March 4, 2014
George Raft started out on his toes, dubbed the “The Fastest Charleston Dancer” in a 1925 issue of Variety. That agility never quite carried over to the big screen, but the maniacal focus did. Note that he was the “fastest”, not the most graceful or technically sound. He was there to get a job done quickly. He became a star as a hired goon in Scarface (1932), obsessively flipping that coin of his. It was a bit of business director Howard Hawks requested Raft to master, so he did with machine-like efficiency, reflecting the soullessness of his killer. With this breakout role, and his real-life palling around with mobsters (he counted Bugsy Siegel as a friend), Raft was typecast as a gangster, whereupon he became one of the most popular actors of the 1930s. As the 40s progressed his star began to dim, and he took on projects that might shake up his persona, including two films noir that Warner Archive has just released on DVD: Nocturne (1946) and Red Light (1949). Both are flawed, fascinating works in which Raft’s deliberate style is adapted to ostensibly heroic ends. One expects one of Raft’s Lieutenants or vengeful brothers to go full sociopath, but they remain stubbornly on the straight and narrow.
The advertising plays up Raft’s psychopathic persona – “Raft on a Rampage!” – though in the film he is more of a mild-mannered obsessive. Nocturne was producer Joan Harrison’s first assignment at RKO. A former secretary for Alfred Hitchcock, she eventually became one of his closest collaborators as a screenwriter (Rebecca, Suspicion) and a producer (Alfred Hitchcock Presents). One of the only female producers in Hollywood, she started her production career auspiciously with two Robert Siodmak films for Universal (Phantom Lady and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry). The director was prolific B-director Edwin L. Marin (he is credited with four other features in 1946), with a script by pulp novelist Jonathan Latimer, who would later pen the noir staples The Big Clock and Alias Nick Beal.
A composer and notorious lothario is found dead in his Hollywood Hills home, and looks very much like a suicide. The only clue is an unfinished composition called “Nocturne”, dedicated to “Dolores”. The lead investigator is ready to close the case as a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but Lieutenant Joe Warne (Raft) refuses to let it go, intent on proving it as murder. He pursues the case with an obsessiveness that threatens his job security, as he oversteps any number of departmental codes. Warne proceeds anyway, convinced that one of the victim’s many girlfriends, all of whom he nicknamed “Dolores”, might hold the secret to his demise. It’s a role that puts Raft on the right side of the law, but makes use of his persona of cold calculation. Raft, never the most charismatic performer, here seems to embrace a minimalist, utilitarian kind of performance. He speaks in low monotonal bursts, anticipating the impersonal “just the facts ma’am” approach of Dragnet which would appear five years later.
Latimer’s script doesn’t have the staccato tempo of the show, depending instead on repetitive plotting in which Warne tracks down the women from the many portraits in the composer’s home. These scenes border on the tedious, even though Latimer does have a gift for dialogue (“You can never depend on girls named Dolores”). Raft still intrigues, though, by his refusal to emote. It’s something of an anti-performance.
Director Marin is equally anonymous, but pulls off one brilliant shot in the opening. It begins with a mockup of the Hollywood Hills, with a miniature cliff-side cantilevered mansion set off against a matte of the skyline. The camera cranes slowly towards the house, rear projection depicting the back of a man at his piano. The shot continues into the living room via an invisible matching cut as the camera crosses the threshold, from special effect artifice to what passes as reality. The movement continues in a semi-circle around the pianist, settling below him, and revealing a woman hidden in shadow on a couch in the far background. The shot travels miles of diegetic space in a minute, the kind of faked mobility that David Fincher achieves through CG means in his snaking air vent shots in Panic Room.
Red Light has more of a talent pedigree behind it, with Roy Del Ruth as producer/director and frequent John Ford cinematographer Bert Glennon (Stagecoach, Wagon Master). Even the second unit had talent, with Robert Aldrich as its Assistant Director. I know Del Ruth only from his Warner Brothers pre-codes, so seeing “Roy Del Ruth Productions” slapped at the head of the credits had me expecting something snappy. It starts with a bang, as inmates Raymond Burr and Harry Morgan plot to kill a priest while inside a flickering prison projection booth, but it ends as a rather lugubrious exercise in divine intervention. It was to be the last of three films for Roy Del Ruth Productions, following the cheerier It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947) and The Babe Ruth Story (1948). At this point Raft was deep into the downswing of his career, and battling to reframe himself as something of a hero. Compared to Nocturne he is downright chipper here (he even smiles!), playing the vengeful brother of the murdered priest.
Again it’s in the form of a procedural, as Raft believes that his brother wrote the name of the killer in the Gideon Bible in his hotel room. It has gone missing, and Raft tracks down every other occupant of the room in search of it. One of them is Virginia Mayo, who is, “about as chummy as Leo Durocher with an umpire”, according to a hotel clerk. Raft wants an eye for an eye, but Del Ruth and screenwriter George Callahan have a curious interpretation of the bible. They interpret the “Vengeance is Mine” of Romans 12:19 to mean that if you require your enemies to suffer a violent death, you should lower your weapon because God will kill him off for you.
It’s a bizarre interpretation of the text, and the final third of the movie comes under the sway of this activist, Old Testament God. Up until that point it is a conventional policier, enlivened by Raft’s engaged performance and Glennon’s grandiose chiaroscuro. This is a dark movie, as Glennon experiments with all manner of shadowy shapes. There are company logos splayed on walls, ceiling fans dissecting diner patrons and a chain link fence imprisoning a face about to confront death. Every shot has some dark shape indicating doom. This reaches its manic peak on the runway of a blinking neon 24-Hour Service billboard, on which the deciding shootout takes place. Constantly flickering between light and dark, Raft battles with his conscience on whether to plug Burr or let God sort him out. He opts for the latter, and ends in the light. But Raft’s career excelled in the shadows, in maniacs and coin-flipping brutes. His career continued to sputter, and by the end of the 1950s he was playing off his old bad-guy rep as a greeter at a Cuban casino operated by Meyer Lansky.