an over-the-hill schemer and would-be femme fatale if only she were younger and more clever in "Mystery Street".
"Act of Violence" opens as World War II veteran Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan) prepares to kill someone. He is obsessively pursuing Frank Enley (Van Heflin), his former friend and commanding officer with whom he flew 21 missions before spending the rest of the war in a German POW camp. Joe blames Frank for the deaths of his comrades and intends to make him pay with his life. Frank is now a family man and well-liked civic leader in a small California town. Joe stalks him, disrupts his domestic idyll, frightens his wife Edith (Janet Leigh), and eventually sends Frank running to the city, whose back alleys are little consolation as Joe closes in.
This film has a pronounced symmetry: It becomes increasingly introverted and visually dark as Frank succumbs to fear and guilt. Joe, who initially seems unbalanced and blindly obsessive, becomes more rational as the film progresses. One goes up as the other goes down. There are three women who try to dissuade three men from self-destructive paths: Edith tries to protect her husband Frank. Joes' girlfriend Ann (Phyllis Thaxter) tries to thwart his homicidal ambition. And Pat, a haggard hooker made unforgettable by Mary Astor, is also out to discourage an assassin. Nice shadowy interior and night photography by Robert Surtees accentuates the ugly effects of the war on the minds of the two veterans.
In "Mystery Street", a cheeky blonde bombshell named Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling) is murdered by her married lover. An amateur ornithologist studying sandpipers finds her remains on the beach 6 months later. With nothing to go on but bones, Police Lieutenant Pete Morales (Ricardo Montalban) sends what remains of the skeleton to a pioneering forensic pathologist at Harvard University, Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett), who is eventually able to identify the woman as Vivian. Eager to solve his first murder case, Morales follows the trail to Mrs. Smerrling (Elsa Lanchester), the treacherous proprietress of the boarding house where Vivian lived, and to a hapless man she was with before she died (Marshall Thompson).
John Alton, the best-known of film noir cinematographers -and one that I sometimes find too showy, does some lovely work in "Mystery Street". As is his tendency, he often lets the characters go completely into shadow. He called it "mystery lighting". But "Mystery Street" is a straightforward police procedural with an emphasis on new techniques in forensic science. If anything is striking about this film, it is its occasional foray into the macabre. The cast is unusual for a detective story in that it is an ensemble. Morales is no more prominent than anyone else, and it is Mrs. Smerrling's greed and vulgarity that is most memorable. There is a man wrongly accused as well, so elements common to film noir are incorporated into a conventional, but particularly well-plotted, murder mystery.
The DVD (Warner Bros. 2007): Discs from Warner Brothers' "Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 4" have no scene menus, making it very difficult for anyone studying the films to find what they are looking for. Both films have a featurette (5 minutes each) in which film critics and historians talk about the film, a theatrical trailer, and a feature commentary. The constant, somewhat manic commentary for "Act of Violence" is by Dr. Drew Casper of the University of Southern California. He discusses the score, performances, pacing, script, themes, how characters are revealed, and more. The commentary for "Mystery Street" is by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, who talk about the cinematography, cast, plot, docu-noir style, staging, and scene analysis. Subtitles for both films are available in English SDH and French."
Act of Violence
G. SANSOM | Melbourne, Australia | 08/21/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This started slow, but once the very anguished Robert Ryan kicks in, the movie gains momentum.
It's classic film noir - all dark with long shadows; but the performances transcend the genre - particularly the women - Janet Leigh (very young), and Mary Astor as a woman drinking alone in a bar.
Intriguing is the way Robert Ryan before a late redemption is all oily makeup, but at the very end when cleansed of responsibility while bending over a dead Van Heflin, his face is suddenly fresh and clean.
It's a movie with no heroes - and totally uncompromising.Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4 (Act of Violence / Mystery Street / Crime Wave / Decoy / Illegal / The Big Steal / They Live By Night / Side Street / Where Danger Lives / Tension)"
Buried secrets and unburied bones: Two movies that are worth
C. O. DeRiemer | San Antonio, Texas, USA | 11/19/2008
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Act of Violence (1948):
Act of Violence is a film that tries to be more than what it can deliver. It tries to be a significant film, as Hollywood defines "significant," of weakness and obsession, with a bit of irony and, of course, redemption at the end. It fails, in my opinion, because the dramatic core of the movie is as earnest, unlikely and melodramatic as the plots of most $3.98 remainder novels. Fred Zinnemann directed some well-crafted movies such as The Day of the Jackal and High Noon (Collector's Edition). He also made a number of highly popular, long and dull movies. What makes Act of Violence interesting is the performances of the two leads, Van Heflin and Robert Ryan. Both were fine actors.
