Two years ago, David Cronenberg’s masterpiece, A History of Violence, was described as, among other things, a “hyper-real version of an early 50s nightmare.” The description turns out to be eerily accurate, as confirmed by one scorcher in the latest film noir shipment from Warner Brothers (Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4, DVD). Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence (1948) shares several things with the 2005 film beyond its name. The two revenge thrillers mirror American mythology and anxiety across the century, from the older film’s raw postwar material to Cronenberg’s fertile remix of genre and reality.
While Tom Stall in A History of Violence awakens from dormancy to a legacy of organized crime, Frank Enley and Joe Parkson in Act of Violence are war veterans linked by some terrible common experience. Frank (Van Heflin) is a wholesome, gone-fishin’ family man who harbors a shameful secret. Joe (Robert Ryan) is the man from his past intent on correcting the historical record with the aid of firearms. In the movie’s first frames, before we even know Joe’s name, he emerges from a cityscape, as if crawling from the sea, and begins stalking Frank. Gradual revelations and indefatigable pursuit ensue.
In Act and History, men are reminded of their ability to kill another human being, with Cronenberg confronting the Old West fantasy of actual prowess at killing. Reaching into the conflicted mythology of the noir, he also seems to have plucked specific details from Act of Violence. Most strikingly, Tom Stall wears the same patterned shirt as Frank in Act of Violence, and a shot of a car lurking ominously across a suburban street echoes one in the older film. Both films also use the device of cutting on a child’s scream after a bad dream, and even Tom’s limp recalls Joe’s drag-thump war injury, each a bodily marker of the past.
Whether specifically an homage or not, Cronenberg’s film redeploys familiar archetypes of menace, while ensuring that the icky aftermath of the actual violence in History keeps us complicit. Intriguingly, something similar is at work in the older film, but it’s the recent horrors of WWII that are kept from being repressed. Analogous to the ripped-open faces of History, Frank’s nemesis Joe explicitly describes two harrowing episodes of just what happened Over There. It’s the real thing, and the monologue, delivered to Frank’s wife Edith (Janet Leigh), is in some ways more unsettling than the ever-looming promised act.
Act of Violence doesn’t fully explore Edith’s shock and the possibility of rejection, which the later film develops through its richer marital relationship. The focus on Frank’s torment has been linked to the director’s “survivor guilt” over the war: a European émigré like Lang and Wilder, Fred Zinnemann prospered in America, whereas his parents, unable to escape, perished. Whatever the case, the director of High Noon (itself a part of our national mythology) remembered the film fondly, and with a certain prescience: “Personally, I like this picture very much. It would still be of interest to today’s audiences, I’m sure — the theme is a permanent one.”