The 1952 film, Loan Shark, opens with a familiar film noir situation.
A man walks down a dark city street. Judging from the way that the man keeps looking over his shoulder, he’s obviously nervous about something. Suddenly, we hear two sets of footsteps approaching him and it quickly becomes apparent that the man has good reason to be so nervous. The man is being pursued by two gangsters. (We know that they’re gangsters because of the suits and the fedoras.) The gangsters toss the man in an alley and proceed to beat the Hell out of him.
The local tire factory has a problem. Though its employees are highly valued, they’re not highly paid. In order to make ends meet, many of them have resorted to gambling. Plant foreman Charlie Thompson (Russell Johnson) always seems to have the latest tip on a sure thing. Interestingly enough, the tips never seem to pan out and, as a result, the workers are forced to go to the local loan shark, Lou Donelli (Paul Stewart). Lou always loans them the money but he charges exorbitant interest and, when the workers can’t pay back the loans, he sends his thugs to beat them up. The factory’s management knows that they have to do something to take this loan shark out of commission.
Now, what would you do if you were a part of management? Would you go to the police and maybe see if they could arrange to put a trained undercover cop in your factory? Or would you hire an ex-con and tell him to just take care of it on his own?
The ex-con in question is Joe Gargen (George Raft). He’s just been released from prison, though the film is quick to point out that Joe didn’t really do anything that bad. He just hit a guy who was being obnoxious. The guy fell back and hit his head and, as a result, Joe was charged with assault with a deadly weapon. (As Joe explains it, he’s a former boxer and, as a result, his fists are legally considered to be deadly weapons.) When Joe is first offered the clandestine job at the tire factory, he turns it down. As he explains it, he’s not looking to get in any more trouble with anyone. But then when the loan sharks kill his brother-in-law, Joe reconsiders.
Soon, Joe is working at the tire plant. (If you’ve ever wanted to see, in meticulous detail, how a tire is made, this is the film to watch.) After Charlie gives him a bad tip on a horse, Joe finds himself in debt to Donelli. However, when Joe manages to beat up the thugs that Donelli sends to collect, Joe finds himself with another job offer. Soon, Joe is working for the loan sharks! Because he can’t reveal that he’s undercover, everyone — from the administrative assistant (Dorothy Hunt) who he once took dancing to his own sister (Helen Westcott) — is disgusted by Joe’s actions. Joe finds himself a pariah but he’s still determined to discover the identity of Donelli’s boss.
With it’s combination of the mob and exploited blue collar workers (not to mention it’s use of an ex-boxer as its protagonist), Loan Shark lightly treads on the ground that would later be covered, in a far more exacting manner, by On The Waterfront. Unfortunately, Loan Shark suffers a bit from the miscasting of George Raft in the lead role. Raft was a charismatic actor but, when he made Loan Shark, he was 51 and looked about 9 years older. When Raft shares what is meant to be a romantic dance with Dorothy Hart, he looks more like a proud father dancing with his daughter at a wedding reception than anything else. Loan Shark is one of those films that calls out for a younger actor, a William Holden or maybe a John Garfield. That said, Raft was a genuine tough guy and, despite his advanced age, he still looked like he could go a few rounds.
That said, Loan Shark is a tough and shadow-filled film, one that features some genuinely exciting fight scenes. Miscast or not, when George Raft throws a punch, you believe it.