The Enforcer (1951) is a murder for profit affair with a mastermind sitting at the top of the pyramid giving directives to desperate men without a motive, and staying protected from the law. Enter Humphrey Bogart, the lead playing a tough nosed district attorney tasked with the impossible in bringing the massive ring of hired hit men to justice.
For Noir, the story is much more ambitious than the typical period genre film. It’s less involved in character examination and digging into the psychology of the hit men, victims, or the police. The story is structured impersonally to convey a sense of detachment among all the murders committed by random men that get dragged into the violence with the offer of a payoff. It’s cold and the antagonist played by the great Everett Sloane (Mendoza) shows no remorse for his victims. It’s viewed in terms of business transaction and Bogart has to dig through the muck to get to the top.
The film is framed through the death of Mendoza’s henchman (Ted De Corsia) as the key witness in bringing down the racket. The inverse storytelling builds a compelling narrative that unravels slowly to reveal a haunting ideology. Bogart serves as the lead, but the film often relies on the many hit men to tell the broader story. He’s more of a guide through each story beat without imprinting too much of his personality on the character. It’s a subdued Bogart, but with his signature melancholy charisma.
As for the artistic direction Bretainge Windust, the creativity is found in the casting and costuming. The ensemble as a whole is tremendous with the standouts being Zero Mostel, Jack Lambert and of course Sloane. It’s a cast that brings these underwritten characters to life by elevating the Martin Rackin screenplay. Furthermore, in the editing, Fred Allen overelies on the fade, but it does add a distinctness to the style of editing. It’s mainly a bland film to look at with heavy emphasis on interior, medium full shots that let the script do the talking.
In strange ways, the plot of The Enforcer more or less reminds me of a mad scientist in a horror film. It’s the man behind the curtain pulling the strings, not playing by the same set of rules as the police. Sloane plays a cartoon villain, with a godlike power to cause fear. Even when he’s not as physically intimidating as Bogart, he has a hold on every aspect of the story. It means most of Bogart’s screen time involves trying to coax confessions out of hit men still afraid of Mendoza’s influence.