Tuesday, November 29, 2011

When good TV characters go bad

There are some actors out there who are generally best remembered for characters they played on the small screen. Two such actors show up together to conspire to commit murder in the 1949 film Red Light, airing tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM on TCM

George Raft is not one of those actors; he's the star of the movie, however. He plays Johnny Torno, who runs a successful trucking company in San Francisco. He's got a brother Jess (Arthur Franz) who is a Catholic priest who spent the last several years serving as an army chaplain in World War II, and winning a medal for his heroic work in a POW camp. The kid brother is finally coming home to a happy reunion with his brother and an assignment to a parish of his own in northern California.

Meanwhile, back at the prison ranch, you've got Perry Mason. Er, not Perry Mason, but Raymond Burr playing Nick Cherney. Nick was a bookkeeper at the Torno trucking company, until he rather foolishly decided to embezzle a substantial amount of money from Torno. Torno sent Nick to prison, and Nick wants revenge. Fortunately he's got a way of exacting revenge while keeping the perfect alibi: his prison comrade, Col. Sherman Potter from the M*A*S*H unit. Er, actually it's Harry Morgan, back in the days when he was going by "Henry" in screen credits, playing fellow prisoner Rocky. Rocky is gonig to get out on parole a few days before Nick, so Nick has Rocky kill Jess while Nick is still in prison.

Rocky shoots the brother to death in his hotel room, but the brother survives long enough for Johnny to get there. Johnny hears his brother's dying words, which is that the answer he seeks can be found in the Bible. Johnny looks through his brother's bible, but can't find the name of the killer written in it anywhere. Johnny figures that Jess must have written it in the hotel room's Gideon Bible -- but that's been taken from the room! Johnny tries to find that bible, and even enlists the help of one of the people who had the room after his brother was killed (Virginia Mayo) in his attempt to find it. Mayo, meanwhile, becomes a bit frightened of the lengths Johnny is willing to go to to gain revenge....

Red Light is one of those lower-budget noirish movies which is actually quite entertaining. Raymond Burr, to be honest, had played several heavies before becoming Perry Mason (most notably the killer in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window), and is good here as Nick. Harry Morgan, I think, didn't play quite so many heavies, but he's just as good as Burr. George Raft never had much range, but his man looking for revenge character fits into that limited range. The one problem with the movie is that it has any number of plot holes. First off is the question of why Jess is being billeted in a hotel room. He's an army chaplain who has a brother who's thrilled to see him. You'd think that either the military would have room at a army base for him; he'd stay at the rectory of the bishop's cathedral; or he'd stay at his brother's apartment. More importantly, you'd wonder why Jess didn't write anything in his own Bible. It would have been just as easy for him to get his personal bible from his suitcase after being shot as it would have been for him to get the Gideon Bible from the desk drawer. (And how big were Gideon Bibles back then? The last time I was in a hotel room that had a Gideon Bible, the thing was surprisingly small and wouldn't have had enough room to write much of anything.)

Despite its plot flaws, Red Light is a fun movie. Sadly, it doesn't seem to have gotten a DVD release, so you're going to have to watch the TCM showing.

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