Cast & Crew
Roy Del Ruth
In the projection room of San Quentin's movie theater, convict projectionists Nick Cherney and Rocky watch a newsreel which includes a story about Army chaplain Jess Torno returning home to San Francisco after five years in the South Pacific. In the newsreel, Jess is greeted by his brother John, the head of the Torno freight line company, who had Cherney, one of his bookeepers, arrested after he discovered that he had been embezzling from the firm. As Rocky is to be released the following week, Cherney hires him to exact revenge on John. John, who is very devoted to Jess, learns that he has been assigned to a church farther north and offers to drive him there. However, as Jess is packing in his hotel room, the lights go out, and Rocky enters the room and shoots him. Jess is still alive when John arrives to pick him up and John asks him to name the gunman, but all that Jess can say is, "written in Bible," before he dies in John's arms. However, John can find nothing in Jess's Bible. Later, John receives a visit from two homicide detectives, Strecker and Ryan, who warn him not to take the law into his own hands. After Warni Hazard, John's partner, tells him that Cherney has been released, John finds Cherney and accuses him of killing Jess, but Strecker points out that Cherney was still in prison when Jess died. While walking with Warni, John notices an office of the Gideons, an international society that places Bibles in hotel rooms, and realizes that there was a second Bible in Jess's room. When when he investigates at the hotel however, he is told that the Gideon Bible that was in Jess's room was stolen. John obtains a list of the people who have occupied the room since Jess's killing, and sees that the first person on the list is Carla North, who gave a forwarding address c/o Ken Murray's Blackouts show in Hollywood. John goes to the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood and talks with Murray, who tells him that Carla's act has closed but gives him the name of her hotel. John goes there while she is out, looks through her possessions and discovers a photograph of Jess with air force personnel. When Carla returns and surprises him, she denies taking the Bible and explains that her late brother was one of the men in the photo with Jess and that Jess had sent it to her. John offers her a job in San Francisco locating the other hotel guests, but does not reveal why he wants to find them. Later, in San Francisco, Cherney comes to the Torno office seeking re-employment and overhears John telling Warni about the Bible and why he has to find it. Carla and John then travel to Reno to talk with Wallace Stoner, a short-order cook, and spot Rocky lurking outside. After John has Stoner hand him a cookbook in a bag, he leaves and is followed by Rocky. John jumps Rocky, takes his gun and finds the key to his hotel room, where Cherney is waiting. When they arrive at the hotel, both Rocky and Cherney escape. Later, on board a train, Rocky tells Cherney that he is quitting, and Cherney throws him off the train. At the San Francisco depot, Cherney stalks and kills Warni in the freight yard. John then asks Carla to go to Monterey to talk with another hotel guest, Pablo Cabrillo, but she refuses until he tells her what is going on. After he tells her the story, she questions his methods. John loses his temper, and slaps her and she leaves. The next day, Strecker and Ryan inform John that he is to be under surveillance twenty-four hours a day. However, with the help of one of his truckers, John manages to give the detectives the slip. In Monterey, John finds Pablo and his girl friend Trina, and Pablo admits to taking the Bible. Pablo explains that after he was permanently blinded in combat, he checked into the hotel intending to commit suicide after begging God's forgiveness for what he was about to do. Suddenly, he felt a cold wind and was stopped by a window cleaner, who took his gun and comforted him. They both heard the fluttering pages of the Bible and the stranger read to him, restoring Pablo's faith and his will to live. John still wants to see the Bible, however, and they go to Pablo's house, where his mother tells them that Carla came and took the Bible just an hour before. In San Francisco, as John attempts to locate Carla by phone, Cherney enters his office and John gives him a job phoning various hotels to find Carla. However, while they are phoning, Carla comes to the office with the Bible, and Strecker and Ryan also show up. Carla tells John to look at a circled passage, Romans 12:19: "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." In the margin of the page, Jess had written, "Johnny--Thou Shalt Not Kill." Strecker tells the stunned John that earlier that day they found the gun that John took from Rocky in his office and determined that it is the weapon that killed his brother. John intends to leave to find Rocky, despite Carla's protests that revenge is not what Jess wanted. John then reads the verse again, while Cherney looks on cynically, and agrees with her. As Cherney leaves, he encounters Rocky, who did not die in the fall from the train. Cherney shoots him and tells the others that he has shot a prowler. However, with his dying breath, Rocky points to Cherney and states that he is responsible for Jess's death. Cherney holds them all at gunpoint and admits to paying Rocky to kill Jess and escapes to the roof. In the pouring rain, Cherney scales an electric sign advertising the Torno Freight Line and shoots it out with John. When Cherney's gun is empty and John has the drop on him, he chooses not to shot. As Cherney tries to escape, he is electrocuted by the sign and falls dead. Strecker tells Carla that John did not kill Cherney, but that "somebody else" was on the job.
