Enforcer (1951): Bretaigne Windust and uncredited Raoul Walsh’s Procedural Film Noir, Starring Bogart and Zero Mostel (Before Being Blacklisted)

From our Vaults:

Bretaigne Windust and uncredited Raoul Walsh directed The Enforcer (aka Murder, Inc.), a police procedural film noir, starring Humphrey Bogart at the peak of his career.

Windust, an accomplished Broadway director, fell seriously ill during the start of the shoot, so Raoul Walsh was brought in to finish the film. Walsh shot at least half of the footage, including the ending, but refused to take credit, calling it Windust’s work.

This was Bogart’s last film for Warner, the studio that had made him a star. Warner only distributed the film, which was produced by United States Pictures (now owned by Republic Pictures, a division of Paramount).

Though largely fictional, the film is based on the real-life investigation of a group of hired killers dubbed by the press as “Murder, Inc.” (the film was released under that title in the U.K.).

During this investigation, and the Kefauver hearings, terms like “contract” (a deal to commit a murder) and “hit” (actual killing) itself) first came into public knowledge. Gangsters used such codes in case of eavesdroppers or phone tapping by the police.

Bogart’s character, ADA Martin Ferguson, is based on Burton Turkus, who led the prosecutions of  members of the Murder, Inc. gang. His book on the case was published at about the same time the film was released.

Ted de Corsia’s Joe Rico was probably inspired by Abe Reles. Like Rico, Reles was about to testify against a major crime lord but, although under heavy police guard, was found dead after falling out of the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island on November 12, 1941. It has never been established for sure if Reles’ death was murder, accident or suicide.

Commercially successful, The Enforcer earned $1,584,000 domestically and $1,289,000 in foreign markets.

Based on the Murder, Inc. trials, the action is set in an unnamed American city and is told mainly in flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks.

Under heavy police protection, gangster Joe Rico (Ted de Corsia) arrives at the courthouse to testify against crime lord Albert Mendoza (Everett Sloane). There have been attempts on Rico’s life, but lead prosecutor ADA Martin Ferguson (Humphrey Bogart) reminds him that he himself faces plenty of charges that could “burn you a dozen times.”

Determined to get Mendoza “in the electric chair,” Ferguson tells Rico that Mendoza will die: “He’s got to die, and you’re going to kill him!”

With Rico now dead, Mendoza walks free. Frustrated, Ferguson goes to Mendoza’s cell and leaves him with photos of his victims, warning him of nightmares they will give him. He then returns to the evidence room and listens to tape made of Rico’s confession, which is not admissible in court.

In that tape, Rico describes Vetto’s daughter as having “big blue eyes.” Ferguson remembered that Nina Lombardo (assumed to be Angela Vetto) had brown eyes, while her roommate, Teresa Davis, had blue eyes. He thus concludes that Nina was pointed out as Duke’s contract by mistake.

Teresa told the police that Nina was Angela Vetto as a hint–in order to get them on the trail of the killers without being involved herself; she even tried to leave town, but Ferguson warned her against it.

Based on Nina’s photo, Mendoza reaches the same conclusion and, through his attorney, sends two men after the real Angela Vetto. Ferguson and Nelson learn that she has gone shopping, but, as the streets are too crowded, he uses a music store’s sidewalk loudspeakers to warn her.

Angela does so and Ferguson sets off to meet her, followed by the killers. In the subsequent shootout, Ferguson kills one  gangster, and the other is arrested.

In the last scene, Ferguson escorts Angela Vetto to testify against Mendoza.

Humphrey Bogart as Dist. Atty. Martin Ferguson
Zero Mostel as Big Babe Lazick
Ted de Corsia as Joseph Rico (as Ted De Corsia)
Everett Sloane as Albert Mendoza
Roy Roberts as Capt. Frank Nelson
Michael Tolan as James (Duke) Malloy (as Lawrence Tolan)
King Donovan as Sgt. Whitlow
Bob Steele as Herman (as Robert Steele)
Adelaide Klein as Olga Kirshen
Don Beddoe as Thomas O’Hara
Tito Vuolo as Tony Vetto
John Kellogg as Vince
Jack Lambert as Philadelphia Tom Zaca
Patricia Joiner as Teresa Davis / Angela Vetto (uncredited)