This film is a magnificent study of a war’s effects on soldiers, not to mention the moral relativism inherent in war itself.
Frank Enley (played to the sweaty and twitchy hilt by Van Heflin) returns home from WWII as a hero, who survived confinement in a Nazi POW camp. He and his wife Edith (played by young Janet Leigh) leave the East Coast for sunny California. What Edith doesn’t know is that Frank is on the run from his former friend/now enemy Joe Parkson (played by the ever haunted-looking Robert Ryan).
Joe also endured a stint with Frank in the POW camp. But it isn’t imprisonment by Nazis that stirs Joe’s hatred for Frank up to the point of unhealthy obsession. The problem is that Frank committed an act so heinous and (as Joe sees it) in contravention to the prisoners’ interests to save his own skin that nothing less than killing Frank will appease him.
Along with attempting to avoid assassination, Frank must confront and acknowledge what he did. This includes confessing the act to his wife, who forgives him, of course. However, Frank has a much tougher time forgiving himself.
I won’t go into the rest of the plot, since that would spoil things. But I will say that the actors turn in spectacular performances. Heflin, Ryan, and Leigh, along with Phyllis Thaxter as Joe’s girlfriend do great honor to the material. And two small, but significant parts are played memorably by Mary Astor and Barry Kroeger.
The movie is notably one of the first to address not only the problems that veterans of “the good war” endured upon returning home, but the ethics of war.
If you’re a film noir fan, don’t miss this one!
PS: You can buy this promo poster on Amazon. (affliate link)