Friday, September 9, 2016

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Loan Shark (1952)

Joe Gargen (George Raft) has just completed a three-year stint working for the State.  (He only had to serve two years and nine months, however—I’m guessing time off for good behavior.)  The reason no one has seen him around for this length of time is because he had an altercation with another individual…and because Joe was once a professional boxer, The Man put him away on the old “hands-as-deadly-weapons” statute.  But that’s all in the past; a free man, Joe wants nothing more than to get a job and a place of his own.  His sister Martha Haines (Helen Wescott)—whom he affectionately refers to as “Marty”—and her husband Ed (William Phipps) are helping Joe transition by allowing him to stay with them until he’s back on his feet.

Ed works for the Delta Tire Company, and chances are pretty good that Joe will soon be cashing a paycheck with that firm as well; a friend of the Haines’, Anne Nelson (Dorothy Hart), is secretary to Delta president F.L. Rennick (Charles Meredith)—and she’s put in a good word on behalf of Joe.  Gargen is just the man Rennick is looking for; there’s a problem at the plant in which a large number of employees have fallen prey to a loan sharking operation run by Vince Phillips (John Hoyt) and his second-in-command, Lou Donelli (Paul Stewart).  Joe doesn’t want any part of Rennick’s offer of employment (F.L. wants him to investigate the loan sharks and turn over what he discovers to the cops) …even when a neighbor of Marty and Ed’s, Steve Casmer (Robert Bice), gets a working-over by Phillips’ goons.

Gargen changes his tune when his brother-in-law is killed by Charlie Thompson (Russell Johnson)—a plant employee who lures unsuspecting dupes into availing themselves of the loan sharks’ services.  With his decision to infiltrate Phillips’ operation, Joe will jeopardize his family ties with Marty, a romantic relationship with Anne…and possibly his life.

George Raft is back!  And this is most fitting, because Loan Shark (1952) is revealed in the opening credits to be “An Encore Production” (it was produced in tandem with Lippert, who distributed the finished project).  It was the first of a three-picture deal Raft inked with the independent Lippert Pictures (the other two being I’ll Get You [1952] and The Man from Cairo [1953]), at a time when the actor was having difficulty even getting arrested in Hollywood.  I was pleasantly surprised with both this picture and Raft’s performance in it; he’s fairly solid as Gargen, and I believe that’s because he has to play to his acting strengths in maintaining the illusion he’s one of the bad guys.  (Raft preferred playing the hero than the heavy, and I just don’t think he was a good enough actor to do the first part of that on a regular basis.)

Even when he's a "bad guy," George is the hero.

Loan Shark is never going to be considered in the league of classic noirs like Murder, My Sweet (1944) or Out of the Past (1947)—but it was better than I was expecting it to be (a few friends told me it was well worth the time to watch it, and kudos to those who did) considering its B-picture pedigree (it’s unquestionably the best of the “Forgotten Noirs” I’ve seen so far in the VCI series).  Budgeted at $250,000 ($1.8 million in today’s dollars—which might take care of the catering on a modern-day set for a day or two)—a little more than your typical programmer—Loan Shark benefits from the loan of the R-K-O Pathè studio backlot (the Goodyear Tire Company in L.A. fronted for the film’s fictional Delta Tire) for most of its location shooting, giving Shark a professional sheen.  Of that $250,000 budget, star Raft pocketed $25,000 ($180,000 adjusted for inflation) …and additionally, he was supposed to collect 25% of Shark’s profits.  (This never materialized, by the way—probably due to the time-honored tradition of “Hollywood accounting.”)

Another strength in Shark is its first-rate casting.  Dorothy Hart is George’s love interest in this one, and their spooning is a lot more believable (Hart was a last minute replacement for the originally cast Gail Russell; sadly, Russell’s struggles with the bottle put the kibosh on her participation) than the awkward roundelay with Sally Gray in I’ll Get You.  Helen Wescott is another plus as Raft’s distraught sister (I always remember Helen from her role as Gregory Peck’s estranged spouse in the classic Western The Gunfighter [1950].)  Margia Dean, who was in the cast of last week’s Forgotten Noir Fridays, Fingerprints Don’t Lie (1951), has a small part in Shark as a sassy barmaid named Ivy.

If you’re going to go balls-out with your villainy in a motion picture, you can’t do any worse than Paul Stewart or John Hoyt as your bad guys.  Stewart is a longtime TDOY favorite, and I love how he’s able to take what otherwise would have been a routine assignment for any other actor and mark it with his personal stamp.  What’s most enjoyable about Stewart’s Donelli is his undisguised irritation at the fact that Raft’s Gargen has moved up so quickly in the ranks of the organization (he’s getting a ten percent cut—Donelli is still on salary); he whines to Hoyt’s Phillips about how unfair it is and when he’s told it’s because Gargen has brought in new ideas Donelli bitches that he thinks of new ideas all the time.

“You come up with nothing but stupid ideas!” snaps Phillips, and in the next breath lets slip some information that will prove to be most useful to the undercover Gargen.  Hoyt plays Vince in the manner of an effete floorwalker, but his seasoned experience of playing bad dudes (in Westerns, sci-fi films, etc.) helps immeasurably throughout Shark’s 79-minute running time.  Russell “Professor” Johnson is also on hand as the weasel who preys on the financially-strapped employees of the tire company, and TDOY idol Lawrence Dobkin has a cherce role as a seemingly mild-mannered accountant with the operation.

Seymour Friedman held the directorial reins on Loan Shark; dedicated film scholars searching for signs of auteurism in Friedman’s oeuvre will be disappointed but Friedman acquits himself nicely in the chair—the pre-credits sequence, in which a Delta employee is pursued by two loan shark henchmen…resulting in a proper pummeling, is suspenseful and well-shot, and there are some additional nice touches throughout the movie (I liked the scene in which steam from the factory is superimposed over the steam from an iron Wescott’s Marty is using).  Ace cinematographer Joseph Biroc (Cry Danger, The Killer That Stalked New York) adds appropriate noir atmosphere, and the script by Martin Rackin and Eugene Ling (from a story by Rackin) is a notch above your usual B-picture material (Rackin had a long career writing both comedies and noirs; he was head of production at Paramount from 1960-64 before leaving the studio to form his own production company).

The VCI presentation of Loan Shark features audio commentary from film historian/friend of the blog Richard M. Roberts, and I always enjoy listening to Rich do these because he approaches commentary the way I do whenever I’m kibitzing during a film at home (pointing out character actors, joking about the action onscreen, etc.).  The laugh-out-loud moment for me is when he singles out actress Spring Mitchell, who has a small role as Hoyt’s hi-fi obsessed moll, as “somebody’s girlfriend” because of Mitchell’s otherwise spotty cinematic resume (though the [always reliable] IMDb does credit her with some early TV work on shows like Kollege of Musical Knowledge and Stump the Stars).  Let’s be honest: Spring has more screen time than TDOY fave Claire Carleton, seen briefly as a wife nagging her husband as the two walk downstairs in the background when Raft makes his first appearance in the film.


Vienna said...

Thanks for a great review of a film I like a lot. Raft is well supported by a good cast, especially Hoyt and Stewart. And I was impressed by Dorothy Hart.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Vienna approached the microphone:

Thanks for a great review of a film I like a lot.

Vienna, you were one of several people who recommended this to me! Take a victory lap!