RED LIGHT. United Artists, 1949. George Raft, Virginia Mayo, Gene Lockhart, Raymond Burr, Harry Morgan, Barton MacLane, Arthur Franz. Music: Dmitri Tiomkin. Director: Roy Del Ruth.

   First of all, I have little or no idea what the title of this semi- or quasi-noirish movie means. And second of all, I’m not sure that the people who made this movie had a well-conceived idea about what kind of movie they wanted to make. (Or perhaps if they did, it’s one that doesn’t square away with the kind of movie I wanted them to make, in which case the problem is mine, and not theirs.)

RED LIGHT George Raft

   While I stand to be rebutted on this, I found this film to be schizophrenic to an extreme. With Raymond Burr and Harry Morgan playing two of the most utterly nasty villains ever to appear on the screen, at least at the time of its first showing, this movie also contains some of the most vividly noirish scenes (dark alleys, neon signs, rainy rooftops, grotesque close-ups) to be seen in the entire first generation of the genre.

   And yet, the message of the film is a spiritual if not totally religious one, one that leaves vengeance to an all-powerful heavenly being, complete with a spirited — if not overpoweringly uplifting — musical background provided by Dmitri Tiomkin.

   To me, though, the musical score was intrusively inappropriate and working dramatically (and loudly) at cross-purposes against the darker images and story being portrayed on the screen.

   George Raft plays Johnny Torno in Red Light, the co-owner of a medium-to-large trucking company. Several years before he was responsible for the imprisonment of company embezzler Nick Cherney (Raymond Burr), who upon his impending release from prison hires Rocky to kill Torno’s brother, a priest just returned to the US after a stint as a wartime chaplain.

   At which point the movie also becomes a “dying message” mystery, for the dying man’s last words are, “In the Bible,” initiating a hunt by Torno for the subsequent guests in his brother’s hotel room, once Torno realizes that the Gideon Bible that was in it is missing.

   One of these guests is Carla North (Virginia Mayo), whose presence in the movie is needed, I suspect, only because otherwise there would be no women in it. Why Torno hires her to aid him in finding the other guests is not entirely clear, save for a jarring coincidental wartime connection between him and her through his brother.

   There are other major holes in the plot, often safely ignorable, and you might even call them minor, but major or minor, sometimes holes bother you, and sometime they don’t. This time, they did, perhaps because in the best of times, I’m not a George Raft fan, and even Virgina Mayo’s role in this movie I found too bland and watered down for my tastes.

   If it weren’t for Raymond Burr and Harry Morgan (at the time still called Henry Morgan) I’d have to call this film totally ordinary, or even a notch or two less. But sometimes it takes a villain or two to make a movie memorable, and in this case, that’s precisely what this perfect pair of sadistic hoodlums did.