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Who would have thought that at this late date, a top-flight gangster movie starring Humphrey Bogart would emerge, after years of unavailability? Are there any more out there like this gem? 1951's The Enforcer was Bogie's last picture for Warners, and it's a real oddity. The star plays a tough D.A. trying to get the goods on a dangerous killer. He launches and wraps up the picture's action scenes, but the bulk of the gangster drama is carried by a choice selection of class-A villains -- a rogue's gallery that puts the words "hard hitting" back into the crime movie lexicon. There's no room for romance, as the only leading lady types have very small roles and aren't even given on-screen billing.
For the first couple of minutes we're sort of confused. The fast-moving traffic seen behind the titles has to be from around 1930 or so. Having been tipped off that the show's subject is the actual organized crime outfit Murder, Incorporated, we expect a period picture. Bogie and his lawmen are soon driving in up-to-date sedans, so we realize that the setting is contemporary. But then the cops are shocked to hear of an organization that murders for hire. They don't recognize the terms "contract" and "hit man" in that context. Much of the criminals' dialogue has the old-fashioned tough-guy bite we recognize from vintage Warners crime pix. Did writer Martin Rackin adapt The Enforcer from a 1930s screenplay, shelved after the Production Code nixed gangster pix as indecent social pornography? 1
More intrigues. The movie is signed by Bretaigne Windust, but we're told that most of it was directed by the great Raoul Walsh. That's an easy claim to believe, as the no-nonsense, visually clean, excitingly staged picture does indeed look like the work of the man that directed White Heat. (due on Blu-ray on May 21, FYI).
The show starts in a state of high tension. D.A. Martin Ferguson (Humphrey Bogart) and Police Captain Frank Nelson (Roy Roberts) are trying to protect hood Joseph Rico (Ted de Corsia) so he can testify against the head of Murder, Inc., Albert Mendoza (Everett Sloane). But Rico is terrified that Mendoza's hit men will get to him before the trial in the morning, and panics. Deprived of his only witness, Martin retraces the case against Mendoza and reviews a chain of confessions from frightened men, assembling a picture of a cold-blooded murder for hire racket. Big Babe Lazick (Zero Mostel) is a hood forced to drive a murder car; Martin gets his testimony by threatening to take away Lazick's child. Duke Malloy (Michael "Lawrence" Tolan) is a hotshot triggerman that goes soft when he falls in love with his intended target, Angela Vetto (Susan Cabot). Although the organization eliminates witnesses, Martin is convinced he can find at least somebody alive and willing to talk. But he only has the night and the morning to put a new case together.
The Enforcer is truly upfront with its violence. A killer is reprimanded for carrying a gun; he's expected to carry out his contract with an ice pick. A nervous hit man becomes a liability, and is eliminated as a safe policy gesture. Revealed in a flashback, the diabolical Albert Mendoza formulates his notion of how Murder Inc., will work -- without a motive, the cops can't connect the killings back to the person who paid for the contract. And the people that hire Mendoza will forever be at his mercy, for future blackmail purposes. Mendoza is the "unseen man who gives the orders". Dialogue bites give him the status of a quasi-superhuman Doctor Mabuse figure.
The flashback structure works quite well, somehow not interrupting the thriller's forward momentum. Second-billed Zero Mostel is sensational as a neurotic, terrorized slob, abused by both the cops and his gangster superiors. Mostel's big-screen career as a noir personality came to an end after only a couple of pictures, as he was blacklisted even as The Enforcer was going into release. He returned to the stage, then to television, but didn't make another film for fifteen years: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Forced to identify the corpse of a young woman in a car pulled from a swamp, Mostel's anguish is completely believable.
Just as good is Ted de Corsia, the muscular villain of Jules Dassin's classic The Naked City. De Corsia's thug Rico is first seen as a whimpering, terrified weasel, convinced that Albert Mendoza isn't human, and can reach out and kill him at will. But in the flashbacks he's Mendoza's hard-bitten second in command, keeping a roomful of goons in line. We see Rico force a barber to help him cut a man's throat with a straight razor. Rico browbeats both Big Babe Lazick and Duke Malloy. The most experienced S.O.B of them all, Rico knows just when to betray his comrades to Mendoza's out-of-town killers.
Other notable faces include King Donovan as a maladroit cop and Bob Steele, Don Beddoe, John Kellogg and Jack Lambert as hit men. Young Susan Cabot and Patricia Joiner are witnesses slated for execution in the big finale. The sheer accumulation of violent scenes builds up a strong sense of suspense and jeopardy.
