The Enforcer (1951)
“”If you’re smart you’ll come down – if you’re dumb you’ll be dead…””
Director: Bretaigne Windust
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Zero Mostel, Ted de Corsia
Synopsis: A crusading district attorney finally gets a chance to prosecute the organizer and boss of Murder Inc.
Early on in The Enforcer, a tough crime movie which was credited to Bretaigne Windust but mostly filmed by veteran Warners director Raoul Walsh when the French director fell ill during filming, police detective Frank Nelson (Roy Roberts) bemoans the fact that ‘it’s not enough we know a man is guilty — we have to prove it,’ which is the kind of statement that can send a shiver down your back, even though you can understand his frustration. After all, the man who was all set to testify against the crime lord he and his boss, District Attorney Martin Ferguson (Humphrey Bogart), had been trying to convict for who knows how long had just turned himself into a human pizza by falling from the top window of the police building in which he was being held on the eve of the trial. Even so, in an age in which it has been repeatedly seen that the integrity and honesty of the police is something we can no longer take for granted, that kind of sentiment should sit a little uneasily with most people, especially the tactics used by the police in this picture places them on the same level as the criminals they are hoping to catch.
The guy who just fell to his death was Joseph Rico (Ted De Corsia), the number two in Murder Incorporated, a criminal organisation which performed murder for money, no questions asked. As long as you had the readies, you could have anyone wiped out. But Ferguson and Nelson have been closing in on the organisation for some time, and Rico was finally prepared to turn state’s evidence against Albert Mendoza (Everett Sloane) in order to avoid the electric chair. But as the day of Mendoza’s trial drew nearer, Rico grew increasingly jumpy, especially as Mendoza’s men — who, let’s face it, are professional hit-men — keep trying to bump him off. Although the DA’s office now had him stashed somewhere safe, they placed him in the only brightly-lit room in the building with no blinds and overlooking the street. So when two of his men narrowly miss shooting Rico from a rooftop across the street, he naturally thinks about getting out of there by any exit route available to him. That route just happens to be a narrow ledge on the side of the building, and if you’ve watched more than a dozen movies in your life you don’t need me to tell you what happens when nervous people climb onto narrow ledges.
Rico’s death leaves Ferguson and Nelson back at square one, and so they go back to the very first of their impressive number of files on the case of Murder Incorporated in the hope of unearthing some previously overlooked nugget of evidence which will blow the whole case wide open. And you know what that means, don’t you? That means one of those blurry, shimmering screen transitions which signify a journey back in time. The time that we go back to is the day when local mobster Duke Malloy (Lawrence Tolan) wandered into a police station to confess to the murder of his girlfriend. While this might not be a regular occurrence, what makes his confession a little more interesting is the disclosure that he was forced to carry out the murder by a couple of associates. His confession grows even more intriguing when a search of the area in which Malloy claims his girl’s body was buried turns up a grave but no body. Shortly after this discovery, Malloy’s body is found hanging in his cell, but before he died he disclosed the names of the associates who forced him to carry out the murder.
The Enforcer is an unusually complex movie in the way that it’s structured. It uses flashbacks within flashbacks to tell an occasionally convoluted story which nevertheless retains our interest thanks to Walsh’s (it doesn’t matter what the credits tell us, The Enforcer bears all the hallmarks of a Raoul Walsh movie) typically pithy direction and a pace that never lets up. The movie boasts another tough performance from Bogart, who might have been getting a bit long in the tooth by the time The Enforcer was released, and takes a back seat for much of the time, but who, by this time in his career, only had to make an appearance to lend a hard edge to the proceedings, even though at the beginning of this movie his DA is unfamiliar with terms such as ‘hit’ and ‘contract.’ He’s supported by Ted De Corsia, who does well in a difficult role that calls upon him to project both the near-panic of a man suffering the extended torture of knowing his life might be taken at any moment, and the rock-hard toughness of a mob boss accustomed to knocking around those who fail to follow his instructions to the letter.
The Enforcer came at the tail-end of an era during which Warners had dominated the gangster movie. The focus had shifted from the bad guys to the good — although a couple of years prior to this, Jimmy Cagney had shown in Walsh’s White Heat that there was plenty of mileage still left in the old format — and Bogart had switched allegiances accordingly. But The Enforcer spends arguably as much time with the bad guys as the good, and there are plenty of cold-blooded double-crosses and murders to keep crime fans contented. The story does fizzle out a little in the final reel — after coming up with a pretty neat twist — but prior to that The Enforcer delivers a tough, exciting thriller with a breathless pace and a thirst for violence.
(Reviewed on 2nd December 2013)