Helmed by Roy Del Ruth, Red Light is a lesser film noir based on Don “Red” Barry’s story “This Guy Gideon.” The 1949 motion picture deals with a fixated man and the moral responsibilities of religion, especially when it comes to vengeance. Its lead character, played by George Raft, is engaged in a catastrophe of faith after his brother is offed.
Del Ruth and cinematographer Bert Glennon present the rain-slicked, darkness-caked streets with an eye for the splinters of hope in the distance. There are crosses spread against walls, stained glass windows shattered to dust, lightning bolts cast from heaven to mete out strange justice. Plans are made by the lambent lights of a projector. Deals are made in the shadows.
The picture opens in prison, with Nick (Raymond Burr) sent to jail for embezzlement. He’s pissed off at Johnny Torno (Raft), who he blames for his imprisonment. Nick arranges for Johnny’s brother Jess (Arthur Franz) to be murdered by a soon-to-be-released fellow convict. Jess is a chaplain with the military and he’s just returned home from the war. Johnny loves him very much.
When Jess is shot, Johnny arrives at his hotel room just in time to be told that the clues to the murderer can be found in the Gideon bible. The problem is that the bible is no longer in the room, so Johnny sets out to find the thing. He hires Carla (Virginia Mayo) to help and becomes more obsessed by the moment. His business suffers and people die, especially after Nick gets out of prison and hits the streets.
Red Light is definitely a tragic tale, with Jess having returned from danger overseas just to get plugged in a hotel room by some hooligan. This inequity is what drives Johnny to question God. This culminates in the film’s most emotional scene as Torno yells at Father Redmond (Arthur Shields) after hearing of the immorality of revenge.
Johnny has gotten rich thanks to his trucking company and he’s lived the good life, although he doesn’t appear to have given much mind to the service of others. Even when he does donate a stained glass window to a church, he makes sure his name is on it and tells Jess that it was part of a wager. His life, especially without Jess, is hollow.
Johnny is surrounded by people who try to tell him this relatively obvious truth, from Carla to his employee Warni (Gene Lockhart). Warni watches as his employer deepens his obsession, refuses to eat. He even pays the ultimate price after Nick gets his hands on him, adding to the trail of death behind Johnny’s choices. How could someone deal with the guilt after such hellish circumstances?
Red Light has a lot of compelling material and the religious symbolism is a unique touch, but Del Ruth never sacrifices the noir sensibility for any kind of feeble proselytization. San Francisco is as seedy as ever, with rain-slicked windows and glaring neon signs reminding the audience that there’s a lot of sin in the cavernous black buildings.
Raft expands beyond his typical one-note tack to generate wee touches of emotion, even venturing damn close to explosiveness at one or two points. He demonstrates his affection for his brother in atypical fashion, leaning more toward James as the brother of Christ than any kind of hangdog sibling nonsense. This lends his subsequent vengeance quest more moral heft.
Burr delivers the goods as a menacing presence and he succeeds in generating significant malice, whether he’s squashing a guy under a trailer or throwing some poor sap from a train. His character initially seems to exhibit some weakness in an encounter with Johnny, but the sight of his own blood sends him off the rails.
Despite these elements, something seems to be holding Red Light back. Perhaps it’s the strained Dimitri Tiomkin score with its insistence on pumping “Ave Maria” through every five minutes. Or maybe it’s the waste of Mayo, whose character doesn’t really need to be in the picture at all. Or it could be the jaded feel, like there’s a bubbling mysticism within this noir that never makes it to surface.
Red Light is well worth seeing, though. It imperfectly blends religion and revenge in a way that suggests some compelling headstones. It features Raft in one of his most agreeable performances and finds Burr prowling around killing folks. While it’s nowhere near the top of the film noir pile, Del Ruth’s movie sure as hell has its own pious charm.