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When George Raft made Johnny Angel (1945), his career was in decline. A prizefighter and ballroom dancer at a young age, Raft had enjoyed high levels of income and popularity in the 1930s, but by the mid-1940s public perception of him as a gangster and hoodlum was bringing him down. For example, he and mobster Bugsy Siegel had been pals since childhood, and when Siegel came to Hollywood in 1937, he stayed in Raft's home and the two renewed their strong friendship, often going out together to nightclubs and the racetrack. Raft lent Siegel large sums of money and acted as go-between for other lenders, an activity that led to the IRS charging Raft with tax evasion. (Raft settled the claim.) Raft was also one of the first investors in Siegel's Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas and would be with Siegel just hours before the mobster's assassination in 1947.
Furthermore, in the year before Johnny Angel's release, Raft made national headlines by his involvement in an infamous private craps game at the home of Leo "the Lip" Durocher, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and close friend of Raft's. Raft was accused of cheating someone out of $18,000 by using loaded dice. While not convicted of a crime, Raft was tried by the press and convicted by the public and scorned as a real gangster.
Years later, Raft commented on his unsavory image and problems in Hollywood: "I was born in a gang neighborhood [the Hell's Kitchen area of New York], brought up with gangsters and given a movie career by friends in the underworld. That is something no one can change, and I owe much to the many men who stayed with me when the going was rough. That's more than I can say for the unfaithful world of the motion picture industry." While that may be true, Raft was, through all this, racking up a number of lackluster films, a far cry from the breezy successes of his 1930s Paramount films, though even there he never became a full-fledged star. A mediocre actor, it didn't help that Raft was a notoriously bad selector of film roles, having turned down both High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon (both 1941).
Still, Johnny Angel is not a bad film, just a routine melodrama with effective film noir atmospherics and striking cinematography by Harry Wild. Raft plays a ship's captain searching New Orleans for clues to the murder of his father, also a captain whose ship was hijacked of its gold shipment and found adrift and abandoned.
Also in the cast is Claire Trevor, a key noir actress who distinguished herself by playing both heroines and femmes fatales in her noir work. She had just made Murder, My Sweet (1944) and was still to appear in Crack-Up (1946) and Raw Deal (1948), among others. Hoagy Carmichael singing "Memphis in June" at the piano is a real highlight.
Producer: Jack J. Gross, William L. Pereira
Director: Edwin L. Marin
Screenplay: Charles G. Booth (novel), Steve Fisher, Frank Gruber
Cinematography: Harry J. Wild
Film Editing: Les Millbrook
Art Direction: Albert S. DAgostino, Jack Okey
Music: Leigh Harline, Paul Francis Webster
Cast: George Raft (Johnny Angel), Claire Trevor (Lilah Gustafson), Signe Hasso (Paulette Girard), Lowell Gilmore (Sam Jewell), Hoagy Carmichael (Celestial OBrien), Marvin Miller (George Gustafson).
BW-79m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold