The Enforcer (1951)

THE ENFORCER was the last of Humphrey Bogart’s 57 pictures for Warner Brothers, this 1951 offering fittingly another crime flick. Since he’d been a star for a decade, this time he wasn’t a criminal, but a district attorney. A tough one, though, who gets to throw a few punches and make eventual use of a handy .38 when the time comes. Bogey’s good, although he didn’t care for the film, which he felt was retrograde, and there were personnel issues early in the shoot, with director Bretaigne Windust replaced by Raoul Walsh. Martin Rackin did the screenplay. *

After his panicky star witness takes a nose dive off a ledge, Assistant District Attorney ‘Martin Ferguson’ (Bogart, 50) thinks his four-years long case against mob boss ‘Albert Mendoza’ (Everett Sloane) is as out the window as the guy who just fell from it. Flashbacks tell how Mendoza’s operation came to be, a novel setup that hired killers for pay, men who had no traceable relationship with their victims. Determined to see Mendoza “gets the chair“, Ferguson won’t give up.

Rackin based his screenplay off the real-world expose of “Murder, Inc.” with Bogart a fictional version of attorney Burton Turkus, Sloane doing the same for Lepke Buchalter, mob leader and eventual guest of Sing Sing’s “Old Sparky”. Sloane’s not much of a threat in the movie: the real menace is provided by Ted de Corsia as ‘Joe Rico’, a fictional facsimile of psycho hit man Abe Reles. It’s one of the imposing de Corsia’s biggest and best bad guy essays. **

Walsh stages some startling passages of violence, Robert Burks cinematography gives this procedural a noir look, and there are some interesting supporting players. Attention is always given to Zero Mostel, as hesitant gang recruit ‘Big Babe Lazich’. I’m not a fan of his: unable to restrain hamming it up, he always overacted. He appeared in four other parts in 1951 before being blacklisted, not returning to the screen until 1966. ***

Bogart’s opinion of the picture (“It stinks!”) and production squabbles aside, even at 74th place it did enough business with a gross of $4,500,000 to cover the $1,109,000 expended. It did better than the truculent star’s immediate follow-up, Sirocco (also with Sloane and Mostel), while both were vanquished by his Oscar win for the same year’s hit, The African Queen.

With Roy Roberts (ever-dependable), King Donovan, Michael Tolan (debut, unpromising), Jack Lambert (neatly weird as ‘Philadelphia Tom Zaca’), Bob Steele (cold killer mode), Don Beddoe (nervous, doomed), Susan Cabot (later The Wasp Woman), John Kellogg, Harry Wilson and Patricia Joiner. 87 minutes.

* Stage director Bretaigne Windust had only done a handful of films. The story is he fell ill, with Bogart pal and Warner warhorse Walsh then summoned to take over direction. That was the official explanation, but years later Martin Rackin told a friend of Walsh’s that someone (likely producer Milton Sperling, a Warner brother-in-law and noted schmuck of the highest order) went to Jack Warner, complaining all the hoods “looked like sissies” (Windust was rumored to be gay), prompting Godfather Jack to bellow “Bring in Raoul Walsh! He’ll cure that!” Be that as it may, Walsh was also gentleman enough to refuse credit so that Windust (sick ,smeared or both) would receive it. Windust did one more film (Face to Face) then switched to TV.

** In 1960, the well-received Murder, Inc. took a more factual approach, based on the book of the same name written by Burton Turkus, the lawyer who went after the real deal. Peter Falk had his breakthrough role (and an Oscar nomination) as killer Abe Reles.

*** Unless you don’t believe in Democracy you  should feel sympathy for someone kicked out of work (or their country) because of their political views (real, suspected or just imagined), and disgust with those who engineer such travesty (alas, the freedom-devouring appetites of those ghoulish “patriots” are never sated).  At the same time, that doesn’t mean you must automatically fall on the red carpet and proclaim that everything a particular victim did was a work of genius from a saint. We defend someone’s right to ply a trade, and stand by our own right to not enjoy how they do so. Whether you like Mostel’s overbearing manner or not, he gets an A+ for standing up to the career-killers.

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