Raft Noir: Nocturne (1946) and Red Light (1949)

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George Raft started out on his toes, dubbed the “The Fastest Charleston Dancer” in a 1925 issue of Variety. That agility never quite carried over to the big screen, but the maniacal focus did. Note that he was the “fastest”, not the most graceful or technically sound. He was there to get a job done quickly. He became a star as a hired goon in Scarface (1932), obsessively flipping that coin of his. It was a bit of business director Howard Hawks requested Raft to master, so he did with machine-like efficiency, reflecting the soullessness of his killer. With this breakout role, and his real-life palling around with mobsters (he counted Bugsy Siegel as a friend), Raft was typecast as a gangster, whereupon he became one of the most popular actors of the 1930s. As the 40s progressed his star began to dim, and he took on projects that might shake up his persona, including two films noir that Warner Archive has just released on DVD: Nocturne (1946) and Red Light (1949). Both are flawed, fascinating works in which Raft’s deliberate style is adapted to ostensibly heroic ends. One expects one of Raft’s Lieutenants or vengeful brothers to go full sociopath, but they remain stubbornly on the straight and narrow.

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The advertising plays up Raft’s psychopathic persona – “Raft on a Rampage!” – though in the film he is more of a mild-mannered obsessive. Nocturne was producer Joan Harrison’s first assignment at RKO. A former secretary for Alfred Hitchcock, she eventually became one of his closest collaborators as a screenwriter (Rebecca, Suspicion) and a producer (Alfred Hitchcock Presents). One of the only female producers in Hollywood, she started her production career auspiciously with two Robert Siodmak films for Universal (Phantom Lady and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry). The director was prolific B-director Edwin L. Marin (he is credited with four other features in 1946), with a script by pulp novelist Jonathan Latimer, who would later pen the noir staples The Big Clock and Alias Nick Beal.

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A composer and notorious lothario is found dead in his Hollywood Hills home, and looks very much like a suicide. The only clue is an unfinished composition called “Nocturne”, dedicated to “Dolores”. The lead investigator is ready to close the case as a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but Lieutenant Joe Warne (Raft) refuses to let it go, intent on proving it as murder. He pursues the case with an obsessiveness that threatens his job security, as he oversteps any number of departmental codes. Warne proceeds anyway, convinced that one of the victim’s many girlfriends, all of whom he nicknamed “Dolores”, might hold the secret to his demise. It’s a role that puts Raft on the right side of the law, but makes use of his persona of cold calculation. Raft, never the most charismatic performer, here seems to embrace a minimalist, utilitarian kind of performance. He speaks in low monotonal bursts, anticipating the impersonal “just the facts ma’am” approach of Dragnet which would appear five years later.

Latimer’s script doesn’t have the staccato tempo of the show, depending instead on repetitive plotting in which Warne tracks down the women from the many portraits in the composer’s home. These scenes border on the tedious, even though Latimer does have a gift for dialogue (“You can never depend on girls named Dolores”). Raft still intrigues, though, by his refusal to emote. It’s something of an anti-performance.

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Director Marin is equally anonymous, but pulls off one brilliant shot in the opening. It begins with a mockup of the Hollywood Hills, with a miniature cliff-side cantilevered mansion set off against a matte of the skyline. The camera cranes slowly towards the house, rear projection depicting the back of a man at his piano. The shot continues into the living room via an invisible matching cut as the camera crosses the threshold, from special effect artifice to what passes as reality. The movement continues in a semi-circle around the pianist, settling below him, and revealing a woman hidden in shadow on a couch in the far background. The shot travels miles of diegetic space in a minute, the kind of faked mobility that David Fincher achieves through CG means in his snaking air vent shots in Panic Room.

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Red Light has more of a talent pedigree behind it, with Roy Del Ruth as producer/director and frequent John Ford cinematographer Bert Glennon (Stagecoach, Wagon Master). Even the second unit had talent, with Robert Aldrich as its Assistant Director. I know Del Ruth only from his Warner Brothers pre-codes, so seeing “Roy Del Ruth Productions” slapped at the head of the credits had me expecting something snappy. It starts with a bang, as inmates Raymond Burr and Harry Morgan plot to kill a priest while inside a flickering prison projection booth,  but it ends as a rather lugubrious exercise in divine intervention. It was to be the last of three films for Roy Del Ruth Productions, following the cheerier It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947) and The Babe Ruth Story (1948). At this point Raft was deep into the downswing of his career, and battling to reframe himself as something of a hero. Compared to Nocturne he is downright chipper here (he even smiles!), playing the vengeful brother of the murdered priest.

