Who is The Enforcer? Is it Humphrey Bogart as District Attorney Martin Ferguson, who enforces the law, slapping hoods where necessary, an enforcer of morals in a sick crime game? Is The Enforcer Everett Sloane as Moriarty-like mastermind Albert Mendoza, a man so feared in the city that even the mention of his name enforces a certain silence, an absolute fear, the inevitability of a violent death?
Or is it tough guy turned snivelling snitch, Rico, played by Ted De Corsia, whose king-pin status keeps the whole racket going; Rico who enforces the deadly conviction of the mysterious boss man, until his own nasty death?
It is not possible to keep track of the flashback-cum-story within a story structure of The Enforcer. The first ten minutes take place near the end of the story, and from thence the editor dives to the start, periodically dipping further into the past as hood and victims tell their stories, generally to Ferguson, the character played by Bogart.
The entirety takes place over one night, as Bogart and his police assistant review the evidence in the Mendoza case, a gang of contract killers. The film then emerges from tapes and files, anecdotes and testimonies, it's a device heaven sent for police procedural.
It is also not possible to keep track of the force being used by almost everybody. The Enforcer (known in some territories as Murder Inc.) is notable not just in film noir circles but stands out from many films for having no love interest,and no interest at all in stopping so low as to have one. The film virtually no dames whatsoever - oh yeah - one female character, who is talked about throughout by the other characters, kind of appears in a doorway for a moment as a prelude to being executed.
Zero Mostel as Big Babe in The Enforcer (1950)
There are star turns in The Enforcer but not one by Humphrey Bogart. First off, too many long shots reveal what a short guy Bogart was. Screen gold, close up, without any doubt, but cutting a pretty slight figure on the street.
Most enjoyable of all in The Enforcer is Zero Mostel as Big Babe Lazick; so vulnerable; so nervous; so curious to behold. Mostel didn’t work in films as much as he should have. In 1955 he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and for a joke, he told the Committee that he was employed by ‘19th Century-Fox.’
Unlike Elia Kazan, Mostel refused to name names, and although he denied he was a Communist he was still blacklisted, turning instead to theatre work and selling his paintings.
There isn’t much Bogart at all in the central time-tunnel sections of The Enforcer, which is a strange pleasure, and a slightly twisted way of telling the story. It means that the criminals by and large tell the story, in flashback, and to each other, most notably when Mendoza explains to Rico the idea behind the murder racket, just before coolly carrying out his first surprise killing.
Incidentally, subsequent television producers have probably picked the names of their bad guys from The Enforcer; Mendoza; Rico; Vince; Tony; Shorty etc, etc.
Famously, The Enforcer was based on a book, or at least on details from a case prosecuted by Burton Turkus, who led the legal war against several members of the Murder, Inc. gang. This came to the public’s eager notice because of the Kefauver hearings, which dealt with organised crime, and which became notable as they were able for the first time to be spread among an eager public.
Hit / Contract Explained
Even more famously, nobody had heard of the terms contract (= murder) and hit (=murder victim) before, and these are explained rather carefully in the film.