The dark history of film noir is littered with the corpses of people who were just asking for it. One of the interesting aspects of the revenge plot, though, is how often guilt gets swapped back and forth between characters. The only thing black and white here is the cinematography; the characters are all various shades of gray.
The greatest noir revenge tale is probably Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence (1948). One of the underrated masterpieces of the genre, the movie tells two stories: one about a family man named Frank Enley (Van Heflin) and the other about a disturbed ex-serviceman named Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan). Frank’s a happy man, a war hero who has returned from overseas and made the best of the postwar American utopia. He’s got a pretty young wife, a healthy two-year old son, and plenty of friends and money. And then Joe Parkson gets to town.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot, and I certainly don’t want to reveal Joe’s reasons for wanting to kill Frank. Their connection goes back to the war, but uncovering their shared history is pivotal to the enjoyment of the film. Figuring out just how much of the darkness encroaching on this small town ideal is represented by Joe and how much of it is represented by Frank is just one of the film’s great surprises.
Fritz Lang delivered perhaps the most brutal revenge flick of the classic years with The Big Heat (1953). It tells the story of an honest police sergeant named Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) who is investigating the suicide of another cop. The dead cop, it turns out, was mixed up with some highly placed criminals, including a psycho named Vince Stone (played by a gleefully sleazy Lee Marvin). When Bannion gets too close to the criminal operation, they plant a bomb in his car, accidently killing Bannion’s wife. Naturally, Bannion swears revenge and starts smashing his way up the criminal food chain until he finds the men responsible. He’s helped along the way by Vince Stone’s disenchanted girlfriend Debby (Gloria Grahame), but when Stone discovers Debby’s betrayal he throws a scalding pot of coffee in her face. Stone will live to regret he did that. You do not mess with Gloria Grahame. Ever.
Since Lang was a master of mood and action, this film has all the atmosphere and ass-kicking you could want out of a classic film noir. All Bannion wants is to mess up the crooks who killed his wife. The Big Heat, as many people have noted, really set the standard for Dirty Harry and all the righteous renegade cop movies that came after it. For instance, Bannion addresses every criminal in the movie by the pejorative “thief”—as in “You’re outta business, thief.” Listen to how Ford spits out that word and you can hear the embryo of Eastwood’s “Well, do ya, punk?”
Glenn Ford’s everyman face belied an intrinsically introspective quality as an actor, and here he seems to be imploding with rage. Likewise, Grahame is perfect as the floozy girlfriend who realizes too late that her easy life has already come to an end. She spends the last third of the movie with her face half-concealed in bandages, and the scenes where she sets out to get her revenge—armed with a mink coat, a gun, and a boiling pot of coffee—are classic.
Of course, revenge isn’t always a case of righteous victims dispensing justice. Sometimes, revenge is a nasty situation all around. Cape Fear (1962) tells the story of a rapist named Max Cady (a scary Robert Mitchum). Eight years prior, Cady was stuck in prison on sexual assault charges. He was convicted, in large part, due to the testimony of a lawyer named Sam Bowen (played by Gregory Peck with typical clinched jaw resolve). Now Cady appears in Bowen’s life swearing revenge. What kind of revenge he wants is not immediately clear, but soon he’s eyeing Bowen’s wife and teenage daughter.
This is a terrifying movie, and the years have not diminished its impact. Director J. Lee Thompson is working in the Hitchcockian mode, and while he sometimes presses too hard, overall he achieves impressive results. The last thirty minutes of this movie are as tense as anything the Master of Suspense ever put on film. Thompson is assisted greatly by the excellent cinematography of Sam Leavitt, who paints burning Carolina days and then plunges the night scenes into pervasive blackness. And Thompson’s taut filmmaking is nearly inextricable from Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant score. It’s no coincidence that Martin Scorsese’s otherwise lamentable remake of Cape Fear in 1991 kept Herrmann’s creepy music. It is one of the composer’s great scores, and it only serves to reinforce the Hitchcock comparisons.
At the heart of the film is the performance by Mitchum. Because he was one of noir’s greatest leading men, it is sometimes forgotten that Mitchum was also one of its creepiest villains. The key to his frightening turn as Max Cady is the utter righteous indignation he brings to the role. At the heart of any movie that deals honestly with revenge is exactly this truth: everyone thinks they’re in the right.
Other revenge-based film noirs of note:
- Scarlet Street (1945)—Fritz Lang masterpiece about a lonely painter played by Edward G. Robinson taken for a ride by femme fatale Joan Bennett and her pimp boyfriend Dan Duryea. Contains the most brutal murder scene of the 1940s.
- Cornered (1945)—Dick Powell stars as a concentration camp survivor trying to track down a Nazi who mastermind the massacre that killed his wife. Surprisingly blunt about the horrors of war.
- The Killer Is Loose (1956)—Psycho Wendell Corey hunts the cop (Joseph Cotton) he blames for the death of his wife. Director Budd Boetticher’s only noir. Not to be missed: the bizarre finale with Corey, in drag, stalking the cop’s wife down the street.
- Tension (1950)—Geeky Richard Basehart sets out to kill the guy who stole his wife. And underrated gem with a fantastic performance by sexy Audrey Totter as Basehart’s faithless wife.
Jake Hinkson, The Night Editor