Monday, June 6, 2011

Red Light (Del Ruth/Pioneer/United Artists, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran a quite interesting movie: Red Light, an independent production by Roy Del Ruth in 1950 that attempted at once to be a religious allegory and a film noir. (I can think of only one other movie that tried to do both: The Edge of Doom, Sam Goldwyn’s production starring Farley Granger as a young man who kills a priest because the priest won’t give his mom a fancy funeral the family couldn’t afford.) From the opening shot of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, over which the credits appear, one can’t help but think Red Light is at least in part an homage to The Maltese Falcon: Del Ruth actually directed the first (1931) version of The Maltese Falcon (with Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels and Dudley Digges in the roles later played by Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet); Barton MacLane, who played a cop in the 1941 Huston/Bogart Maltese Falcon, plays a cop here too; and star George Raft famously turned down that film because he didn’t want to work for a first-time director. (“Let someone else be his training wheels,” Raft snorted.)

Raft had already made a San Francisco-set noir called Race Street in 1948 that had elements of The Maltese Falcon (notably in having his girlfriend turn out to be the murderer he’s after) and Red Light had Falcon-esque elements as well: it’s a revenge melodrama in which Raft, as trucking-company owner Johnny Torno, is out to avenge the murder of his brother Jess (Arthur Franz — and as usual the casting director seemed to have no idea about generations: they were actually 19 years apart in age, with Raft born September 26, 1901 and Franz February 29, 1920, and they look it on screen: one could far more readily believe Franz as Raft’s son than his brother!), a military chaplain who survived a prisoner-of-war camp in World War II only to fall victim to a killer in his hotel room the night after his triumphal homecoming in San Francisco. There’s really not much suspense about who killed him — like most of Hitchcock’s films, the suspense is how the protagonist will learn who the killer is and how he’ll react when he finds out, rather than us being kept in the dark. We learn who the killers are (there are two, one who plans the attack and one who carries it out) in an early scene in a movie theatre inside a prison. Nick Cherney (Raymond Burr) is in for embezzling from Torno’s company, for which he had worked, and he’s due to get out but his friend Rocky (Henry Morgan) is due to get out even sooner. Nick offers Rocky a share of his ill-gotten gains in exchange for a “favor,” and Rocky obediently guns down Jess at Nick’s behest.

Then Nick gets out and Torno traces him to a local bookie joint, instantly intuiting that he’s the killer, only Nick points out that when Torno’s brother was killed he was still in prison — you can’t beat that for an alibi. When Torno discovered his brother shot he wasn’t quite dead — Jess’s dying words were a plea to his brother to look inside a Bible for a message as to who killed him — but Torno lies to the police and says Jess told him nothing because he doesn’t want the cops to catch his brother’s killer: he wants to find him himself. At first Torno thinks Jess’s reference to the Bible was to a note he’d written inside his own personal copy — but when he searches through it fruitlessly, it dawns on him that the Bible Jess was referring to was the Gideon Bible in his hotel room, which is now missing. Torno traces the five people who stayed in the room after Jess was killed and hires one of them, Carla North (Virginia Mayo in another hard-bitten, hard-boiled role like her part in White Heat — at which she was considerably better than the glamour girls Sam Goldwyn had wanted her to play), to help her find the other four, which involves him going to Los Angeles and Reno to meet some of them and his getting them into trouble and, sometimes, mortal danger. You see, Nick is following them, too, and is using Torno’s travels to see who can expose him as the mastermind behind Jess’s death.

Eventually Torno traces the Bible to a Mexican family living in a border town, and encounters Pablo (Philip Pine), who kept the Bible after an old man read to him from it to keep him from killing himself after he returned home from the war blind — only Pablo no longer has the Bible. It turns out that Carla, who’s got more and more worried about what Torno’s monomaniacal quest for revenge has been doing to him, grabbed the Bible — and when Torno finally gets it, the message isn’t the name of Jess’s killer but a circle around the “Vengeance is mine … saith the Lord” passage and a note in the margin reading, “Johnny — Thou shalt not kill.” Meanwhile, Nick has encountered Rocky on the train from Reno to San Francisco, and literally kicked him off of it when Rocky tried to ask him for more money. Torno has left his trucking business in the hands of his assistant, Warni Hazard (Gene Lockhart), and Nick dispatches him too in one of the most chilling murder scenes in any noir: hiding under a trailer on the premises after Nick has cut the distributor wires of his car, Warni is crushed when Nick kicks out the jacks that are holding the trailer up. Torno gets so bitter that at one point he throws a candle holder through the stained-glass window he donated $20,000 to the local church to pay for — he indignantly complains to the priest, Father Redmond (Arthur Shields, the go-to guy for blarney-filled Irish priests when you couldn’t get Barry Fitzgerald), that he wants “24-hour service” from the Lord.

The Lord actually delivers at the end of the movie, when all the remaining principals confront each other at the Torno offices — and Torno is about to be killed by Nick when an almost literal deus ex machina arrives in the person of Rocky, badly scarred but not dead after all, who gets into a gun battle with him; Rocky gets shot by Nick but eventually Nick tries to flee to the top of Torno’s building (why do so many noir villains try to escape the dragnet by going up? Do they think they can fly?), only he steps into a puddle of water (the finale has taken place in a driving rainstorm) and is electrocuted when his body, the water and the electricity from the neon sign advertising Torno’s business (which reads, natch, “24-hour service”) complete a circuit and the villain gets knocked off due to what we’re clearly supposed to think is divine intervention.

Red Light is filled with weird religious references, like the fleabag hotel in which one of the people Torno is looking for is living in L.A., which is called “Hotel Samson” (I joked that if you’re late on your room rent there, they cut off your hair and put out your eyes), and some of the junctures between religious allegory and film noir jar (at times Del Ruth cuts so suddenly from a normally lit scene to a noir one you’re wondering, “Who turned out the lights?”), but the film has a haunting quality that stems from Del Ruth’s personal obsessions and his freedom to pursue them on a film he was producing himself (from a screenplay by George Callahan, who’s a good deal better here than you’d think from the sloppiness of all those Charlie Chan scripts for Monogram). I was also amused by the underscoring in the newsreel that’s showing in the prison’s movie theatre where Nick and Rocky encounter each other; as we see footage of a train disaster we hear Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, the same part used in the climax of The King’s Speech, and I joked, “Next we’ll see King George VI giving a speech” …