Written by Martin Rackin
Directed by Bretaigne Windust (and Raoul Walsh, uncredited)
Assistant district attorney Martin Ferguson (Humphrey Boggart) has worked tirelessly to see the day when notorious gang mastermind Albert Mendoza (Everett Sloane) is convicted for his most dastardly crimes and sentenced to rue his errors for a hellishly long time behind bars. That career defining moment is but hours away when key protected witness and former associate of Mendoza’s, Joseph Rico (Ted de Corsia), is brought to the police station to spend the night. Events quickly spiral out of control, leading to Rico’s unceremonious demise right under the police noses, prompting Ferguson and police captain Nelson (Roy Roberts) to make haste and study the many archival documents relating to the events and charges pressed against Mendoza in the hopes of finding further damning evidence…
Happenstance would have it that this week’s column entry arrives at just about the time when a new film from acclaimed English filmmaker Christopher Nolan, Interstellar, is released theatrically. Among the many reasons why critics and general moviegoers sing the director’s praises is his consistently provocative take on the effects the passing of time has on life, people and stories in general. Director Bretaigne Windust, helped in some capacity by the more vividly remembered Raoul Walsh (albeit un-credited during the opening titles), along with screenwriter Martin Rackin do their part in pushing the limits of the complexity of timelines in exploring the long and winding road that eventually leads The Enforcer’s protagonist, Martin Ferguson, to snatch his man. More to the point, one of the picture’s more unexpected qualities is the confidence in which it near-seamlessly engulfs the viewer into multiple levels of the past in order to reveal the full pertinent details of Mendoza’s recent crime wave. The crook’s tentacles spread far and wide, aided in no small part by a multitude of partners, middle men and common thugs or lowlifes looking to make some quick money.
As such, once Rico meets his doom in a taught, suspenseful opening sequence which transpires in the present, Ferguson and Martin read over various confidential documentation about the many colourful characters they have dealt with in the leadup to the next morning’s all important court hearing. Director Windust then has the timeframe shift into the past to whenever a particular crime was investigated. Each investigation concentrates on a specific lower level employee in Mendoza’s organization. Just as the filmmakers would never have been content to have Ferguson and Martin read hundreds of pages aloud for 90 minutes, nor do they have each suspect met in a flashback confess their sins through mere dialogue. Nay, a second flashback will occur depicting what led that criminal to join Mendoza’s forces and ultimately get caught by authorities. What the viewer is left with is a series of flashbacks within flashbacks that help pepper the film with sufficient detail relating the important specifics to the audience whilst sidestepping the type of minutia that would ordinarily bog down a picture. It is an extremely delicate balancing act, for the slightest miscalculation can lead to confusion amongst viewers as to what timeframe they are currently watching. Clever, wisely balanced and adventurous, the shifting time frames help give Windust’s film a unique flavor, not to mention a vivid testament to the difficulty investigators and prosecutors are challenged with in swimming through eye witness accounts.
Equally accomplished through the time shifts is a representation of gangsters as fallible human beings whose facades of toughness melt away in the face of impending danger. More than once in Windust’s picture are high or low-end thugs initially depicted as tough as nails enforcers, only for their stone cold killer personas to disintegrate when their own lives or that of a loved one is at stake. What’s more, the film intelligently goes about doing this by initially introducing such characters as completely broken individuals, only to then go back to a time not so long ago when they were brimming with violent confidence and showcase where and how their downfall happened. The most staggering of these miniature character studies is reserved for Rico, the gangster the viewer meets first at the police station. Fearing for his life and paranoid to no end, the filmmakers then reveal that he was the one others feared at one time. As time evolve so do the personalities of the ne’re do wells, quite dramatically so.
What all this timeline hopping results in is a film that, while boasting Humphrey Boggart’s inimitable mug and name on the theatrical poster, goes through significant stretches of run time during which neither Boggart’s assistant district attorney or Roy Roberts’ police captain are anywhere to be seen. Because of its structure it therefore relies heavily on the acting abilities of its supporting cast, among them Evertt Sloane, Ted de Corsia, Michael Tolan and Zero Mostel. Each brings his own variation of unbridled machismo when things are going according to plan, or so long as each is in a position of power over his peers. It is a cunning move on the part of the creators, to make one believe they are about to spend the entire film with one of the most recognizable and beloved personalities in Hollywood, only for that star to be physically present in, at most, half the picture. Were the supporting cast not up to par then the entire endeavor would come crashing down, but here the ensemble is so solid one barely minds that Boggart ends up being slightly underused considering his top billing.
In addition to employing a bold structure that anchors the drama and action, The Enforcer is a pertinent time capsule in ways that might produce laughter in some. Very often when the term ‘time capsule’ is used to describe a picture it is in reference to how a certain element of the lifestyle, be it clothing, technology or even belief system demonstrated in a film is no longer in vogue. In the case of The Enforcer the opposite occurs, at least with respect to the most crucial aspect to Mendoza’s business model: paid assassinations. What unfortunately feels like commonplace in today’s criminal companies with more lethal manners of doing business is, in this movie, blowing the minds of characters on both side of the law that are discovering the practice for the very first time. The term ‘hit’ is frequently uttered by witnesses with ties to Mendoza but it initially dumfounds the police. They haven’t a clue what it refers to. Even some of the wannabe hoodlums initiated into the organization are aghast at first upon learning that Mendoza and his cohorts are actually getting paid to kill people. Up for debate is whether this speaks to some pervasive naivety of the early 1950s (which itself seems ludicrous in the wake of World War II) or whether the filmmakers, clearly no privy to workings of the criminal world, felt they had stumbled onto to something striking and hoped to shock audiences.
The Enforcer is a captivating piece of entertainment that chooses to go about sharing its tale of the birth of a new nefarious underworld business model with a creative and challenging plot structure. It trusts the audience will not mind the complex route taken to reach the eventual end game, one that spreads the spotlight on a great number of actors surrounding legend Humphrey Boggart.