Director: Bretaigne Windust ( & uncredited contributions from Raoul Walsh)
Based on the real-life ‘Murder Inc.’ trials, The Enforcer is an interesting cross between a noir, a gangster flick, and a police procedural. Directed by Bretaigne Windust along with uncredited contributions by White Heat and The Roaring Twenties director Raoul Walsh, the film is early attempt to show gangsters in a different light from the stereotypes of the prohibition-era that they had become. Not focusing on booze or narcotics, the film tries to show murder as a business model practiced by a group of professional killers carrying out ‘contracts’ for cash, as the arms of the law (specifically, Humphrey Bogart’s) try to shut them down.
Rather than being a lone operator occasionally involved with the police when things go wrong (e.g. Sam Spade), this time around Bogart sits on the side of the police, playing assistant district attorney Martin Ferguson. The story begins with Bogart and his men preparing for the trial and sentencing of a notorious killer known as Mendoza, who is kept holed up in a cell beneath them awaiting trial the next morning. With them is their sole witness, a gangster-turned-rat named Rico, who for reasons initially unexplained, has agreed to testify against Mendoza in exchange for his own protection. Only Rico is left fearing for his life, knowing that Mendoza’s men will try kill him before the trial, and soon ends up unintentionally killing himself when trying to escape the station. His sole witness gone, Ferguson is left with mere hours to rebuild his case. His investigations lead him into the gang of professional killers Mendoza controlled, using Rico as a frontman. Once united as a professional outfit, their group came undone after a betrayal by one member who ran away with a female target they were ‘contracted’ for. Ferguson gradually unveils the series of events that led to attempted ‘hits’ against Rico himself, which takes the story back to the start with Rico in Ferguson’s custody.
The focus of the film is in showing how the professional outfit came into being and how it was run. It is these scenes where the film scores best, and it makes a good effort at showing the operation of the gang in practice. Phrases like a ‘hit’ and a ‘contract’ are pretty universally known now, but they were originally used as legitimate code words, with the police in the film being clearly blind to them, which makes for interesting (if incredulous) watching in retrospect.
In classic noir style, the film makes heavy use of flashbacks to flesh out the story, taking across a number of time periods. The wider back story to the outfit is quite worthwhile (and certainly overshadows the contemporary part of the story involving Ferguson), particularly the scenes at Rico’s office where hits are planned and the inner workings of the operation are shown. The subsequent betrayal of the operation by young hothead Duke Malloy adds an interesting layer to this, and the final flashback scenes showing the inception of the entire operation between Mendoza and Rico are surprisingly compelling.
Performance-wise, the film is a bit mixed. For one reason or another, perhaps due to the different nature of the character he’s playing, Bogart doesn’t seem particularly fiery in the role, and his performance comes across as rather subdued at times. He comes across as bored at times, although it is true to say he is overshadowed by the younger cast members around him. Michael Tolan, is convincing in his portrayal of Duke Malloy – a tough, ruthless young killer who betrays his own code by falling in love with a target, before being driven slowly insane when she is finally killed by another member of the outfit. The character of Rico, played by Ted de Corsia, is probably the strongest performance. Both as the jittery rat he starts the film off as being, as well as the tough syndicate boss we also get to see, he gets plenty of screen time and Corsia is convincing in his portrayal of the character. Mendoza, played by Everett Sloane, is interesting but gets a total of about two scenes throughout the whole film. While his influence is felt throughout the whole film (with Rico fearfully taking calls from his ‘boss’), it would have been interesting to have had the character slightly more fleshed-out by way of back story.
The script and dialogue is reasonable but unremarkable – some interesting exchanges are had early on between Bogart and his cohorts particularly one scene where they discuss the shortcomings in the legal system as they see it, and a few other scenes in the movie also have some good lines and performances, but there is little which really jumps out as being entirely memorable.
The film is a short watch, clocking in at about 85 minutes, and we get plenty of action and time-hopping flashback scenes in that time, but there is definitely a feeling of incompleteness about it all. The film ends quickly after Bogart manages to rescue the one final witness capable of rebuilding his case (the twist leading up to this revelation is quite well done), as he makes a short heroic statement about her being able to sentence Mendoza to the electric chair. But the film seems to have been almost cut off short by ending here. There is no final scene involving Mendoza’s trial and execution to round off the story – some final scene showing an attempt by the gang to sabotage the court itself would have been a more satisfying note to go out on.
Nevertheless, The Enforcer tells a good tale and even though Bogart is not the dominant force we would expect him to be, the rest of the performances are enough to pick up some of his slack. The focus on the operation of the criminal outfit is interesting to watch and certainly keeps the plot engaging, especially as we see the gradual unravelling of it all. Overall it’s probably not a film for repeated viewing, but it’s entertaining enough to warrant picking up at least once.