Monday, September 01, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Red Light (1949) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

RED LIGHT (1949) was released earlier this year as part of the Warner Archive Film Noir Collection.

San Francisco businessman Johnny Torno (George Raft) is thrilled to welcome home his kid brother Jess (Arthur Franz), a priest who has been away for the last five years serving as an Army chaplain.

Nick Cherney (Raymond Burr), who was sent to prison for embezzling from Johnny's company, wants to get back at Johnny. Nick arranges to bribe another con (Harry Morgan) who's being released from prison to bump off Jess as the ultimate cruel payback.

Jess is shot in a hotel room, but before dying he tells Johnny that the answer to who killed him is "in the Bible." Or at least Johnny thinks that's what Jess meant. Johnny goes on a quest looking for the hotel room's missing Gideon Bible, aided by one of the room's former occupants, Carla (Virginia Mayo).

RED LIGHT is one of those cases where the parts are better than the whole. There's a wonderful leading lady, a pair of terrific noir villains, a good cop character (Barton MacLane), an interesting initial premise, and a terrific ending, but unfortunately it doesn't all seem to gel as one would hope.

The story is a fairly slow-moving 84 minutes, not helped by one of Raft's more wooden performances. He comes across for me more effectively in some films than others; for instance, I thought he did a nice job in NOCTURNE (1946), in which he loosened up and showed a sense of humor. Here he's simply angry and colorless.

Unfortunately he's not aided by the always-enjoyable Virginia Mayo, as her screen time is fairly limited and she has little to do. One suspects she was cast simply to draw in movie-goers, but there's not much of her on the screen.

There are a few strong scenes, including a truly shocking moment when Johnny unexpectedly vents his anger in a church, and there's also an excellent final shoot-out on a rooftop in the rain, where Johnny learns that the Lord really does take care of things. The final shot of "The End" in neon is terrific.

It's interesting to note that RED LIGHT was based on a story called "This Guy Gideon" by actor Don "Red" Barry, who dabbled occasionally in writing. The blending of noir with religious themes was somewhat unique, as Johnny struggles with hatred of his brother's killer versus how his brother would want him to respond. The score by Dimitri Tiomkin makes frequent use of "Ave Maria."

The movie was directed by Roy Del Ruth and filmed in black and white by Bert Glennon. There are some particularly interesting establishing shots, including San Francisco under the opening credits and later the mission at Carmel.

I was confused by an establishing shot of a different-looking El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, with a street sign placing it at Hollywood and Vine; that's a few blocks away from the current location of the El Capitan, where I have seen a number of movies. I then learned from the El Capitan's history page that for a time, starting in the '40s, the El Capitan name had moved from its historic longtime location over to the Hollywood Playhouse; now known as the Avalon Hollywood, that theater is indeed at Hollywood and Vine and has recently been used as a venue for the TCM Classic Film Festival. I do love that a seconds-long shot in a movie combined with a little internet research taught me something new about Hollywood history!

The supporting cast of RED LIGHT includes Gene Lockhart, Stanley Clements, Arthur Shields, William Frawley, and Movita (MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY).

Other Warner Archive releases starring Virginia Mayo reviewed here in recent weeks: THE GIRL FROM JONES BEACH (1949), PAINTING THE CLOUDS WITH SUNSHINE (1951), SHE'S BACK ON BROADWAY (1953), and THE BIG LAND (1957). I appreciate that the Archive has released so much of her work on DVD! I also highly recommend Mayo in the Warner Archive release FORT DOBBS (1958), costarring Clint Walker, which was reviewed here last year.

The Warner Archive RED LIGHT DVD is a fine print. There are no extras.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered at the Warner Archive website.


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