Quintessential tough guy George Raft (1901-1980), born 117 years ago today and almost exclusively typed as a movie gangster or principled but shady character (riveting roles in Scarface (1932), Each Dawn I Die (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), Manpower (1941), Lucky Nick Cain (1951), Rogue Cop (1954) and A Bullet for Joey (1955) will do that to you), never accrued kudos as a great actor but also never failed to register as a dynamic screen presence. In 1988, a fellow actor, and someone who also knew how to direct actors and make movies, Elia Kazan, recalled in his fascinating autobiography Elia Kazan: A Life, a conversation he had with Raft on the Warner Bros. lot after first arriving in Los Angeles to play a supporting role in City for Conquest (1940). Raft told him: “‘First of all,’ he said, ‘on the stage you have to talk, right?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘generally.’ ‘Here’ – and Raft pointed to the camera – ‘it’s pictures. The less you say the better. Get rid of as many lines as you can. Give them to the other guy. Let him tell the story and so on. You just look at him, like this’ – he showed me – ‘sort of doubting, you understand? And find something like I have, this coin I flip up and down in my hand; it gives them something to photograph while you're saying nothing. Everybody in the audience will be wondering what you're thinking, which is not a damned thing, but they don't know that. In the picture business, wondering is better than knowing.’ I thanked him and backed off. When I watched him shoot, I couldn’t hear what he said, but I did wonder what he was thinking.”
If future eminence Kazan could be sparked to wonder what went on underneath Raft’s fedora, others might too. So it was when Raft was surprisingly but effectively cast as a dapper and determined NYPD lieutenant investigating a scandalous death among the smart and sophisticated denizens of New York’s theater scene in writer/producer/ director Nunnally Johnson’s swank CinemaScope/DeLuxe color noir Black Widow (1954). His fellow stars – Ginger Rogers, Van Heflin, Gene Tierney, Reginald Gardiner, Otto Kruger and Peggy Ann Garner – had previously received greater acclaim for their stylish acting chops, but here, playing their alternately fragile and diamond-hard characters of duplicity and desperation, they were the ones caught up in the web not only of the propulsive, flashback-laced plot derived from Patrick Quentin’s (alias Hugh Wheeler) 1952 novel, but also of Raft’s crafty copper who, in essence, spends much of the film, when not doing the plodding case work, probing what they’re all thinking underneath their brittle everyday behavior. And true to his Kazan advice, he also did things to grab the moviegoer’s attention, shuffling through mantelpiece bric-a-brac, scribbling on note paper, while listening and watching for tells. Lo and behold, in the charged finale, he unleashes a bristling barrage of dialogue (in his inimitable growl of a voice) while stripping bare the real murderer’s alibi and cutting through the twisted tangles of these soigné suspects to get to the tawdry truth. For a guy always more comfortable being watched than doing much talking, Raft is an ideal ramrod through the plush proceedings of this Johnson-orchestrated murder-mystery variation on the classy and venerated theater-folk-centric All About Eve (1950). There’s a prime polish present in the crisp cinematography by Charles G. Clarke, the tight editing by Dorothy Spencer, the glamorous costuming of Travilla, and the attractive production design by Maurice Ransford and Lyle R. Wheeler. Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray of Black Widow weaves a tautly entertaining web, complete with an Isolated Music Track of Leigh Harline’s suspenseful score, featurettes on the Twentieth Century Fox output of Rogers and Tierney, and an array 5.1, 4.0 and 2.0 stereo audio options. You’ll study everyone involved – including birthday honoree Raft – starting October 16. Preorders open October 3.