Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Every Racket's Strength

It's dark. The camera slowly dollies in on an apartment building, as an upstairs light turns off. Pan down to see a man exit onto the street. A nervous man carrying a suitcase. As he walks down the sidewalk, he hears loud footsteps behind him. Two men. Clop clop clop clop. The man is afraid. He begins to panic and runs down an alley. But he's trapped. It's a dead end. Clop clop clop clop. The eerie-sounding footsteps grow louder as the men inside the shoes get closer. The man looks into the camera with a terrified look on his face. Cut to a fist jabbing directly into the lens, as an animated glass cracking fills the screen. A fast dissolve to the two men working over the first man. One holding him from behind, the other smashing him in the face over and over until he finally collapses, unconscious, to the alley floor against a garbage can. A music sting and the title--LOAN SHARK--fills the screen.

Admittedly, this 1952 crime drama never lives up to its stylish and definitely attention-grabbing prologue, but it's still an interesting little picture. Screen legend George Raft (SCARFACE) toplines as Joe Gargan, a tough but decent guy just out from serving nearly three years in prison for beating a guy up in a fight. Temporarily shacked up in his "kid sister's" house (Raft is thirty years older--and looks it--than the actress playing his sister), he is offered a job at the tire plant where his brother-in-law Ed (Bill Phipps) works, but turns it down when the boss asks him to investigate a loan sharking conspiracy that's draining the employees of their paychecks. Joe changes his mind, however, when Ed is murdered after attempting to gather evidence against the loan sharks. Undercover, Joe ingratiates himself with the leader, Phillips (John Hoyt), and is invited to join the organization as a collector, where he works from inside to discover the identity of both Phillips' boss and the tire plant employee who killed Ed.

LOAN SHARK is hardly credible--the police are completely unaware of Joe's investigation, which is completely run by the tire plant boss, the most generous ever. Meanwhile, Raft is clearly, at almost sixty, too old for the role, yet his professionalism and the fine cast recruited by journeyman director Seymour Friedman make the story feel somewhat real. Busy TV guest star Paul Stewart plays Phillips' #1 gunsel--a role he would portray in a zillion television episodes--and future "Professor" Russell Johnson has a decent part as the killer. LOAN SHARK runs only 74 minutes, so there isn't time for it to grow old, and location shooting at a real Goodyear plant adds verisimilitude. In fact, the scenes showing how tires are (were) made are some of the coolest in the movie!

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