Director: Bretaigne Windust and Raoul Walsh
Writer: Martin Rackin
Cinematographer: Robert Burks
Producer: Milton Sperling
by Jon Cvack
Classic film noir is dominated by two men - Robert Mitchum and Humphrey Bogart. Each offers their own version of the stoic and tough male figure; a precursor to James Bond, Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis. They were old school Don’t Tread on Me Strong men. They smoked, drank, slept around, and didn’t trust anybody but themselves, often abandoning the law for a greater ethic. Mitchum’s best work is every bit as good as Bogarts, but Bogart’s haggard look makes his work all the more historical. The further time goes by, the more I wonder how a man like Humphrey Bogart became one of the most famous men in the history of entertainment.
Given my deep dive into film noir (I even took a film noir class in college), I was surprised to have never heard of The Enforcer. The story opens up in the evening before a witness Joe Rico (Ted de Corsia) is set to testify against his former mob boss Albert Mendoza (Everett Sloane). The Assistant District Attorney Martin Ferguson (Humphrey Bogart) and his fellow officers babysit the terrified and paranoid Rico, who’s already faced a few attempts on his life.
The setting is perfect, establishing a claustrophobic and hot police office, and yet with the coolness of an approaching rain. Rico moves in front of a window and a sniper from the building across the street fires, striking him in the arm and the officers scramble out to find the shooter. Rico is left inside with a couple of blue suits, heads into the bathroom and then escapes out the window and onto a slim ledge on the side of the building. Ferguson makes his way back and attempts to save Rico who then falls stories down and dies. The department looks to lose their case against Mendoza, when Ferguson decides to take one last look at the evidence.
In pure noir fashion, the film flashes back to the beginning of the investigation in which we learn that Mendoza was essentially operating a hit service. We’re then introduced to a colorful and memorable cast of characters, starting with a crazed and freaky young kid James "Duke" Malloy (Michael Tolan) who bursts into the police station, declaring that he killed his girlfriend. He leads them far into the country and directs them to the grave where he buried her; soon admitting that the girl was actually a contracted hit job. He later kills himself and Ferguson opens an investigation.
After rounding up another suspected contracted killer and using his daughter and wife as collateral to make him talk, he reveals an organization referred to as the “troupe” which takes hit orders via telephone from a mysterious third party. The personas range from the young dreamboat to an old man to a lazy eyed psychopath and the story follows the rise and fall of each of the individuals, breaking away to further flashbacks and tangents, and what could so easily be a mess, is non-linear noir as though made by Tarantino, in being about as much about the performances as the actions. It’s as close to Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) as I’ve ever seen.
I’ve spent three days attempting to write this thing, forgetting that I’ll run into the same barrier every time. Inherent to most of the movement is a complexity in narrative. Film noir plots are a puzzle to figure out, ranging from Double Indemnity (1944) to The Big Sleep (1946); the latter of which after watching I asked what the film was about on the old IMDb message board (pre-wikipedia) and received a single response that told me to calm down, hit my “peace pipe”, and watch it gain. The person wasn’t wrong, I just never did.
The Enforcer is a rare film that, like Touch of Evil (1958), although a somewhat confusing plot to recall, it all makes sense at the time. Like any great art, there is no single element to identify film noir with greatness. It’s a collection of all cinema can offer. To describe the plot in all of its intricate details diminishes how the film makes you feel. It’s the rare perfect experience with an old film; you always hope it’ll be amazing, but rarely is it. Shot in 1950 or so, the film has that additional pop of being shot on location in the LA city streets, which combined with the low key photography of DP Robert Burks who’d go on to shoot Strangers on a Train (1951) right after, and then the rest of Hitchcock’s best works. Humphrey Bogart provides all you want, and as we move past the point of parody - as I’m sure most upcoming generations have no idea who he is enough to even reference - he gets better with each film I watch from him. He embodies film noir and all its grit and creates yet another addition to the best from the movement.
BELOW: A nice taste
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