Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (RKO 1950)

Looking for a tough, no-frills ‘B’ crime drama? Look no further than ARMORED CAR ROBBERY, which is just what it says it is, the planning, execution, and aftermath of said dirty deed, with a cast of rugged mugs and hard-hearted dames directed by Richard Fleischer during his salad days at RKO. The movie echoes Robert Siodmak’s CRISS CROSS in its heist scene, and I’m sure Stanley Kubrick watched and remembered it when he made his film noir  masterpiece THE KILLING .

Make no mistake, ARMORED CAR ROBBERY isn’t on a par with those two films. It is, however, an enjoyable little 67 minutes of cops vs crooks. Criminal mastermind Dave Purvis assembles a gang of low-lives to pull the caper off, killing a cop in the process. The cop’s partner, Lt. Jim Cordell, is now determined to hunt the crooks down and avenge him. One of the participants, Benny McBride, is mortally wounded during the heist, which is fine by Purvis, who’s been banging his wife, Burlesque star Yvonne LeDoux, on the side. Purvis ends up putting McBride out of his misery, but Cordell and his men, including new rookie partner Danny Ryan, are hot on their trail. One crook dies trying to escape, but Al Mapes gets away in a boat, leaving Purvis and Yvonne with all that loot. Mapes is picked up and rats, leading to Danny going undercover, getting ambushed by Purvis, and a climax at the airport that spells the end of Purvis’s criminal career.

Charles McGraw , complete with trench coat and fedora, stars as the dogged Lt. Cordell, and the gravel-voiced actor is tough as leather. William Talman plays Purvis, one of his many bad guy roles before turning to the side of the law as DA Hamilton Berger on TV’s PERRY MASON. Douglas Fowley is the unfortunate McBride, Steve Brodie the rat Mapes, and Gene Evans crook Ace Foster. Don McGuire is young Danny Ryan; best known for playing CONGO BILL in the 1948 serial, McGuire later turned to writing, responsible for the story and/or screenplays for 3 RING CIRCUS, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, JOHNNY CONCHO (which he also directed), THE DELICATE DELINQUENT (ditto), and TOOTSIE ( for which he received an Oscar nomination).

Sexy B-Movie Queen Adele Jergens plays sexy stripper Yvonne LeDoux, and when she’s on stage you can hear the wolf whistles! Adele’s just as tough as the guys in this one, a statuesque blonde who’s sure no cream puff. The leggy former Rockette graced the screen in A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, THE CORPSE CAME C.O.D., LADIES OF THE CHORUS (as Marilyn Monroe’s mom!), THE MUTINEERS, and GIRLS IN PRISON, and made a perfect foil for comedy teams Abbott and Costello (A&C MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN) and The Bowery Boys (BLONDE DYNAMITE, FIGHTING TROUBLE). She met husband Glenn Langan (THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN) while filming THE TREASURE OF MONTE CHRISTO, and retired from the movies in 1956. Adele Jergens was never a big star, but her presence was more than welcome whenever she came onscreen.

ARMORED CAR ROBBERY makes no pretense about what it is, a low-budget picture designed for the bottom half of double features. But thanks to Fleischer and that hard-as-nails cast, it’s worth rediscovering for B-Movie fans… like Yours Truly! In this case, ‘B’ stands for Better!

Halloween Havoc!: DONOVAN’S BRAIN (United Artists 1953)

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No, this is not a movie about the mind of the 60’s Scottish folk singer responsible for “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow”. DONOVAN’S BRAIN is a sci-fi/horror hybrid based on the 1942 novel by Curt Siodmak, responsible for THE WOLF MAN and other Universal monster hits. It was first made as a 1944  Republic Pictures effort titled THE LADY AND THE MONSTER with Erich Von Stroheim (why Universal didn’t buy the rights is a mystery to me). This is one of those rare cases where the remake is better than the original!

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The story concerns Dr. Pat Cory, a scientist experimenting with keeping the brain of a monkey alive without a body. After several failures, Cory and his assistant, alcoholic Dr. Frank Schratt, have finally succeeded. A nearby plane crash leaves three dead, and multi-millionaire Warren H. Donovan in critical condition. Donovan dies on the table, but his brain is still registering “alpha waves”, and Cory removes it from Donovan’s body, and miraculously keeps it alive!

Cory believes Donovan’s brain still contains all the man’s thoughts and knowledge, and tries to find a way to communicate with it. The brain waves begin to deviate as if it’s still thinking, and after a week it has grown, it’s impulses increasing. The doctor hooks the brain up to a radio set, hoping to receive transmission, and gets more than he bargained for when Donovan’s Brain begins to take over, returning the dead millionaire to life in Cory’s body, taking over his will and becoming the dominant force.

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Lew Ayres does a splendid job as Cory/Donovan in this sci-fi variation on the Jekyll/Hyde theme. Ayres is better known as another doctor, playing Dr. Kildare in a series of MGM films in the late 30’s/early 40’s. There’s no weird makeup or transformation scenes, yet Ayres is convincing playing two distinct parts. The actor was a conscientious objector during WWII, serving as a medic, and his career suffered in those fervent patriotic days because of his stance. Besides the Kildare movies, Ayres appeared in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (Oscar winner of 1930), IRON MAN (not the superhero, a boxing film with Jean Harlow), STATE FAIR, JOHNNY BELINDA (Best Actor nominee), and THE DARK MIRROR, among many others.