Again it’s in the form of a procedural, as Raft believes that his brother wrote the name of the killer in the Gideon Bible in his hotel room. It has gone missing, and Raft tracks down every other occupant of the room in search of it. One of them is Virginia Mayo, who is, “about as chummy as Leo Durocher with an umpire”, according to a hotel clerk. Raft wants an eye for an eye, but Del Ruth and screenwriter George Callahan have a curious interpretation of the bible. They interpret the “Vengeance is Mine” of  Romans 12:19 to mean that if you require your enemies to suffer a violent death, you should lower your weapon because God will kill him off for you.

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It’s a bizarre interpretation of the text, and the final third of the movie comes under the sway of this activist, Old Testament God. Up until that point it is a conventional policier, enlivened by Raft’s engaged performance and Glennon’s grandiose chiaroscuro. This is a dark movie, as Glennon experiments with all manner of shadowy shapes. There are company logos splayed on walls, ceiling fans dissecting diner patrons and a chain link fence imprisoning a face about to confront death. Every shot has some dark shape indicating doom. This reaches its manic peak on the runway of a blinking neon 24-Hour Service billboard, on which the deciding shootout takes place. Constantly flickering between light and dark, Raft battles with his conscience on whether to plug Burr or let God sort him out. He opts for the latter, and ends in the light. But Raft’s career excelled in the shadows, in maniacs and coin-flipping brutes. His career continued to sputter, and by the end of the 1950s he was playing off his old bad-guy rep as a greeter at a Cuban casino operated by Meyer Lansky.

12 Responses Raft Noir: Nocturne (1946) and Red Light (1949)
Posted By Jbenn : March 4, 2014 9:33 pm

Nocturne is a very interesting film and I alway end up watching it when it comes on TCM. Outside of Scarface and They Drive By Night (and his self-parody in Some Like It Hot) I think its Raft’s best role – because it seems tailored to his strengths (he exudes danger and violence without showing it – he would have made a great Mike Hammer) and weaknesses (he can’t show emotion or read lines with feeling). Every other character/actor in the film has some interesting quirks even the leading lady, Lynn Bari (who could act). At times it seems like a parody of film noir (except it was made at the beginning of the genre). Lots of dark and moody lighting, interesting direction from an otherwise journeyman director and suspicious characters none of whom could be trusted – all up against a wooden detective and one of the most pat and abruptly unbelievable “happy” endings in all noir. It’s like the film couldn’t decide what it wanted to be (if you want to get a handle of what Jonathan Latimer was capable of when he had no production code I would get a hold of his hard-boiled novel “Solomon’s Vineyard” which has all that snappy dialogue, bizarre characters, tough protagonist and a very dark ending).

Posted By david hartzog : March 4, 2014 11:10 pm

Nice take on two of my favorite films noir. I like Raft esp. in his 40s good guy films like A Dangerous Profession and Intrigue, and have them all on DVD.

Posted By Niall : March 5, 2014 12:11 am

great article. Raft is often forgotten, and unfortunately that is his own doing: he turned down “The Maltese Falcon” and “Casablanca” … by all accounts he rubbed shoulders with a lot of hoods. He died in poverty

Posted By LD : March 5, 2014 11:40 am

Many years ago, before cable, when noirs were a staple on afternoon t.v., I saw RED LIGHT. I did not remember it until seeing the photo of the Torno Freight Lines. The scene with Raymond Burr immediately came to mind. I definitely need to revisit this film.

Posted By swac44 : March 5, 2014 12:08 pm

“Crap, tonight’s our last night to catch Song of the South. Oh well, we can always catch it when it turns up on home video.”

Posted By swac44 : March 5, 2014 12:12 pm

BTW, Lansky’s egg-shaped casino still stands in Havana, I visited it when I was there, but since Castro outlawed gambling, the room was eerily empty. Much smaller than the massive gaming palaces of today, it was still a kick to go in there and imagine what it was over 50 years ago.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hotel_Habana_Riviera

Posted By Doug : March 5, 2014 3:38 pm

Watching Raft as a police detective in 1954′s “Black Widow”,we see the no-nonsense, straight forward performance as mentioned here. I can’t imagine him dancing the Charleston, but there you go.
swac44, I’m almost jealous that you got to see Cuba-we USA types aren’t usually able to go visit. Even with the Communist thing, I imagine that it is still a beautiful country. Flying into Key west from Miami I almost got to visit-the same plane was hijacked there the week before…and the week after my trip. If it’s as hot in Cuba as it was in Key West, I’ll stay where we have the natural accommodation of snow each year. I like to have melted.

