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Red Light(1949)

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teaser Red Light (1949)

"Raft takes everything he wants, and Mayo takes everything he has in Red Light!"

That's what the poster promised, at least, but anyone who was enticed by this come-on to actually attend a screening of the low-budget United Artists release of Red Light (1949) in early 1950 was in for a surprise. Virginia Mayo doesn't take anything of George Raft's--unless you count her "taking" away Raft's unholy thirst for vengeance, but I'm not sure why you would. As for Raft, far from "taking everything he wants," he spends most of the movie suffering and losing to various degrees, and what minor triumph he may experience at the end is largely a matter of individual interpretation. For that matter, the lurid thoughts that a title like Red Light may conjure up belong to an entirely different film than the curiosity this thing actually is.

To the extent Red Light is remembered at all, it is for its grim and violent death scenes. Chief among these is a scene so storied among film noir enthusiasts I scarcely dare describe it--so many other noir scholars have lovingly retold this scene that it has been inflated out of proportion, and given a mythical significance. Having said that, here goes: Raymond Burr is pursuing George Raft's lackey Gene Lockhart. In a desperate bid to escape, Lockhart scurries under a truckbed, suspended on blocks. He stifles his breath, and watches in terror as Burr's feet grow closer and closer. Then, one of those feet disappears. It takes Lockhart a split second to grasp why--then it clicks. Burr is going to kick the blocks away! Lockhart starts to scream in mortal terror--but his cry is abruptly cut off as the truckbed comes to rest snugly on the earth. Burr looks down in impassive satisfaction and lights a cigarette.

Throughout the film, the various murders committed by Burr and his hired goon Harry Morgan are flamboyantly stylish--director Roy Del Ruth has let his cruelest imagination run riot. But while these scenes have earned the admiration of noir buffs, the fact remains that they occupy a slim proportion of the film's overall running time. All the Burr/Morgan scenes--the scenes dealing with "taking"--manifest all the urgent vitality of the picture. The rest of the movie--all the Raft/Mayo scenes--are determined to reproach the audience for enjoying the vicarious slaughter.

A plot synopsis will help explain the split personality of the film: George Raft plays Johnny Torno, trucking company magnate. The film presents him as a respectable businessman, but given the skeptical familiarity with which the police treat him, the thugs he employs, and the gun in his desk drawer, it would seem his respectability is a veneer draped over the same kind of gangster Raft tended to always play. He has a link to the land of the decent, however, in the form of his brother Jess (Arthur Franz), a war hero and dedicated priest.

Meanwhile, Nick Cherney (Raymond Burr) is finishing his prison term for embezzling from the Torno company. In a nice touch, the script depicts Cherney fuming with the righteous indignation of a man wrongly accused, even though he was rightfully accused. He did steal from his boss Johnny Torno, and he was caught red handed and punished fairly--but he has sworn eternal vengeance on Torno anyway. How dare Torno object to being embezzled? Cherney's plan for revenge, then, is to hire Harry Morgan to go kill Torno's brother. It makes no logical sense, but this is just a sign of Cherney's diseased mentality. A man who thought rationally wouldn't do any of the wildly entertaining things Cherney does throughout the picture.

Johnny finds Jess's bullet-riddled body bleeding to death in his hotel room, and cradles his brother in his arms to hear his last words. Jess tells Johnny that if he wants to seek revenge, the answer is "written in my book." By which he means, written in the Gideon Bible that any self-respecting hotel room included as a matter of course. Johnny has never understood his brother's religion--earlier in the movie he equated prayer with gambling--and interprets these dying words to mean that Jess somehow scribbled the name of his assailant in the book. The Bible has been unaccountably taken from the room, but Johnny figures if he can track down the missing book, he will know who he needs to kill in order to settle the score. Every other detail of his life is put on indefinite hold as he launches an obsessive cross-country hunt for the missing Bible.

Cherney and his stooge are following the same trail, equally convinced that the Bible will implicate them--and so Torno's journey happens to track a simultaneous murder-spree as Cherney seeks to cover his tracks. The crazy hunt converges on one man, a blind Latino veteran who had planned to take his own life in despair, but was inspired to embrace life again thanks to the Bible. It just so happened that the particular copy that saved his life was the same one that Torno's mission of murder is focused on. Torno still doesn't perceive the Bible as an object of any internal content--it's just an object that happens to have a killer's name in it (or so he thinks)--so he hears the soldier's story without actually understanding any of it.

Even when he finally gets his hands on the book in question, and can read it for himself, he is still almost unable to grasp the meaning of the message. The Bible is pretty explicit about condemning vengeance and murder--and Jess did take the trouble, in his dying moment, to helpfully underline the most relevant passages--but this wasn't what Johnny wanted to hear.

There's no question that this is potentially interesting stuff, or that a gripping film noir could be built around a negation of the familiar revenge formula. The problem is that Red Light tries to have its cake and eat it too. The moralizing against vengeance fights against the rich visualization of that very vengeance. And then there's the ending: Raymond Burr's over-the-top mania revealed in full force as Cherney and Torno face off in the finale. Something has to stop Cherney, and the film seems to dismiss as insufficiently dramatic the idea of allowing him to be arrested for his crimes. Much then is made of the idea that "man proposes and God disposes," which leads to a ridiculously literal dues ex machine conclusion in which God seems to smite poor Raymond Burr on the spot.

