Not that some of these movies weren’t without merit--and a few, in fact, were quite good. But where most of these pictures suffered was in not providing Raft with strong supporting players (from which he always benefited) and directors who knew best how to work with Raft’s acting limitations. So for every Johnny Angel (1945), Nocturne (1946) and Red Light (1949) there were turkeys like Mr. Ace (1945), Whistle Stop (1946) Christmas Eve (1947) and Outpost in Morocco (1949). By the early 1950s Raft descended even farther down the career ladder by participating in the European-made Lippert pictures I’ll Get You and The Man from Cairo (both 1953). The story goes that he rejected two films that would have returned him to underworld roles: Hoodlum Empire (1952) and The Miami Story (1954), because he was afraid of insulting his mob associates, such as Frank Costello.
Throughout his career, Raft received a lot of publicity for his underworld friendships. Not just the public but many motion picture executives believed that George Raft was as much a gangster off-camera as on. This actually made him more appealing to theater patrons when he appeared in such movies as Scarface (1932), Each Dawn I Die and Invisible Stripes (both 1939), simply because audiences thought they were watching the real article. Raft always fared best with the ticket-buying public when there was at least a shade of the underworld attached to his characters. With few exceptions (Souls at Sea, 1937; They Drive by Night, 1940; and Manpower, 1941), his “straight” roles were generally less successful.
By 1954, Raft’s mob affiliations, bad personal press, career mismanagement and changes in the structure of the entertainment industry had severely crippled his career. He received a much-needed boost on the evening of March 24 when he was the Guest of Honor at a “Roast” held by the Friar’s Club. Many of the town’s “heavy hitters”--including studio executives Jack L. Warner, Dore Schary and Darryl F. Zanuck--were in attendance to pay the legendary actor homage. However when Raft got up to address the dais he suddenly became emotional and spoke about how poorly his career was going. It wasn’t a plea for sympathy; Raft was just expressing what he felt.
The next day Raft was called into the MGM office of Dore Schary, where the two men discussed Raft’s feelings at the Friar’s Roast. The conversation resulted in Schary offering Raft the major supporting role of crime czar Dan Beaumonte in the studio’s upcoming production of Rogue Cop. Raft had avoided playing out-and-out gangsters for 15 years, but he gratefully, if indeed humbly, accepted the third-billed part. The role, however, provided Raft with his most ruthless villain since Scarface, and certainly was a part that Raft would have rejected as a “dirty heavy” during his “starring” days at Paramount and Warners.
Rogue Cop was based on the novel by William P. McGivern (1918-1982), who also penned the crime books The Big Heat, Shield for Murder, Hell on Frisco Bay and Odds Against Tomorrow, all of which were turned into successful films.
Although MGM had produced some hard-hitting gangster movies in the early 1930s (The Big House, 1930; The Secret Six and, most especially The Beast of the City, both 1931), crime pictures were not the studio’s specialty (unlike Warner Brothers), but the films in that genre that MGM did produce were raw, violent and uncompromising. The later-day Rogue Cop would not prove an exception.
The film was directed by Roy Rowland, who began his career as a director of numerous MGM shorts during the 1930s and who would go on to helm such diverse projects as the sentimental Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945), the boxing drama Killer McCoy (1947), the Red Skelton comedy Excuse My Dust (1951), the 3D-lensed Western The Moonlighter and the dark musical fantasy The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (both 1953). Rowland had also taken a turn at noir with the suspenseful Scene of the Crime (1949) and Witness to Murder (1954).
Long-time MGM contract star Robert Taylor was set for the lead, the corrupt cop Christopher Kelvaney. Romantic lead Taylor may have seemed an unlikely choice for such an unsympathetic role, but he had proven his dramatic mettle by delivering solid performances in such films as Bataan (1943)--and had even flirted with the underworld as the title character in Johnny Eager (1942). Later Taylor would essay another morally (and physically)-crippled character: mob lawyer Tommy Farrell in MGM’s glossy Party Girl (1958).
The two female leads were played by Janet Leigh (Karen Stephanson) and Anne Francis (Nancy Corlane). Francis was particularly effective as Raft’s girlfriend who, in her most memorable scene, takes drunken delight in belittling him--little realizing the extent of the gangster’s sadism. Director Rowland rounded out the rest of the cast with such reliable co-players as Robert Ellenstein, Robert F. Simon, Peter Brocco, Olive Carey and veteran serial star Roy Barcroft. Steve Forrest (younger brother of noir stalwart Dana Andrews) was cast as Chris Kelvaney’s “honest” cop brother, Eddie, while virtual screen newcomer Vince Edwards played the small but effective role of hitman Joey Langley.