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Nancy Davis is solid in the role of Cory’s faithful wife Jan. She gained a bit more fame when she became the wife of Ronald Reagan, and served as First Lady. Gene Evans (Schratt) was a burly favorite of director Sam Fuller, who cast him in five films. Steve Brodie plays a sleazy, blackmailing photo-journalist who naturally gets his comeuppance. Other Familiar Faces are John Hamilton (SUPERMAN’s‘s Perry White), Tom Powers, Shimen Ruskin, and Harland Warde. Felix Feist wrote and directed, keeping things tense, aided by Joseph Biroc’s photography.

Original novelist Curt Siodmak is well known to classic horror fans as writer of the screenplays for THE WOLF MAN, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS , BLACK FRIDAY, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, and EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS . The brother of noir director Robert Siodmak (THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, THE KILLERS ), Curt also tried his hand in the director’s chair, though without the success of his brother. Curt helmed the goofy low-budgeter BRIDE OF THE GORILLA (featuring Lon Chaney Jr, Raymond Burr, and Barbara Payton) and the boringest sci-fi I’ve ever watched, THE MAGNETIC MONSTER. As a director, Curt was a great writer!

The novel itself was a best seller, and is referenced in numerous books, movies, and TV shows. No less than Stephen King is a fan, and so am I, having read it when I was a teen. DONOVAN’S BRAIN makes a gripping little film, worth your time to rediscover and enjoy.

 

 

On Willis O’Brien and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (Allied Artists 1959)

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Willis O’Brien was the pioneer stop-motion animation wizard who fathered the immortal KING KONG . For that alone, he will be remembered as one of Hollywood’s giants. O’Brien started at the dawn of film, working for the Thomas Edison Company. He created an early dinosaur movie THE GHOST OF SLUMBER MOUNTAIN, which was cut down to eleven minutes by one Herbert Dowley, who took credit for O’Brien’s work. His crowning silent achievement was 1925’s THE LOST WORLD, an adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle adventure story that astounded filmgoers of the era.

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That same year, O’Brien married Hazel Collette, who bore him two sons. The O’Brien’s marriage was not a happy one, and they divorced in 1930. Hazel was mentally unstable, and diagnosed with tuberculosis the following year. Willis, whose drinking and philandering contributed to the marriage’s deterioration, remained devoted to his boys, especially young Willis Jr., who was born tubercular, and eventually lost his eyesight. After the success of KONG, O’Brien embarked on the sequel, SON OF KONG, and his sons visited the set to watch dad work. A short time after that visit, Hazel Collette O’Brien took a gun, murdered her own children, and attempted a botched suicide. She died in a Los Angeles prison hospital a year later.

This tragedy seemed to take the heart out of Willis O’Brien. He went back to work with his friend, producer Merian C. Cooper, on THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, and did some work on Orson Welles’ classic CITIZEN KANE. But despite a loving and successful remarriage, the rest of his life was filled with unfinished dreams of film projects that never came to fruition. A small comeback was mounted in 1949, when O’Brien and his latest protégé Ray Harryhausen did the special effects for MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, a Cooper production that garnered an Oscar for the film pioneer. But by the late 50’s, Willis O’Brien was reduced to creating effects for low-budget monster movies like THE BLACK SCORPION and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH.

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THE GIANT BEHEMOTH was O’Brien’s last “giant monster’ movie. It starts off with a bang: an A-bomb explosion! A group of scientific minds has gathered in Britain to watch footage and hear a lecture from American Marine Biologist Steve Kearns (Gene Evans) on atomic waste. Meanwhile, trouble’s brewing off the coast of Cornwall, as dead fish are washed ashore, and a pulsating mass is causing those near it to burn. Kearns and Professor Bickford (Andre Morell) investigate, and the fish test positive for radiation. Rumors of a “sea monster” run rampant, and when the steamship Valkyrie is found beached with no survivors, Kerns and Bickford are convinced a Behemoth is on the loose!

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Alerting the local navies of England, France, and Germany, the search for the monster begins. Kearns and Bickford visit eccentric Dr. Sampson (Jack MacGowan ), who helps them identify Behemoth as a prehistoric creature. Behemoth hits land and attacks London, the military is called in (of course), but they’re no match for the berserk Behemoth. It returns to the sea, and Kearns and the forces of good track it down in a sub, blasting it with a torpedo hit and ending Behemoth’s reign of terror (though there’s a neat little twist at the film’s end!).

Sound familiar? Hell, yeah. Director Eugene Lourie was brought in to make the original script (from blacklisted writer Daniel James) more like his 1953 hit THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. He certainly succeeded in that respect. Star Gene Evans is about as credible a scientist as I am, but does make a sturdy hero. The acting honors go to MacGowan (THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, THE EXORCIST) as the slightly daft Dr. Sampson. But THE GIANT BEHEMOTH is fun on a Saturday matinée popcorn movie level, and though it’s derivative of Lourie’s other monster movie (and GODZILLA, to a certain extent), it does feature O’Brien’s visual effects. In fact, the scenes of Behemoth terrorizing London stomping on cars and spreading his deadly radioactivity, are the film’s highlights.

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Willis O’Brien contributed to one more movie, some scenes at the end of IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD , before his death in 1962. His life story is tragic, but his artistry lives on through legendary movies like KING KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. And as much of a rehash as THE GIANT BEHEMOTH is, it’s still a last chance to see the screen’s mightiest maker of monsters work his magic one last time.