Thursday, January 25, 2007

Forgotten Noir: "Loan Shark" (1952)

When I decided to take the plunge and explore Film Noir with Warner Home Video's first genre collection, I had no idea of the wealth of titles awaiting release in back catalogues. Several years later, I am still on the lookout for the latest offerings. One of my most recent acquisitions is the first Forgotten Noir Set from VCI video. I've been slowly picking my way through the six movies in this set. Last night I was pleasantly surprised by Seymour Friedman's Loan Shark, which stars George Raft, Dorothy Hart, Paul Stewart and John Hoyt.

The story begins with the physical assaults of several employees of a tire factory. The victims have all borrowed money from a group of loan sharks operating out of a saloon across the street from the plant. Eventually some workers decide to do something about the exploitation of their fellows, and events boil over into murder. Into this mess walks George Raft's character, recently released from a 3-year prison term for assualt. He'd like to keep his nose clean, but gets pulled into the drama of the plant. Raft agrees to infiltrate the mob and get to the bottom of the operation that is terrorizing the community. In the process he is forced to alienate his friends, co-workers, sister, and girlfriend.

From the initial shots of a rainy urban sidewalk, I knew I was going to enjoy this film. It's got classic noir cinematography with plenty of shadowy night footage. There is also an aspect of gritty realism, with scenes shot on location at actual work sites (the tire factory, an industrial laundry). The dialogue is suitably snappy and the pacing holds the viewer's interest. As one might expect from the cast, the acting is uniformly excellent. Stewart and Hoyt radiate malice and portray excellent villians. Look for Russell Johnson ("the professor" from Gilligan's Island) in one of his very first film roles. But make no mistake, this hard-boiled tale is elevated by the presence of Raft.

By the time this was released, George Raft had reached the stately age of 57. Despite his advanced age, he was still able to bring a physicality to the role that younger actors would have struggled to match. He participates in several choreographed fights throughout the film, and convincingly pulls them off. Raft was an interesting figure. Born in 1898 in Hell's Kitchen, Raft soon developed talents as a dancer, boxer, and billiards player... and subsequently went on to try his luck in Hollywood.

Raft established a reputation as a tough guy, and played a series of gangsters and convicts. His credibility in these roles was no doubt enhanced by his real-life ties to mob figures. Those relationships came in handy when a hit was put out on James Cagney, who was trying to keep mafia influence out of the Screen Actors Guild. If it wasn't for Raft's work behind the scenes, a piece of heavy equipment (a klieg light... if you must know) would have "accidently" crushed Cagney on a film set. Despite his street savvy, Raft didn't always make the best career decisions- he turned down roles in The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Casablanca and High Sierra.

While Loan Shark certainly doesn't rank with the classics of the genre, it contains several of the key components that make Film Noir fun. If nothing else, track this down for its cast and settings. At the very least, you're sure to be entertained.

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