In case you're wondering what Virginia Mayo has to do with any of this, she may have been wondering the same thing. Her role is an afterthought, and aside from the scene in which she berates Raft into realizing that his Christian brother most certainly did not assign him to avenge his death, Mayo's part in the proceedings is marginal. She does a great job with what she's given, though, and the film would have been stronger had she been at Raft's side throughout his hunt.

Mayo had gotten her start in the movies when Samuel Goldwyn "discovered" her as a dancer in a vaudeville comedy act. She took to playing the love interest for various comedians--like Danny Kaye and Bob Hope--and starring in musicals. Her official web site boasts, somewhat out of left field, that the Sultan of Morocco once wrote to Warner Brothers that "Virginia Mayo is tangible proof of the existence of God." (Glad we got that out of the way). By the late 1940s she was eager to break out of her mold and prove herself a serious actress. Her role in Red Light belonged to that impulse, as did her more exciting turn in another 1949 film noir, Raoul Walsh's White Heat.

For such a short film, and one that focuses on Raft's solo journey of revengus interruptus, Del Ruth has assembled an astonishing cast. George Raft, Virginia Mayo, and Gene Lockhart share the screen with a young and uncomfortably huge-looking Raymond Burr, and a youthful but by-no-means young-looking Harry Morgan (he never looked young). Barton MacLane, usually typecast as a goon, here plays the police detective. Future I Love Lucy landlord William Frawley has a walk-on role, as does Paul Frees. Rarely have so many recognizable faces been gathered for something so modest in scope.

Del Ruth got his start directing knockabout slapstick for Mack Sennett, and when sound rolled in he switched gears to prove himself adept at making sharp and punchy thrillers, like Bureau of Missing Persons (1933) and the first screen adaptation of The Maltese Falcon (1941). By the late 1940s he was an independent producer as well as director, and had worked with Raft once before.

Raft's brightest days were already behind him. In the 1940s, he continued to trade on his established image as the preeminent screen tough guy, but in films of diminishing ambition and quality. That persona was rooted at least in part in his real-life connections to actual gangsters, such as the notorious Bugsy Siegel. When Siegel was gunned down by rival gangsters in 1947, Raft started to develop paranoid fears that his own safety was threatened. He took to barring visitors to the sets of his films. This preoccupation combined with his postwar career downturn put him in a difficult and defensive posture, accepting work wherever it came. If that meant he was stuck playing underwritten roles in low-budget B-movies, he would do it.

Del Ruth was something of a ray of sunshine in all this. Del Ruth made low-budget movies because he was really good at it, not because he had to. Among other things, he knew what Raft could do, and was willing to push him rather than merely exploit Raft's name-recognition. Del Ruth had run across a story by Donald Barry, which seemed to have Raft's name written all over it. Barry, AKA Don "Red" Barry, was a former college football star turned actor. He'd gotten his nickname from playing the first movie version of "Red Ryder." The film franchise continued without him, while he kept the name. Barry spent his life making Westerns, but from time to time dabbled in writing, and every so often one of the things he wrote would be made into a movie. He'd penned a story that he called This Guy Gideon, in which a man's unyielding pursuit of a Gideon Bible led some people to mistakenly believe he was called Gideon, and the Bible was his. Del Ruth bought the film rights--but hated the uncommercial title so much, he also ponied up for the rights to Weldon Reeder's short story Red Light just so he could poach the title.

When Del Ruth asked Raft to star in the thing, Raft offered a suggestion of his own. The actor wanted to spend the movie fussing over his hair, a mannerism he thought would be something "like the Scarface coin-tossing," a memorable character-defining quirk. Del Ruth scoffed, "You'll never convince an audience that a guy would really do that." The irony was that Raft had gotten the idea from his late friend Bugsy Siegel, who actually did spend his spare time between murders and sundry racketeering by constantly combing and preening his hair. That it genuinely happened was not the point--sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and Del Ruth wasn't interested in letting his fiction become so strange as to sacrifice the suspension of disbelief. Raft let the matter drop and focused on other aspects of his performance instead.

The press was unsure if Raft had focused enough on those aspects. By this point in his life it was pretty clear he could convincingly play the tough guy, but Red Light called for introspection and metaphysical epiphanies as well--dimensions not usually asked from him. "Raft is his strong, grim self as the man of revenge on the lone wolf prowl," wrote Variety, but then added he was "wooden and remote when the script calls on him to read a passage from the Testament and display remorse and conversion. That lack of thesping robs the pic of its last chance to redeem itself."

Box office returns were weak, and the independent production drifted into obscurity as the years wore on. Posterity remembers Red Light more fondly for its conventional noir moments than for its religious theme. That it mixed the two at all, however, marks Red Light as an unusually inventive and ambitious undertaking.

Producer: Roy Del Ruth
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Screenplay: George Callahan (screenplay); Charles Grayson (additional dialogue); Donald Barry (story "This Guy Gideon")
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Art Direction: F. Paul Sylos
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Film Editing: Richard Heermance
Cast: George Raft (Johnny Torno), Virginia Mayo (Carla North), Gene Lockhart (Warni Hazard), Raymond Burr (Nick Cherney), Henry Morgan (Rocky), Barton MacLane (Detective Strecker), Arthur Franz (Capt. Jess Torno (Chaplain)), Ken Murray (Ken Murray), Stanley Clements (Carlson Hotel Bellhop), William Frawley (Hotel Night Clerk).
BW-83m.

by David Kalat

Sources:
Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953.
James Robert Parish with Steven Whitney, The George Raft File.
Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, editors, Film Noir.
Lewis Yablonsky, George Raft.
Noir of the Week.com
Virginia Mayo.com

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