Heflin plays Frank Enley, a successful small town businessman with an attractive wife and a small child. He's a nice guy with a secret that leaves him in turmoil. Robert Ryan plays Joe Parkson, Enley's worst nightmare. In a German POW camp Enley betrayed a group of men who were planning to escape. He thought he had a promise that nothing would happen to the men. They were, of course, all shot. Parkson somehow survived. Now, after the war, Parkson has only one purpose in life...to find Frank Enley and make him pay with his life for what he did.
If it weren't for Heflin's earnest desperation and furrowed angst, something he did better than most actors, and Ryan's fierce anger and internalized tenseness, something he did better than most, we'd have a long slog until we reach the point where final payment is made and life, we hope, can go on. The movie, for me, seems more and more contrived and trivial as the time goes by.
Heflin is probably not thought about much nowadays. He was very good, in my opinion, as the hapless Charles Bovary in Madame Bovary (1949), the hardworking Joe Starrett in Shane, and the determined and nervous Dan Evans in 3:10 to Yuma (Special Edition). He didn't have the looks, as he pointed out himself (think of an honorable-looking, reasonably handsome J. Edgar Hoover, if that's possible), so he concentrated on his acting. Ryan, on the other hand, is usually recognized as one of film's outstanding lead and character actors. For subtlety and vulnerability, try On Dangerous Ground; for nastiness, try Bad Day at Black Rock; for deliberate evil, try Billy Budd; for tired resignation, try The Wild Bunch - The Original Director's Cut (Two-Disc Special Edition).
Mystery Street (1950):
When the body is found on the beach, no one knows except us who it is. We know it's a cheap, no-good call girl named Vivian Helton because we watched her, desperate for money, meet the man who owed her, and who shot her. Now she's not only lost her looks, she's lost her flesh. Sand and waves have left nothing but bones. The cop in charge, Lieutenant Pete Morales (Ricardo Montalban), calls on Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett), a forensic scientist at Harvard, to help with identification. In the process of establishing sex, age, height and occupation (possible dancer, not probable call girl), we'll get a lesson in forensics that would do credit to Kay Scarpetta or the Skeleton Detective himself, Gideon Oliver.
Then the police learn Vivian Helton was pregnant. Pete Morales, working his first case in Boston, had earlier made up his mind that Vivian was murdered before there was evidence to establish this. Now he's determined to find the murderer. Morales is a good guy...smart, ambitious, cheerful, hard working. But when he decides someone is guilty, he's not about to change his mind. Before he gets things right, he'll get things wrong.
Along the way we'll meet Henry Shanway, the poor drunk sap who met Vivian at a bar while he was feeling sorry for himself. He let her move his yellow Ford from a no-parking zone. The next thing he knew they were on the Cape, where she tricked him out of the car so she could drive off and meet the man who will shoot her. We'll meet Henry's wife, too. There's Vivian's eccentric and venal landlady (played by Elsa Lanchester), who thinks she can pick up the blackmailing where Vivian left off. And, of course, there's the killer. Most importantly, perhaps, there's McAdoo. Turns out that with his knowledge of bones, bullet angles and logic, he's a better detective than anyone else.
The movie benefits from the moody cinematography of John Alton and the efficient direction of John Sturges, Sturges moved on to direct such successes as Last Train from Gun Hill, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and Ice Station Zebra. Mystery Street is a solid entry. It's not an A movie, but it's interesting, unsentimental, well made and shorter."
Two Solid MGM Noir Entries
ronzo | 06/22/2010
(4 out of 5 stars)
ACT OF VIOLENCE's plot is a very simple one; it involves Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan) hunting down his old commanding officer, Frank Enley (Van Heflin). Parkson has been nursing a grudge for two years, because Enley ratted on a POW escape attempt that ended up killing most of his men, and leaving Parkson lame.
Enley has been making good since the end of the war; helping to house the less fortunate, and being a model citizen. The film begins with shots of Parkson, who has just found where Enley is from a newspaper story; getting his gun, and looking very much the predator.
Van Heflin and Robert Ryan are superb here. And this is also a good turn for Mary Astor, who was photographed without much make-up: a short, but wonderful performance from her. Janet Leigh and Berry Kroeger are also both very effective.
But the real stars here are probably cinematographer Robert Surtees and director Fred Zinnemann. The film is lit and shot beautifully in a textured combination of the Expressionist and Neorealist styles. And the pace is fast through the entire 82 minutes. This is the first film noir from MGM that I can recommend wholeheartedly; a fantastic 1948 film.
MYSTERY STREET (1950) is better than I thought it would be.... While being a ground-breaking forensic procedural, it is also an engrossing mystery. Recommended.
Both films are part of the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4; a set of 10 films on DVD that is currently retailing for $3.00 a film. Great value."