“Act of Violence” — A Selfish Dignity

by Virginia Craft

An Analysis of Fred Zinnemann’s film Act of Violence

The mood for the film is set when the opening scene consumes viewers in a dark, wet street with a harsh black and grey aura while Joe Parkson (actor Robert Ryan) eerily limps across, like some sort of non-human figure. The director, Fred Zinnemann, lets light emerge only a few times throughout the film, giving a sense that the world the characters were in was not the same world as we experience every day—it seemed, instead, like a war zone or prison camp amidst a smoky underworld.

Joe, seeking a sort of freedom through vengeance, is content to consistently point blame to others. He feels it is not his fault that he disregarded Frank Enley’s (played by Van Heflin) advice in the prison camp and tried escaping through the tunnel; it could not possibly be his fault that Frank got shot and died in the final scene—or so he claims. Similarly, Frank feels it is not his fault that Joe went into the tunnel. Both men seem to be trapped in their arrogant dignities, while Joe more directly evades any moral attempts. I believe that Frank at least withheld his “I didn’t do it” attitude in order to act with a more humane morality to go to the train station in order to warn Joe of the events that were going to unfold that would have led to Joe’s premature existential fate. However, Joe’s intentions of committing his act of vengeance by killing Frank would not have changed anything; as his girlfriend, Pat, said, “What are you going to prove through violence? It won’t bring back men that died.” This line highlighted the selfishness of Joe’s intentions: an egocentric elevation of his sense of dignity and self-worth as his end goal.

Oddly enough, the women in the film did not assume the typical ill-mannered femme fatale role that is seen in numerous other noir films. Zinnemann seemed to allow women in this filmto be somewhat a voice of morality, at least to an extent. The main women (Edith, Pat, and Ann) all tried to break the one-track motives of the men who strove for violence as a means (Joe and Johnny). Throughout the film, the women were shown in a physically brighter light for the most part; perhaps to assist in revealing the truths of the situations through their dialogue.

Another element that I believe Zinnemann used effectively in the film is the use of sound. Frank and Edith’s baby pierced the air with its eerie screeching cry every time Joe was around, creating a mood to fit the arrival of Joe shortly after. With a sound of almost mimicking proportions, the trains in the film sent a surreal punch to the ear drums. Along with unearthly lighting, skewed framing, and a significant succession of scenes, dialogue, and convincing acting, Zinnemann created a noir of a magnitude as intense as the philosophical themes it brings into question.