Roy Del Ruth
Wm. S. Phillips
Roy Del Ruth
Melvin D. Dellar
Joe C. Gilpin
D. Ross Lederman
R. H. Moreland
Edward Ray Robinson
F. Paul Sylos
James Van Trees
Frank W. Webster
Red Light on DVD
Red Light (1949) is a rather obscure film noir from United Artists, newly released on DVD by Warner Archive in a nice-looking transfer. Fans of film noir and George Raft will enjoy it.
Raft, playing a trucking company owner named Johnny Torno, spends the movie trying to track down a bible that was taken from the hotel room where his brother Jess (Arthur Franz), a former army chaplain, was murdered. Before dying, Jess was able to tell Johnny that he'd written something in that bible, presumably the name of the killer.
Raft becomes a vengeful man on a mission, unwilling to share any information with the police as he seeks out the various people who registered for the hotel room in the time since his brother's death. One of them, Carla (Virginia Mayo), eventually helps him in his quest.
Meanwhile, the audience is aware from the get-go that a former inmate named Rocky (Henry Morgan) is the killer, and that he was hired by Nick Cherney (Raymond Burr), who's in prison for embezzling funds from Torno when he worked at Torno's company.
The plotting is simple enough, but for some reason it is at times rather muddled as told on screen. (Examples: Raft looks through a bible right away after the murder, but it is not, as we assume, the hotel room bible. It's also strange that so many people could have used the hotel room by the time he figures out which bible he needs to read.) Additionally, the picture develops a religious message, especially toward the end, which does not really feel of a piece with the film as a whole. Perhaps Raft's wooden acting has something to do with this -- he's not very adept at expressing deeply felt inner change -- but mostly it just isn't nearly as interesting as the grim, violent parts of the film. Red Light contains some brutal scenes of violence, including a tour de force suspense sequence in a freight yard at night, in which a character is stalked and killed in a most memorable way.
There's also the great "noir" pleasure of images like Raft at his desk one night, cigarette in hand, semi-automatic and bottle of bourbon on the desk, as he slowly leafs through a bible. Or the fantastically entertaining image of Raymond Burr and Henry Morgan plotting nefariously in a prison's movie projection booth. Or, for that matter, of Raymond Burr bowling before getting roughed up in the men's room. Producer-director Roy Del Ruth's fine comedy background permeates a few funny sequences here, like the one in which Raft barges into a couple's hotel room demanding to see their bible -- never mind that the couple was in bed!
Del Ruth had directed Raft before in the Fox film It Had to Happen (1936). (Raft also had uncredited bits in two earlier Del Ruth pictures at Warner Brothers: Gold Diggers of Broadway  and Taxi! .) And Del Ruth had just directed Mayo in Always Leave Them Laughing (1949), and would work with her twice again. The beautiful and feisty Mayo, unfortunately, is wasted in Red Light, although she is convincing in the few scenes that she has.
Incidentally, the title has nothing to do with the movie, which is actually based on a short story entitled This Guy Gideon. Del Ruth snapped up the rights to another story, Red Light, simply because he liked the title better.
Red Light is beautifully shot and scored by Bert Glennon and Dmitri Tiomkin respectively. It maintains a dark, gloomy atmosphere throughout, mixing gritty location shooting and high-contrast interiors for a satisfying "noir" look and feel. It's hardly among the best noirs, but is certainly worthwhile. Warner Archive's DVD looks and sounds fine, and contains no frills.
