The Enforcer (1951) 4/5 (1)


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Rating: The Good – 77.4
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 87 mins
Director: Raoul Walsh & Bretaigne Windus
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Zero Mostel, Ted de Corsia

Scintillating and genuinely disturbing gangster movie which focuses on the “outfit” at a critical and frightening point in its evolution: the emergence of the contract killing. It opens as Humphrey Bogart’s district attorney is holding up with his federally protected witness on the eve of a big trial against a peculiar incarnation of  the modern crime world. When the witness’ fear for his life escalates to panic, the unfortunate consequences force Bogart to go back to square one and retrace the investigation from the first day. As the first of many nesting doll flashbacks dissolves into frame, we pick up with a young hoodlum surrendering himself to the police for the murder of his girlfriend. As he recounts the incident, he slowly lifts the lid on a gruesomely methodical enterprise which had hitherto been incomprehensible to the early 1950’s law enforcement. A carefully orchestrated system of murder-for-hire run by a shadowy figure of the underworld who hands his orders out over the phone to his trusted lieutenant, Rico (Ted de Corsia). As we observe this system operate, we gain an intimate insight into everything from the disturbing manner in which they recruit more killers and assign the various jobs (the recent sci-fi thriller Looper most certainly borrowed a few ideas here) to their chilling use of traditional business terminology such as “contracts”, “troops”, and “hits” to disguise their dirty work. It may be second nature to use these terms nowadays but hearing them used for “the first time” and listening to Rico explain their logic and derivation to his minions of hit-men is chilling business.

Though made in the 50’s, directer Raoul Walsh’s pedigree in the 1930’s gangster genre seems to give this more noir-esque thriller a broader base. The web of interconnected bad guys, the moral and social implications of the subject matter, and the more classical lighting and set design all contribute to this. Martin Rackin’s screenplay is infused with all the nervous energy and callousness of hitmen’s “troop” but it’s neatly counterbalanced by the intensity of D.A. Bogart’s focus. There are few iconic lines but nothing is wasted and all drive the nail home. The Enforcer is one of the few films not defined by Bogart’s presence. That’s partly down to the extensive back-story which takes place before his character comes into play. But it’s also down to Bogart’s contentment to play it a little easier than he did in his more legendary roles. It’s still a nice little turn though and Walsh knew exactly how to let his presence simmer in the background. So, when the loop to this elaborate tail is finally closed, we’re only too happy to see Bogart there waiting to do the honours. But for all the wonderful characters and top actors on show, what sells this is the unique story. It’s more than engaging, it’s enthralling. And all the time quite frightening.

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