Incredibly thrilling noir film. Well-cast and acted, atmospheric, with a classic noir plot. From the very first scene in Robert Ryan’s dingy apartment as he retrieves his pistol, to the final scene in the railyard that finds Van Heflin mistakenly killed by the hood he never wanted to hire, neither of the protagonists can escape the web of the past.
The fact that Ryan and Heflin’s feud goes back to a dilemma from the war ensures that there’s nothing they can do to change their collision course. From the bright new suburbs and mountain lake, the characters stumble through the dank, windy sleaze of in the dingy corners of nightime L.A.
Both characters are tragically flawed, yet both are sympathetic. We can see why Ryan seeks revenge for Heflin’s wartime collaboration, while Heflin felt forced to make the best deal he could with their duplicitous Nazi captors. Just when Heflin leaves himself open to the vengeful Ryan, another mistake aborts their reconciliation.
We are left with Ryan assuming or at least acknowledging responsibility for his part in the feud, by telling the assembled crowd at Heflin’s heroic death that he will tell his wife. We can imagine that, even in her rage against Ryan for accelerating the feud, she at least will know that her husband was shot trying to warn his enemy about the hired killer, and died trying to ‘square’ things by confronting the killer.
His past misdeed that allowed his fellow prisoners to die, is in a sense redeemed by killing the Nazi-like gangster. Johnny is an especially slimy hood; when he smells money by offering to kill Ryan, and Heflin hesitates to commit himself, Johnny remarks that it’s best to “get rid of this guy, and be sorry later.”
Both Ryan and Heflin appear sickened by their ordeal, enduring a nightmarish slugfest with an underworld of bars, cheap hotel rooms, alleys, tunnels, and the iconic trainyard that seems to bind them to a world without nature or emotion.
One of the best, if not the best film noir. 10/10.