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This is a guest post by Marie Sumner.

Who doesn’t love a good action movie?  Guys and gals blazing away with a gun in each hand, punching and kicking the living daylights out of each other, blowing some stuff up real good—now that’s my idea of entertainment.  Movies like Hard-Boiled, Kill Bill and The Raid: Redemption didn’t just pop up out of nowhere, however.  They’re part of a long line of melodramas that have shocked, stirred and delighted audiences over the years.  Here are a handful of American films that helped pave the way for the screen violence of today.

The Black Book (1949)

Back in the 1940’s and 1950’s, you couldn’t beat the films of director Anthony Mann for menace and pure visceral impact.  In such crime films as T-Men and Border Incident, violence seems ready to break out at any time.  It isn’t pretty when it does either: people get shot, beaten, stabbed, tortured, buried in quicksand, locked in steam rooms with the temperature turned all the way up and chopped up by farm combines.  These movies aren’t just geek shows, however.  Their brisk, skillful storytelling and striking, high-contrast black-and-white cinematography helped set the template for what we call film noir today.  The five Westerns that Mann made with James Stewart in the 1950’s proved equally influential (indeed, they helped set a precedent for a film that we’ll look at later).

Released in 1949 by the low-budget Eagle-Lion Studios, The Black Book stars Robert Cummings as a spy in France during the Reign of Terror.  His mission is to infiltrate the inner circle of Robespierre and help bring an end to his rule before he becomes dictator.  The movie won’t win awards for historical accuracy, but it effectively conveys the air of paranoia and dread that comes with living in a totalitarian regime.  The Black Book also features outstanding performances by Richard Basehart as the sadistic, power-mad Robespierre and by Arnold Moss as Fouche, the silver-tongued chief of Robespierre’s secret police.  And of course, it delivers the goods in terms of bloodshed: when you see two characters get shot in the face, you can’t help but wonder, “How on Earth did they get away with doing that?”

The Big Heat (1953)

Director Fritz Lang had made his mark cinematically well before he made this movie.  His 1927 opus Metropolis has influenced nearly every sci-fi film that has followed it (especially any film set in a futuristic city).  Also, his 1931 classic M is credited with being the first police procedural and one of the first serial killer movies.  With The Big Heat, however, Lang and company carved out yet another spot in film history: they made one of the greatest films noirs ever and helped set the template for the angry lone cop formula (Dirty Harry, etc.).

Straight-arrow detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is called in to investigate the suicide of a fellow officer.  Everything seems straightforward enough until he finds out that the officer was on the payroll of crime boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby).  He starts getting pressure from both his superiors and Lagana’s goons to back off, but he barrels ahead.  He even storms into Lagana’s home and roughs up his bodyguard.  Then, after a car bomb that was meant for him kills his wife and he gets suspended from the force, Bannion declares all-out war.

The Big Heat’s violence shocked audiences at the time.  The car bombing was bad enough, but the real jaw-dropper was the scene where Lagana’s second-in-command, Vince Stone, throws boiling-hot coffee on his girlfriend’s face.  Though its brutality seems rather tame today, the film is still well worth seeing for its sharp dialogue and direction, for its excellent performances (especially by Lee Marvin as Stone and by Gloria Grahame as his girlfriend Debbie Marsh) and for its intriguing moral ambiguities.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Arthur Penn’s moody, French New Wave-influenced take on the Depression-era outlaws marked the dividing line between “classic” and modern American film.  It turned its producer-star Warren Beatty into a major Hollywood player and catapulted much of its cast (Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Gene Wilder) into stardom.  Even more important, however, was the impact that Bonnie and Clyde would have upon Hollywood violence in the years that followed it.  The film’s extensive use of squibs and slow motion (particularly in the final scene) brought a graphic detail to its depiction of bloodshed that drew both scorn and praise and proved massively influential.  Bonnie and Clyde’s heady mix of gunplay, slapstick and languid, poetic wistfulness also tapped into the prevailing anti-establishment attitudes of the time, which helped make it a huge box-office success.  However you choose to look at it, this is one of the most crucial films of the past fifty years.

The Wild Bunch (1969)

If Bonnie and Clyde kicked the door open when it came to screen violence, this movie crashed through the door with a tank.  When it was first released, Sam Peckinpah’s elegiac tale of aging outlaws heading down to Mexico to make one final score sparked intense controversy over its audaciously vicious and bloody gunfights.  In addition to using more blank cartridges and squibs than had ever been used in a single film up to that point, Peckinpah (along with his editor, Lou Lombardo) took Bonnie and Clyde’s slo-mo innovations a step or three forward.  By intercutting footage shot at multiple speeds, they turned the film’s action sequences into veritable ballets of bloodshed.  Sixties audiences were completely unprepared for screen violence of this magnitude: in his biography If They Move… Kill Em!: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah, David Weddle writes that a test screening of the film in Kansas City broke out into a near-frenzy of outrage.  The fact that The Wild Bunch still retains considerable power today is a testament to the skill of its makers.

Marie Sumner enjoys writing about movies, art and culture.  She currently writes for costumesupercenter.com, which allows her to indulge her fascination with the mechanics of screen violence (squibs, fake blood, etc.).