RED LIGHT. United Artists, 1949. George Raft, Virginia Mayo, Gene Lockhart, Raymond Burr, Henry (Harry) Morgan, Barton MacLane, Ken Murray, William Frawley. Directed by Roy Del Ruth.

   Watching old movies like this one, you begin to wonder all sorts of strange things, such as how some actors and actresses became well-known stars, and others didn’t. Take George Raft, for example. Take Virginia Mayo, for another , Neither one could act their way out of a dark room, not if you take this movie as a prime example of their work (and quite possibly you shouldn’t).

   Admittedly it’s a low budget crime drama, but that doesn’t stop all of the lower ranked players in the list of credits from showing them how it should be done, if they were paying attention. As the owner of a trucking company whose brother is killed in a bit of gangland revenge, George Raft is as dapper a dresser as ever, but he’s stiff as a board in any small matters such as facial expressions or simply walking across a room.

   As for Virginia Mayo, she had the looks and figure to be a star, I suppose, but her delivery here is as wooden as the board that Raft is as stiff as. The real star of this movie is Raymond Burr. In fact this was shown on TNT as part of a afternoon-long Salute to Raymond Burr, which shows that the people at TNT know what they are doing.

   Burr is the hoodlum who’s been sent up by Raft, and he’ s the one who hires Harry Morgan to wipe out Raft’s brother. Burr was a little overweight at this time of his career, but his dark, glowering eyes made him a perfect villain in any number of films of this same caliber. Morgan, before he began to make a name for himself in comedy roles, was also perfect as a series of dim-witted killers or former boxers who’d taken one too many on the chin.

   Whenever Burr is on screen, the story takes on life. Whenever he’s not, the temptation is to find the fast-forward button. Not a ”noir” film, except on occasion, but in reality an inspirational type of movie, a testament to the practice of leaving Gideon Bibles in every hotel room in the country. (*)

(*) And speaking of Gideon Bibles, it reminds me that the shooting (and a good deal of the subsequent investigation) takes place in the Carlton Hotel, San Francisco. Trivia question: what long-running radio/TV series was there that began almost every episode in the same hotel?

– Reprinted from Mystery*File #32, July 1991, in slightly revised form.