The Enforcer doesn't have everything, but if you want to skip the kissing stuff and cut right to violent gangster thrills, it's perfect. Bogart gives an excellent straight performance, as nothing about the show says 'star vehicle.' And like I said at the top of the review, an opportunity to see a "new" Bogart picture, especially a good one, is a real treat.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of The Enforcer is a crisp transfer with its share of negative dirt, especially around reel breaks. But the visuals by the ace cameraman Robert Burks really pop. Shadows of men with guns play out across those familiar old Warner Bros. standing. When they hose the sidewalks down to obtain that "just rained" look, the effect is nostalgic.
What's this Warner Bros. picture doing coming out from Olive, which licensed it from Paramount/Viacom/Republic? Well, the original producer Milton Sperling must have cut a helluva deal, because a whole string of movies originally distributed by Warners apparently reverted to his ownership and control: Cloak and Dagger, Pursued, Three Secrets, Distant Drums, Retreat Hell!, Blowing Wild and The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell. Some of these are already out or are on the way from Olive Films. We're lucky that the film elements weren't lost or destroyed, as happened to many independent pictures originally released by United Artists. A couple of years ago I attended a seminar where a Paramount assets and library executive bragged about how her studio was organizing "all those old, un-marketable movies" to be licensed to venues like Netflix. Many of these titles licensed to Olive Films have been scarce for almost thirty years. Shame on them for burying some really good movies. Can't find a way to market an exciting Humphrey Bogart gangster film? Then find another line of work.
The artwork for the disc jacket is really beautiful, and nothing like Warners' old domestic ad campaign. I can't be sure but I think it's an Italian poster design. Many Italo posters from this era are works of art that pull out the sexual values in film noir stars. This example is tame compared to posters I've seen for Gilda and The Big Heat.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Enforcer Blu-ray rates:
Glenn, I bought The Enforcer on laserdisc as a remainder maybe 18 years ago after Republic Pictures shut down its film distribution business. Spelling Entertainment bought Republic Pictures and laserdisc sales were not part of the equation, since Blockbuster Entertainment did not rent lasers. The Enforcer has been available, but not in the super dooper high quality that a blu-ray offers (sometimes).
The Enforcer, Milton Sperling, was married to Harry Warner's daughter Elizabeth, so when his military service in World War Two ended, he got an offer from Warner Bros. to work as an independent producer there instead of going back to his job as producer at 20th Century Fox for Darryl Zanuck. Sidebar note: Karen Sperling, his daughter, self produced and starred in a 1971 vanity movie production, Make A Face, which bombed and probably wiped out her six figure investment (a claimed $250,000 according to a 1971 New York Times article).
I think you are wrong in speculating that The Enforcer has its genesis in a shelved 1930s screenplay. The script closely follows the events described in the 1951 true crime book "Murder Inc.," written by former Brooklyn assistant district attorney Burton Turkus and co-writer Burt Feder. Whether scriptwriter Martin Rackin had access to the book manuscript before publication or used the news stories about the Brooklyn gang, I don't know. I do know that the movie avoids all mention of the Mafia, even though Louis Lepke, "Murder Inc.'s" real life gang leader, worked for and with Albert Anastastia, Lord High Executioner for the Mafia. The details in the movie about "Murder Inc." were not public knowledge until the early 1940s, when Abe Reles revealed all he knew about the gang to the Brooklyn DA's office as part of a plea deal.
Wikipedia's article on The Enforcer has an illustration of a newspaper ad with a line from the movie in big letters on the print ad stating: Get off the streets Angela Vetto! The publicity department knew that the end of this movie, Bogart's character trying to get to his star witness before the hit men, was the most action packed and suspenseful part of the picture (Roy Roberts' character telling Bogie as he hands him a gun, Here, take a friend.). All those flashbacks vitiated the action in this movie. In movies as in writing, I think you should strive for the active voice, not the passive voice.
Now, for the main reason for this note. Try to find out when the Warner Archive will release The Match King, a movie I consider an unrivalled depiction of business corruption. Only in 1932, the darkest year of the Great Depression, would any movie company make a movie like The Match King. The ending of this movie, the lead character's nightmare vision of what happened before and the future he faces, is unique in my opinion. Warren Williams should have gotten an Academy Award for his portrayal of Paul Kroll.
Keep up the good work, Glenn -- Gerry Reiss
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