Wednesday, June 09, 2010

THE HOUSE ACROSS THE BAY (1940)

George Raft owns an upscale saloon with a private gambling room in the rear. Joan Bennett is a former chorus girl who has a whirlwind romance with Raft. Lloyd Nolan is Raft's lawyer who falls hard for Bennett. After Raft and Bennett get married, Raft becomes a bigwig in the quasi-legal underworld : he owns businesses, gets a stable of race horses, and even does a little gun-running. A gangster orders a hit on Raft for muscling in on his territory, and Raft barely dodges a bullet in a drive-by shooting. Bennett, afraid for her man's life, talks to Nolan and carries out a rather bizarre plan: she rats on him (anonymously) for income-tax evasion, hoping to get him sent to jail for a year, by which time the heat will be off. Nolan, however, double-crosses them both by handling his case so badly that Raft gets ten years instead of one. Bennett takes an apartment in a house across the bay from Alcatraz, becoming one of a group of gangster wives who live near their husbands, but she soon catches the eye of handsome airplane manufacturer Walter Pidgeon. Nolan tells Raft what Bennett's done, so Raft breaks out of Alcatraz, intending to kill Bennett.

Poor George Raft has a reputation as the man who could have been Bogart; not long after this movie came out, Raft began making a series of bad career choices by turning down the leads in HIGH SIERRA, THE MALTESE FALCON, and most notoriously, CASABLANCA, all films that helped make Humphrey Bogart a superstar. I don't think Raft had the talent or charisma that Bogart had, so it's surely not accurate to say that he could have been the kind of star Bogart was, but it's true that, after signing a Warner Bros. contract in 1939, then turning down the choice roles offered to him, his career went on a slow downward slide, and today he is probably best known for his coin-flipping tic in 1932's SCARFACE (he parodied his own image many years later in SOME LIKE IT HOT). Raft is fine here, not nearly as one-note as he often was, and he works well with Bennett. Pidgeon is wooden, leaving Nolan to give the best performance here, though weak writing leaves some big plotholes and hurts his character--unless I missed something, we never see that Nolan has a crush on Bennett, we're just told about it in retrospect. Gladys George plays a sympathetic Alcatraz wife, but her role is carefully set up only to have no payoff (maybe some of her scenes were cut?). An independent production from Walter Wanger, its relatively low budget shows at times, but there is the minor pleasure of seeing Raft give a strong performance. [TCM]

1 comment:

Jim said...

Just caught Raft a week or two ago in A Dangerous Profession (1949). A good performance, as usual, but I didn't love the film. It was interesting to see Jim Backus without "Lovey," but he'll always be Mr. Magoo to me.