Posted By swac44 : March 5, 2014 4:00 pm

Cuba is an amazing country, and the people are wonderful (apart from the occasional scam artist you encounter on the street, but if you just ignore them and keep walking, they’ll go find some other pigeon). It was incredible walking around Havana and seeing so many historical sites literally untouched since the revolution. For example, I had just read the book Chango’s Beads by William Kennedy (Ironweed), and he mixes history and fiction in equal measure in the book, writing at the start about the failed raid on Battista’s palace by a group of armed students in a laundry van. Then we go to the palace (now the national museum), and there’s the bullet-riddled laundry van parked in the square out front, next to the yacht that brought Castro and his followers back to Cuba from exile in Mexico.

As a Canadian, I like the snow too, but it’s nice to go somewhere warm every once in a while. Cuba is a rare opportunity to go somewhere that’s tropical and historic at the same time. I never get tired of walking around Havana, and seeing sites from films like Strawberry & Chocolate, I Am Cuba and Our Man in Havana looking just like they did the day they were captured by the camera. (Not to mention a Trader Vic’s that has the same decor as when Castro and his brigade entered the city in the late ’50s.)

Posted By Alan : March 6, 2014 9:19 pm

Contrary to conventional wisdom, George Raft did not turn down CASABLANCA which was designed by Hal Wallis for Humphrey Bogart from its inception. However, Raft did turn down THE MALTESE FALCON (He did not want to work with a rookie director named John Huston), HIGH SIERRA (Bogart slyly manipulated his way into a great part) and removed himself from consideration for DOUBLE INDEMNITY by insisting to Billy Wilder that Walter Neff needed to be an undercover police officer! Raft also turned down THE SEA WOLF that would go to John Garfield that he claimed was “a bit part”. Raft’s Armageddon-like career management was often matched by his wooden acting although he managed several good turns in a long career. One of his co-stars told me that Raft asked Edwin Marin to change the script so his dialogue would go to other actors. He knew he wasn’t a great actor and didn’t want to be bothered to learn a lot of dialogue.

Posted By fred blosser : March 7, 2014 12:25 am

Actually, Raft’s character Rinaldo was more than just a “hired goon” in SCARFACE, he’s Tony’s (Paul Muni) loyal best friend and protector, and he has a pivotal scene near the end. Tony is insanely protective of his teenage sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) and thinks that Rinaldo has betrayed his trust by seducing her. He shoots Rinaldo in a rage only to discover that Rinaldo and Cesca were about to tell him that they’d gotten married. The killing precedes Tony’s final downfall when he has his ill-fated shootout with the cops. Another iconic Raft vehicle is the original version of THE GLASS KEY, unfortunately overshadowed by the Alan Ladd remake.

Posted By SergioM : March 7, 2014 8:24 pm

I actually watched both films on Warner Archive recently and I admit I found Nocturne rather tepid and pedestrian with few interesting touches here and there there such as raft’s character being a mama’s boy

But I thought Red Light was revelation. A really intriguing, beautifully shot film that constantly surprises you. And without giving away too much there’s a scene in the film which no doubt later inspired Robert Alrrich to do a similar scene for his film Kiss Me Deadly

Posted By jbryant : March 9, 2014 12:53 am

I thought NOCTURNE had a couple of other good scenes not mentioned here: the gruesome discovery in the photographer’s studio and a close-quarters brawl with a coffee pot payoff that anticipated THE BIG HEAT. It’s a fairly solid movie, but the story does have its missteps (it takes Raft about half the film to spot a clue so obvious you’ll probably catch it in the first ten minutes).

I don’t suppose Marin ever made a great film, but I really like his scrappy little comedy LISTEN, DARLING, with Judy Garland, Mary Astor and Freddie Bartholomew, and enjoyed his A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1938 version), INVISIBLE AGENT (one of the good INVISIBLE MAN sequels) and COLT .45, a Randolph Scott Western.

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