Sunday, June 6, 2021

A Protagonist Quandary: Act of Violence (1948)

Who is the protagonist of Act of Violence (1948)?  

The plot is simple.  WWII veteran Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan) is determined to kill his former captain, Frank Enley (Van Heflin), who he believes collaborated with a German commandant during their time together in a prisoner camp.  

The captain's "collaboration," as we eventually learn, was complicated.  Enley exposed an escape plan because he believed it was doomed to failure and it would get the escapees killed.  He explains to his wife, Edith (Janet Leigh):

We were all starving to death and going crazy.  One day, Joe came to me.  They'd dug a tunnel.  He and some of the others.  They were gonna try to escape.  I told him not to do it.  I begged him.  The week before, in the British section, 12 men had been shot for the same thing.  I told him that they didn't have a chance.  They'd be dead before they started.  He wouldn't listen to me.  I lay awake all night trying to think. . . trying to figure out some way of stopping him.  The next morning, I went to the prison commandant.  He was an SS colonel.  I made a deal with him.  I said that I'd tell him if he'd go easy on the men.  He promised.  Word of an officer.  So I waited.  I waited all day.  I thought that the guards would close up the tunnel or something.  But they didn't. They acted as though they didn't even know about it.  That night, I tried to talk to Joe again.  But he wouldn't pay attention to me.  The men were getting desperate.  Anything to get out.  So they started through.  And then I heard the guards at the other end of the tunnel.  They'd set a trap for them.  They bayoneted them.  They set dogs on them.  And when it was over, they didn't even shoot them.  They just left them there.

Edith is aghast at the story, but she remains sympathetic to her husband.  She says, "Oh, Frank.  You only did what you thought was right.  You made a mistake, an awful one.  But you can't suffer all your life for one mistake.'

The first act of the film is from Parkson's perspective.  

Parkson stalks Enley to a mountain lake resort (Big Bear Lake) and then to a business convention in Los Angeles.

The second act is from the perspective of Edith.  Edith, like the audience, doesn't understand right away who Parkson is and she can't figure the reason this man's sudden appearance in town is making her husband so nervous.  

Eventually, she learns everything about Parkson's grudge and understands his deadly intentions.  She rushes to Los Angeles to warn her husband and get him to safety.  

The third and final act is from the perspective of Enley, who tries to figure out a way to avoid Parkson and stay alive.

Heflin's sympathetic portrayal of Enley often seems in conflict with director Fred Zinnemann's righteous determination to see that Enley is punished for his wrongdoing.

It doesn't come across that the film's roving point of view was plotted out.  The film's perspective shifts in a random and jarring manner.  The lack of a clearly defined protagonist leads to a jumbled and unsatisfying ending.

Leigh's captivating performance steals the show and the film would have worked better if Leigh remained at the center of the story throughout.     

Still, above all else, the film's relentless fast pace keeps the action exciting.     

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