A special treat for fans of classic television are the appearances of both Alan Hale, Jr. and Russell Johnson (the Skipper and Professor of Gilligan’s Island); along with Richard Deacon (The Dick Van Dyke Show) and Ray Teal (Bonanza). Of course, Anne Francis, Steve Forrest and Vince Edwards later went on to their own small-screen series: Honey West, S.W.A.T. and Ben Casey.
Rogue Cop is one of the best film noirs of the 1950s, standing alongside such classics as The Big Heat (1953) and The Big Combo (1955). The film is dark and the atmosphere tense and gritty. The tone of the movie is set from its opening moments, as the credits are stamped against the backdrop of police activity in the city, sans musical accompaniment. The storyline effectively highlights the standard plot of a flawed “hero” changing sides and going up against a particularly ruthless antagonist - the character motivated less by the need for redemption than revenge. Sadistic villains were almost a staple in noir cinema: from Tommy Udo to Vince Stone to “Mr. Brown”. Until participating in the noirish shootout that ends the film, Raft’s Dan Beaumonte is never explicit in his evil actions; however, the scene in which he dispatches Nancy to his “friends” in punishment for her taunting him is chilling in what it suggests.
Rogue Cop was nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (John F. Seitz) and received high marks from the critics. The New York Herald-Tribune rated the picture “a simple, streamlined movie about crookedness.” This was a unique compliment indeed during the message-laden reign of MGM studio boss Dore Schary.
George Raft received his own critical accolades. Steven Scheuer in his book Movies and TV on Videocassette wrote: “Raft is a standout as a syndicate czar who is more than a bit sadistic.” Even Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who for years had been one of Raft’s most merciless critics, admitted that Raft had performed admirably in the film.
Sadly, despite this praise in a successful film imbued with comeback potential, Raft’s career high all too quickly evaporated. After appearing as a detective investigating the murder of Peggy Ann Garner among a glittering array of suspects in the same year’s Black Widow (another job presented as a result of the Friar’s Club Roast--this time by Daryl Zanuck for Twentieth Century-Fox), and reprising his gangster against Edward G. Robinson’s Royal Canadian Police Inspector in A Bullet for Joey (1955), Raft was virtually unemployed in films until he played gangster Spats Columbo in the Billy Wilder comedy Some Like it Hot (1959). The movie, a huge hit, would provide Raft with last major film role in an important vehicle.
Detective Sergeant Chris Kelvaney is on the payroll of Syndicate chief Dan Beaumonte and his associate Ackerman (Simon). When Kelvaney assists his patrolman brother Eddie in capturing murderer George "Wrinkles" Fallon (Brocco), Beaumonte tells Kelvaney that Eddie must not identify Fallon in court, and instructs the detective to offer his brother $15,000 for his cooperation. Kelaney, however, is unsuccessful in his attempt to convince Eddie to have a lapse of memory about Fallon, and even Kelvaney’s visit with Eddie’s ex-party girl sweetheart Karen proves fruitless. Despite his promise to allow Eddie a little more time to change his mind, Beaumonte orders Eddie’s murder. Kelvaney is suspended from the force after learning that he is under investigation by the grand jury. But badge or not, Kelvaney is determined to bring his brother’s killer to justice. Learning that Beaumonte is hunting for ex-moll Nancy, Kelvaney secures her in Karen’s apartment, where she reveals why Fallon’s release was so important to Beaumonte. Fallon had taken an incriminating photograph of Beaumonte and Ackerman many years ago, and both men fear that the successful prosecution of Fallon on the murder charge may release this evidence. Kelvaney returns to the police station and makes a deal with the district attorney to turn state's evidence on Beaumonte. He then goes to Karen's apartment where he discovers that Karen has been taken to police headquarters and Nancy has been drowned in the bathtub. Kelvaney’s informant Selma (Carey) tells him that Eddie's killer is Joey Langley, a hit man from brought in from the West Coast. The detective instructs her to get word to Beaumonte that he is on his way to apprehend Langley. Accompanied by fellow detective Sidney Y. Myers, Christopher goes to Langley's hideout and, following a fistfight, subdues and arrests him. On the street outside, Beaumonte and Ackerman attempt to ambush the cops and their captor. Both Kelvaney and Myers are wounded in the exchange of gunfire, but Beaumonte and Ackerman are killed. Kelvaney is prepared to make amends for his past mistakes.