Director: Fred Zinnemann (High Noon)
Writer: Robert L. Richards, from an unpublished short story by Collier Young
Stars: Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh, Mary Astor
The Story: A smiling war hero has come home, married a beautiful girl and become a civic hero by building good houses. Then a shadowy figure arrives in town seeking righteous revenge, ready to reveal the horrible things that really went down in the war.
How it Came to be Underrated: For some reason, this was never on VHS and has only just now appeared on DVD. It’s hard not to imagine that this has something do with the harshly subversive vision of the postwar era that the movie presents.
Why It’s Great:
- Much has been made of the guilt Vietnam soldiers felt saddled with when America turned against that war, but this movie shows that there was also a downside to the myth of World War II as “the good war”: those who were wracked with guilt over what they done over there had no audiences available for expiating it.
- You’ll rarely see any Zinnemann retrospectives today. His films have too much gloss and prestige for genre fans, but, other than From Here to Eternity, they’re too grimy for everybody else. I would say his ability to bridge high-budget and low-budget styles is precisely what makes him so great. He’s the love child of William Wyler and Anthony Mann.
- For instance, most noirs are suffused with a uniformly bleak atmosphere that surrounds and traps all the characters. But this was one of the few noirs that seemed to understand, even at the time, what the noir style really meant on an existential level. As Ryan arrives in this sunny town, he brings his own shadows with him (We first see him limping his way against the flow of a happy Memorial Day parade, wearing a raincoat on a sunny day). Whenever Heflin tries to explain what he did in the war, he first retreats out of bright rooms into shadowy ones, fit for a confession. This film reminds us that the noir world is always with us, one closet door away.
- The whole cast here is underrated. Robert Ryan is my all-time favorite character actor. No one could pack as much steely determination into every sentence. Every line holds a complex lifetime of hurt, yet with an aggressive swagger that keeps his characters from falling totally into despair.
- Janet Leigh is equally great, even in this early role. She co-starred in so many masterpieces (Touch of Evil, Psycho, Manchurian Candidate), but she never seems to get enough of the credit for them. Like Ryan, she’s got a real rawness to her that lets her suffer and lash out in equally good measure, without a self-conscious filter. Mary Astor is also amazing as an over-the-hill prostitute who tries to help Heflin.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Leigh and Ryan reteamed for the equally-subversive western The Naked Spur, Zinnemann showed us another killer relentlessly pursuing quite a different war hero in Day of the Jackal.
How Available Is It?: It’s finally on DVD, and even though it has to share a disk with another movie (Mystery Street), they both get commentaries and documentaries.
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