Bretaigne Windust, Raoul Walsh, 1951
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Zero Mostel, Ted de Corsia, Everett Sloane
Assistant District Attorney Martin Ferguson is determined to get the testimony that will put away gangster Albert Mendoza, head of a ring of murderers-for-hire. Ferguson’s key witness is Joe Rico, a terrified gangster who has agreed to exchange a damning testimony of dead witnesses and hidden corpses for freedom. Out of sheer terror after several assassination attempts, Rico tries to escape and is killed. Ferguson and his men must spend the night pouring over old testimony in the hopes that they can summon a new witness, otherwise Ferguson will walk free.
Though generally considered an average Humphrey Bogart film, I absolutely loved The Enforcer and it certainly ranks among the most underrated police procedurals of the ‘50s. Director Bretaigne Windust (I don’t know what to say about that name…), primarily known for his Broadway work, became ill during shooting. Experienced gangster film director Raoul Walsh (The White Heat, The Roaring Twenties) stepped in, though he remains uncredited, and allegedly helmed the film’s most explosive scenes. Aside from his all-encompassing stardom, it’s fascinating to look at Bogart’s career through the lens of the gangster film, because he was an active participant in the progression from the classic ’30 gangster film to murkier efforts in the ‘40s mixed with film noir (such as Key Largo), to the death of the gangster flick in the ‘50s, when it was essentially transformed into the police procedural.
The Enforcer is based on the events related in Murder, Inc. (1951), a true crime book co-written by Burton Turkus, formerly the Brooklyn ADA who helped prosecute the crime gang of the same name. Bogart’s character, ADA Ferguson, is based on Turkus’s exploits during this period; there are a number of similar parallels throughout the film. Also known as Murder, Inc, this was the first Hollywood film devoted to the inner workings of organized crime. It was also one of the first to introduce now-familiar jargon like “hit” and “target.” I’m not sure how they slid half of this past the censors, but there are dead bodies everywhere and seemingly on unpleasant scene after another – throats are slit, lovely young women are butchered, and a mass grave site is uncovered. In what I took to be a nod to the Holocaust, the grave site is symbolized by a table full of withered, abandoned shoes. The few scenes that focus on the band of killers are excellent – Rico abuses and humiliates the men, emanating an aura of power, violence, and disdain. He lays into one underling for bringing a gun; it’s understood that the man should use a more nondescript weapon, like his hands or an icepick.
The tough and hardboiled script from Martin Rackin (The Horse Soldiers) is fast paced and suspenseful. Both Rackin and directors Walsh and Windust excellent handled the tricky flashbacks and plot twists, which are deftly used to propel the film’s building sense of suspense. The cinematography from Hitchcock-regular Robert Burks (Vertigo) adds to the film noir feeling and expertly captures shots of men smoking in the half-light, looking grim and serious and as they attempt to escape or hunt down their prey. A cold, loveless film utterly devoid of humor or romance, it’s easy to see how this crosses the line into film noir, though it is mostly a police procedural. Bogart’s character frequently crosses the line into unethical behavior (much like his earlier private detectives) and this is less cut and dry than most police procedurals from the period, which figure the cops as good guys and the criminals as clearly bad. The Enforcer also shares some things in common with the gritty realism of film noir director Jules Dassin.
One of the best things about this film is that it’s truly an ensemble effort, not just a star vehicle for Bogie. He’s excellent here in his last film for Warner Bros., but willingly shares the screen with a roster of talent character actors all portraying some hard-hitting characters. Ted de Corsia (The Naked City), King Donovan (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Everett Sloane (Citizen Kane, The Lady from Shanghai), and the amazing Zero Mostel (The Producers) are all wonderful to watch, with de Corisa and Mostel nearly stealing the film out from under Bogart.
The Enforcer has been lovingly released on Blu-ray by Olive Films and comes highly recommended. It’s a nice little surprise and I suspect most Bogart fans haven’t had the chance to seek it out yet. Similarly, anyone who enjoys police procedurals – from Dragnet to Law and Order – will find a lot to like here. It has aged particularly well and retained its dark, gritty tone and murky sense of morality.