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Much of the team that made Monogram's Decoy of the year before such a
startling little thriller re-upped for the same studio's Violence: Director
Jack Bernhard, co-scripter Stanley Rubin, composer Edward J. Kay, heavy
Sheldon Leonard (the second-string Raymond Burr, who, like Burr, would find
his fortune in television). Lightning, alas, failed to strike twice, so
Violence remains a typically flawed Poverty-Row production.
In the basement of the Los Angeles headquarters of the United Defenders a pseudo-populist scam organization to fleece angry veterans a young recruit who stumbled onto the truth meets his unpleasant end. (This crypto-Fascist group has affinities with The Black Legion of a decade earlier.) Upstairs, however, the forced cheeriness prevails, with the head of this personality cult (`True' Dawson, played by Emory Parnell) bidding his loyal secretary (Nancy Coleman) goodbye as she leaves for a vacation to Chicago. Little does he suspect that Coleman is an investigative reporter working undercover on an exposé of the racket, which will hit the streets as soon as she's safe in the Windy City. Leonard, one of his lieutenants, does have his suspicions about, as well as unresolved feelings for, Coleman, but can't find the evidence, so off she goes.
In Chicago en route to her magazine's offices, Coleman's cab crashes trying to elude a mysterious pursuer (Milo O'Shea). Hospitalized, Coleman wakes to find herself in a state of amnesia (of the trickiest sort: She remembers things that are convenient to advancing the story but forgets everything else). Back on the coast, she has no memory of her journalistic scoop and so thinks herself a loyal soldier for the United Defenders; she also believes she's engaged to O'Shea, because he told her so. And the plot lumbers on, with the murdered man's widow showing up to find him, and an all-powerful `Mr. X' looming darkly behind the whole operation....
Violence is riddled with holes and implausibilities (of the type that, in today's Hollywood, would all but guarantee a blockbuster). Rather transparently, it draws on themes and issues that sparked the early years of the noir cycle: The dissatisfaction of returning veterans and post-war labor strife (and might the demagogue's name `True' be an echo of then-president Harry S Truman's?). But the topical references prove no more than gimmicks for a quick-and-dirty production that has little coherence or resonance.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It is unusual to start a film with a sequence of an American flag, flying outside a building, and have it not accompanied by the usual rah-rah-rah patriotic music but instead by a dramatic ominous, sinister cue. That's because in Violence the flags front a disturbing sort of Fascist scam called The United Defenders, trying to recruit World War II veterans who may be dissatisfied with late 1940s conditions into stirring up demonstrations of hatred which can then be used by powerful wealthy sources behind the scenes, for their own purposes. This opening further develops into a contrast between the dark basement of the building, where thugs played by Sheldon Leonard and Peter Whitney beat up (and eventually kill) a veteran who has broken with them; and the brightly lit upstairs office. Nancy Coleman, an interesting minor actress, plays the secretary who has a somewhat overplayed tic of holding her hands to her face to indicate nervousness. We learn she is really working undercover for a magazine that's about to publish an expose of this racket. In one of those plot twists which noirs are famous for, she gets amnesia in a car accident, which complicates things, but a friendly man played by Michael O'Shea who is also trying to infiltrate the group helps her. I was reminded, in one scene where a young veteran stands up to question the bullying True Dawson, leader of the group (acted in a rather loud and hammy style by Emory Parnell) of the scene in the recent film The Master where a participant in the cult presided over by Philip Seymour Hoffman dares to question their mumbo-jumbo, and what happens to him. The film culminates in a neat ending where a mysterious, darkly lit figure known as Mister X, who was going to give the United Defenders a big bankroll until one of their violent riots went astray, is trying to slip out of town on a train. We recognize him only by the signet ring he wore in an earlier scene. The scene leaves it up to our imagination if and how he will be apprehended. Violence has its crudities: an overly emphatic music score,and story points that stretch credibility, but it is of great interest as an expression of murky political turmoil in the early US Cold War years.
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