Sunday 9 October 2022

Movie Review: The Enforcer (1951)

A crime investigation drama, The Enforcer (also known as Murder, Inc.) is a taut race-against-time thriller filled with shady characters and enlivened by a pleasingly complex flashback-within-flashback structure.

Assistant District Attorney Martin Ferguson (Humphrey Bogart) is desperate to protect star witness Rico (Ted de Corsia) on the night before he testifies against master criminal Mendoza (Everett Sloane). But Rico gets cold feet and falls to his death when attempting a window escape. With only hours to go before the trial starts, Ferguson reviews the case records to try and uncover any previously missed clues.

Multiple flashbacks reveal the investigation started when Duke Malloy (Michael Tolan) stumbled into a police station claiming he was forced to kill his girlfriend Nina Lombardo. Duke then hangs himself in his prison cell. His surviving associates include Big Babe (Zero Mostel), who is interrogated and reveals the inner workings of a murder-for-cash business managed by Rico, receiving telephone instructions from Mendoza. Ferguson uncovers a gruesome mass burial site and a plot to eliminate witnesses. With the clock ticking, the life of an innocent girl and the evidence needed to convict Mendoza hang in the balance.

Inspired by real events, The Enforcer celebrates thorough police work, a follow-the-evidence and intimidate-the-bad-guys approach working well for Ferguson and his crew to unearth and dismantle a lethal underworld business. Director Bretaigne Windust (with an uncredited assist from Raoul Walsh) trusts the convolutions of the Martin Rackin script, and embarks on a winding journey tracing nervous criminals dealing in death and guarding against each other as the noose tightens. 

The film rides a shifty, always on the move energy, and introduces audiences to new-at-the-time terminology like "hit" and "contract". Robert Burks' cinematography enjoys dark corners, harsh lights, sweaty men at close quarters, and in the final scene, the chaos of the crowd throwing plans into disarray.

For a long stretch, the film lacks an effective counterpoint to Bogart's character. The connect-the-dots structure results in isolated chapters featuring a succession of low level goons. Rico and Mendoza return to the ring only in the final act, but the payoff is worth the wait. Windust patiently reveals a human dimension through the story of Mendoza's origins and his very first hit, and Ferguson's long chase ends with an imperative to save a life. 

In his element, Bogart is supremely comfortable dishing out threats and picking up on hints. The rest of the cast is choppy, the bad guys generally lacking charisma, and no romantic sub-quests make it to the screen. The Enforcer may lack glamour, but finds craftsmanship in the nitty-gritty of police work.

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