By Jeremy Arnold
Red Light on DVD
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).
by David Kalat
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 (1920-2005)
She was born Virginia Clara Jones in St. Louis, Missouri on November 30, 1920, and got her show business start at the age of six by enrolling in her aunt's School of Dramatic Expression. While still in her teens, she joined the nightclub circuit, and after paying her dues for a few years traveling across the country, she eventually caught the eye of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn. He gave her a small role in her first film, starring future husband, Michael O'Shea, in Jack London (1943). She then received minor billing as a "Goldwyn Girl," in the Danny Kaye farce, Up In Arms (1944). Almost immediately, Goldwyn saw her natural movement, comfort and ease in front of the camera, and in just her fourth film, she landed a plumb lead opposite Bob Hope in The Princess and the Pirate (1944). She proved a hit with moviegoers, and her next two films would be with her most frequent leading man, Danny Kaye: Wonder Man (1945), and The Kid from Brooklyn (1946). Both films were big hits, and the chemistry between Mayo and Kaye - the classy, reserved blonde beauty clashing with the hyperactive clown - was surprisingly successful.
Mayo did make a brief break from light comedy, and gave a good performance as Dana Andrews' unfaithful wife, Marie, in the popular post-war drama, The Best Years of Their Lives (1946); but despite the good reviews, she was back with Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), and A Song Is Born (1948).
It wasn't until the following year that Mayo got the chance to sink her teeth into a meaty role. That film, White Heat (1949), and her role, as Cody Jarrett's (James Cagney) sluttish, conniving wife, Verna, is memorable for the sheer ruthlessness of her performance. Remember, it was Verna who shot Cody¿s mother in the back, and yet when Cody confronts her after he escapes from prison to exact revenge for her death, Verna effectively places the blame on Big Ed (Steve Cochran):
Verna: I can't tell you Cody!
Cody: Tell me!
Verna: Ed...he shot her in the back!!!
Critics and fans purred over the newfound versatility, yet strangely, she never found a part as juicy as Verna again. Her next film, with Cagney, The West Point Story (1950), was a pleasant enough musical; but her role as Lady Wellesley in Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951), co-starring Gregory Peck, was merely decorative; that of a burlesque queen attempting to earn a university degree in the gormless comedy, She¿s Working Her Way Through College (1952); and worst of all, the Biblical bomb, The Silver Chalice (1954) which was, incidentally, Paul Newman's film debut, and is a film he still derides as the worst of his career.
Realizing that her future in movies was slowing down, she turned to the supper club circuit in the 60s with her husband, Michael O'Shea, touring the country in such productions as No, No Nanette, Barefoot in the Park, Hello Dolly, and Butterflies Are Free. Like most performers who had outdistanced their glory days with the film industry, Mayo turned to television for the next two decades, appearing in such shows as Night Gallery, Police Story, Murder She Wrote, and Remington Steele. She even earned a recurring role in the short-lived NBC soap opera, Santa Barbara (1984-85), playing an aging hoofer named "Peaches DeLight." Mayo was married to O'Shea from 1947 until his death in 1973. She is survived by their daughter, Mary Johnston; and three grandsons.
by Michael T. Toole
Virginia Mayo (1920-2005)
You know, Johnny, when you play solitaire you can only beat yourself.- Strecker
My old man always said, liquor doesn't drown your troubles - just teaches 'em to swim.- Warni Hazard
You can't take the law into your own hands! Things aren't done that way!- Carla North
That depends on who's doing them.- Johnny Torno
The working title of this film was Mr. Gideon. Hollywood Reporter news items provide the following information about the production: In 1941, producer Roy del Ruth bought the title rights to Weldon Reeder's This Week magazine story, "Red Light." As noted in the onscreen credits, however, the film's story was based on Donald Barry's short story "This Guy Gideon," and not on Reeder's work. Alice Faye, Shelley Winters and Carmen Miranda were considered for roles in the picture, but do not appear in the completed film. Actors Homer Crane, Lily Hoffman, Jimmy Phillips, Cathy Carter, Margaret Burkett, Roddy Currie, Alice White and Joel Marston were also considered for parts in Red Light, but their appearance in the completed picture has not been confirmed. Virginia Mayo was borrowed from Warner Bros. for the role of "Carla North." Portions of the film were shot on location in San Francisco, Sacramento, San Quentin Penitentiary, Carmel and Monterey, CA and Reno, NV. Hollywood Reporter also announced that the production would be the first feature film to utilize magnetic sound recording instead of optical sound.