Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Red Light (1949)

For a noir fan there’s nothing more exciting than coming across a little-known and not particularly well-regarded crime movie and discovering that it’s a bona fide neglected film noir gem. Such a movie is Red Light.

Produced and directed by Roy Del Ruth for his own production company and distributed by United Artists this 1949 production stars George Raft, Virginia Mayo and Raymond Burr. It’s not only a genuine noir, it’s a very unconventional one.

Raft plays successful businessman Johnny Torno. Torno runs a large trucking company. You’re probably expecting me to say that his trucking company is a front for his gangland activities, or that he’s involved in corruption of some kind. But that isn’t the case. Johnny Torno is a perfectly legitimate businessman and he’s a thoroughly decent guy. Since he’s being played by George Raft it goes without saying that he’s a tough guy, but he’s tough in a completely honest and straightforward way.

Torno is a devout Catholic and he’s active in his local church. He’s just donated a very expensive stained glass window to his parish church. Torno raised his kid brother Jess himself and Jess became a chaplain in the army. He was a prisoner-of-war and he’s just retained to the US after his release. The two brothers are very close, although given the fact that Johnny is a good deal older it’s in some ways as much a father-son relationship as a brotherly relationship.

Jess’s return to the US was well publicised and one of the people watching the newsreel footage of the re-union between the two brothers is Nick Cherney (Raymond Burr). Nick isn’t watching the newsreel at a movie house - he’s watching it in prison. Nick had been a book-keeper employed by Johnny Torno, until he was convicted of embezzlement and got himself a four-year stretch in San Quentin. Nick was guilty as charged and Johnny had already given him one chance to repay the money he stole. Nick was not framed, he stole the money and he has no-one but himself to blame. But Nick doesn’t see it that way. He’s the sort of guy who always blames others for his troubles and for four years he’s been brooding and planning to get revenge on Torno. A chance remark by another prisoner gives him an idea - the most effective way to hurt Johnny Torno would be through his brother.

Jess Torno is murdered, but Nick Cherney is not a suspect. He’s now out of prison, but the murder took place before his release. It doesn’t occur to anyone that Nick may have used someone else to do the actual killing. The only clue to the murder is provided by Jess’s dying words, indicating that he has written the name of his killer in the Bible that Johnny gave him several years earlier. Johnny is the only one who knows this, and he has no intention of telling the cops. Johnny Torno intends to do the avenging of his brother himself.

The only problem is, he discovers that there’s no message written in the Bible. It takes him a while, but eventually he figures out he’s looking for the wrong Bible. Jess was killed in a hotel room and the Bible he was referring to is the Gideon Bible to be found in every hotel room. But this Bible has now vanished. Before he can find the killer Johnny will have to find that Bible.

Johnny finds an unexpected ally in the person of Carla North (Virginia Mayo). With her help he sets about the frustrating task of tracking down the missing Bible. Meanwhile both Nick Cherney and the man who did the killing for him are aware that Johnny is on their trail and they are determined to retrieve the Bible before Johnny can find it. The hunt eventually ends in a very unexpected way.

At this point I should point out that the Bible is not a mere plot device. Red Light belongs to a very small sub-genre - the religious film noir. It’s a small sub-genre but it does include a handful of terrific movies, the most notable being the two great Catholic noirs, the superb 1947 British noir Brighton Rock and Fritz Lang’s equally good 1937 film You Only Live Once. Like these movies Red Light is concerned with faith, forgiveness and redemption. If you’re not religious don’t be put off by this - Red Light is still very much a film noir and it has a great deal to offer noir fans. And it has no shortage of action and violence either.

Not everyone like George Raft. Personally I think he’s an under-appreciated actor. He’s certainly ideally cast as Johnny Torno. Johnny is a guy who is just a bit too tightly wrapped. He’s a good man but under stress he tends to become a bit of a pressure cooker and you worry that at any moment he’s going to explode. Raft handles the part rather deftly.

Virginia Mayo is solid but Carla is a fairly marginal character and she doesn’t get a great deal to do.  

Raymond Burr at this stage of his career was one of the great screen villains and he delivers a trademark bravura performance here. He’s vicious and menacing, but he’s also slimy and cowardly. Nick is a wonderfully repulsive character and Burr is in top form. Equally good is Harry Morgan, in one of the nastiest roles of his career. There’s an abundance of deliciously hardboiled dialogue in this movie and Burr and Morgan get more than their fair share of it, and they make the most of it.

Roy Del Ruth wasn’t really noted for this type of movie but he handles things very expertly. A very large proportion of the action takes place at night and Bert Glennon delivers plenty of glorious noir cinematography. This movie is visually very noir indeed. The ending is absolutely top-notch as well as being a very clever way of wrapping things up in a way that satisfies the demands of the story.

Given that it’s a movie that is trying to combine hardboiled crime revenge themes with a religious theme it’s not surprising that occasionally it seems like it’s about to stumble. What is surprising is that it doesn’t lose its footing. Even the surreal scene with the blind soldier can’t derail this movie.

This movie has been released in the Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD range. It’s totally barebones but it’s an excellent transfer.

Red Light is film noir gold. Very highly recommended. 

1 comment:

  1. I like the movie too, but there's a severe plot hole: why is Jess stayng at a hotel? Either he's still an army chaplain and ban be put up on base by the military; or he's a Catholic priest whom the bishop can put up at his rectory (and seeing as the bishop was going to re-assign Jess to a new parish this isn't unreasonable); or his dear brother Johnny can put him up in that big apartment of his. Granted, I know he won't get murdered in that case and we won't have a movie, but it always bothered me.

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