—A Decent Thriller—
Your Bogie Fix:
Director: Although Bretaigne Windust is credited, Raoul Walsh was brought in after only a few days of filming when Windust was taken to the hospital, seriously ill. Windust would not return in time to finish the picture.
Well, I think I’m finally ready to start writing a book entitled Where Have All the Character Actors Gone? While the old school studio system with its contract players might not work in today’s world, it sure did produce a heck of a lot of solid men and women who could play side roles so well that an entire movie could be elevated.
Bogart is Assistant District Attorney Martin Ferguson, a man in desperate need of sleep when the movie opens, and even more desperate need when it wraps up. (What are the odds that I’d randomly pull two movies in a row where Bogart’s a desperate District Attorney? How many can there be?)
ADA Ferguson is one night away from going to trial with Albert Mendoza (Everett Sloane), a man that he believes to be the mastermind behind a criminal ring of hitmen, and the police have just brought in the one and only witness that can make the case stick.
Ted De Corsia plays Joseph Rico, Mendoza’s second in command, and he’s the last chance that ADA Ferguson has left to put Mendoza in prison. Rico has other ideas though, as he knows that there is nowhere he can run to escape Mendoza’s grasp. Rather than rat out his boss and pay the consequences, Rico makes a break from a third story window, and then makes a lot of breaks as he hits the ground after losing his balance on a ledge.
Ferguson and his right hand man, Captain Frank Nelson (Roy Roberts), are suddenly faced with a ticking clock. Ferguson has to be in court within eight hours, and his main piece of evidence against Mendoza is no longer breathing. But wasn’t there something he missed? Some small piece of evidence that’s lurking in the dark recesses of his mind? Something that he didn’t think he’d need to remember?
Ferguson and Nelson reopen the case from the beginning, and we the viewers get to flashback to the first moments that Mendoza’s men slip up, and the crime syndicate flashes onto ADA Ferguson’s radar.
Imagine an extra-long episode of Law and Order, except the cast is made up of classic Hollywood actors. It’s a murder mystery who-done-it in which we get to watch Bogart track down one lead after another, only to find out that every new witness he needs has just turned up dead.
There’s also a nifty twist at the end that I’ll admit, I should have seen coming. But twist endings weren’t as common in classic Hollywood, so I wasn’t expecting it! It’s not my fault, see! The clues were there but I wasn’t paying close enough attention! I’ll wager that even if you do see it coming, it’ll still be pretty satisfying – I’ll say no more just in case you haven’t seen it yet!
Oh! And Zero Mostel plays “Big Babe” Lazick, one of the hit men that Bogart has to flip for the prosecution! So we get some great work between the two actors as Ferguson leans his full force onto Lazick’s hefty shoulders, using every bit of threat and intimidation that he can muster into getting the poor dope to turn over Mendoza – even coldheartedly using Lazick’s wife and child.
And just to show you how cliché it’s become in the modern day to have hitmen as a part of our cultural entertainment, there’s a number of scenes in the movie that actually take the time to explain what the words “contract” and “hit” mean. Some of that lingo is so commonplace now that I wouldn’t be surprised if my six year old knew it. Can you even imagine being unaware of how a hitman works in this day and age?
This cast is so much fun. Zero Mostel and Ted de Corsia are standouts for sure, but even the smallest parts – King Donovan as Sgt. Whitlow – are so well cast that every actor on screen is fighting for your attention with even the smallest line. Jack Lambert as the crazy killer, “Philadelphia” Tom Zaca, and Tito Vuolo as Tony Vetto, help round out the killing crew – both scene stealers in their own right.
Everett Sloane’s portrayal of the hit man gang’s ringleader Albert Mendoza is expertly down played until the final act of the film, and when he finally appears in a scene with de Corsia, it’s chilling and wonderful.
Bogart gets a “great” mention as well. A perfect double feature would be to pair this film with Marked Woman. In Marked Woman, Bogart’s the young, idealistic ADA who’s fighting for justice through a web of rules and regulations. In The Enforcer, we see a Bogart who’s aged and weary, just as ready to lob a right hook at a suspect as he is an interrogation question. Ferguson is a weary soul, and Bogart gives the character his just due.
While there’s nothing groundbreaking with this script by Martin Rackin, it is a very solid mystery / thriller. Once the flashback starts, the viewer is pulled through multiple twists and turns along the case with Bogart until the big reveal at the end. There’s no romance thrown in to pander to the date crowd, and Bogart gets to play Ferguson as a flawed and frustrated man who isn’t afraid to bend the rules a bit to get the job done. A remake of this today, if done well, would be a solid summer popcorn flick.
Classic Bogie Moment
The cops lead Rico into the station to meet ADA Ferguson. The office door opens and inside the darkened room is Bogart, sitting behind his desk, hunched over and smoking a cigarette. He doesn’t have to say a word for us to know his state of mind. He’s tired and edgy. Did he sleep last night? Probably not. Will he sleep this night? More than likely he won’t, and he knows it.
Someone should put together a montage of all the “Bogie smoking behind a desk” moments from cinema history.
The Bottom Line:
This is an very satisfying police procedural. Not as dark and noir-ish as Bogart’s private detective roles, but a fun look at a more by-the-book type of lawman from Bogart. (Even though he’s not all that by-the-book at times!) Very rewatchable, especially the second time when you get to reexamine the scenes that hint towards the twist.
Just for fun, sometimes I like to go through the full cast and crew to see what the overlap between Bogart movies might be. So go to IMDB’s page and then scroll down through the cast until you get to a guy by the name of David McMahon, who happens to play a police officer in this movie, although he was “uncredited.” Now click through to his filmography and see a long list of “uncredited” roles that McMahon played throughout his career. Bartenders, cops, deliveyrmen, Taxi Drivers – if there was a small role or background character to be played, this guy played it – and more than likely he was “uncredited” at the time.
This was an era in Hollywood when you could be a contracted working actor with a career made up of dozens and dozens of movies and TV shows, and yet you might still be completely unrecognizable to the public at large. It wasn’t until the end of McMahon’s career, when began to appear as a regular on a few TV series, that he might have finally gained some notoriety.
How many times do you think this guy heard, “Hey! Don’t I know you from somewhere?” only to run through his long list of bit parts until the befuddled fan finally came up with, “The Virginian! Yeah! Yeah! That’s right! You’re the conductor on The Virginian!”
David McMahon! We salute you! It was actors like you who brought years of experience to small roles in order to elevate a movie’s credibility!