Sunday, November 15, 2015

Red Light (1949)

**** out of 5

"When you play solitaire, you can only beat yourself."

Roy Del Ruth produced and directed this film from a story by Don "Red Ryder" Barry.  The screenplay is written by George Callahan, who also did  several of charlie chan films (maybe that accounts for the otherwise unessential presence of Victor Sen Yung as a houseboy named Vincent?).

George Raft is Johnny Torno, the owner of Torno Freight Lines (24 hour services, the two-story high neon lights declare!).  He is tracking down the murders of his brother (Arthur Franz) an army chaplain recently returned to states from a P.O.W. camp.  Aiding in his search is Virginia Mayo, who he met in his search and learned was brother to one of Franz's fallen military comrades.

The film features lots of great character actors in colorful bit parts, from Gene Lockhart as Torno's business manager to Barton MacLane as a police investigator, to the likes of William Frawley, Stanley Clements, Leonard Bremen, Arthur Shields (Barry Fitzgerald's brother - as a priest, of course), a young Paul Frees, and noted showman Ken Murray as himself.

An opening scene of a prison yard full of convicts watching newsreels makes an effective and succinct set-up of plot and stakes, beginning with a reel showing Raft meeting his brother at his arrival stateside.  The camera tracks in to reveal Raymond Burr and Harry Morgan as two cons reacting to this footage from the projection booth.  It seems Raymond Burr was sent up for embezzling funds from Torno's business and carries a deep resentment against Torno for "ratting me out."   Because he has less time left in prison, the repulsive Harry Morgan character is offered payment (with those same funds) to kill Torno's brother and exact revenge for Burr, who will then have an alibi that allows him to further torment Torno when he is released from stir.

Torno finds his brother still alive long enough for the brother to tell him an enigmatic message about a message written in a Gideon bible (a classic example of Hitchcock's MacGuffin concept!), which Torno then hopes will help find the killer.  How the hunt pays off is a big part of what makes this a special entry in the noir cycle.

To begin with, any movie that brings a George Raft to shed tears is a pretty tough story. but it gets even more grim. Just watch the brutal way in which several characters meet their deaths, and you can see how unfairly overlooked this film is among the noir greats.  It is a sobering examination of  how
loss of an innocent brother causes Torno to embrace blind hatred that drives him to obsession in his efforts to bring about justice on own terms.  The film grapples with themes of revenge, forgiveness, and hope founded in faith, with a noted lack of cynicism toward religion which may partially account for this not being more widely revered as a great noir. Regardless on one's views on religion, though it should certainly be more recognized, as it is presents George Raft in one of his finest performances.

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