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!

Diluted Noir: Robert Mitchum in THE RACKET (RKO 1951)

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A solid film noir cast headed by Robert Mitchum Robert Ryan , and Lizabeth Scott ; and a lineage that dates back to both a Broadway smash and an Oscar-nominated original can’t save THE RACKET from rising above minor status. Once again, tinkering behind the scenes by RKO honcho Howard Hughes, this time under pressure from Hollywood censorship czar Joseph I. Breen, scuttles a promising premise that coulda been a contender into an average movie.

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City crime boss Nick Scanlon is an old-school hood whose violent ways don’t jibe with the modern-day syndicate. Capt. Thomas McQuigg, “an honest cop” who’s a no-nonsense guy, is determined to take him down. But the city’s rife with tainted politicians, making McQuigg’s job that much harder. Scanlon’s got a headstrong kid brother named Joe dating a “cheap canary” named Irene, and McQuigg plans on using him to get to Nick. Add a crooked DA, a virtuous young cop on the rise, a newspaper reporter, and a detective on the take, and you’ve got a recipe for slam-bang gangland entertainment.

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Not so fast! Breen objected to several plot points, including Irene’s profession (she was supposed to be a hooker), some of the more violent aspects, and the fact that the bent detective gets away with murder. He called the film “a new low in crime screen stories” and “thoroughly and completely uacceptable within the provisions of the Production Code” (source: American Film Institute). Hughes and his producer Edmond Grainger made extensive changes, turning Irene into a nightclub singer, cutting out some violence, and making sure the bad guys get what’s coming to them. Sam Fuller was brought in to doctor the script, and Nicholas Ray, Tay Garnett, and Grainger himself reshot some scenes. The result is an average crime drama that, while still retaining some power, fails to rise above it’s restraints imposed by the Code.

Director John Cromwell and the stars of "The Racket"
Director John Cromwell and the stars of “The Racket”

Director John Cromwell had starred in the original 1927 Broadway production as McQuigg, along with a promising young actor named Edward G. Robinson. He knew the material better than anyone associated with this version, and must’ve been supremely disappointed at what they did with his film (Cromwell was soon to be blacklisted by the odious HUAC Commie hunters). William Wister Haines and W.R. Burnett’s tough-talking script was taken out of their hands and sanitized (Burnett also knew this territory, having penned the screenplays for LITTLE CAESAR, THE BEAST OF THE CITY , and SCARFACE). DP George Diskant’s camerawork retains some flashes of his brilliance, but nowhere near his work in THEY LIVE BY NIGHT or KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL.

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The performances by leads Mitchum and Ryan still hold up, with Ryan particulary brutal as the ruthless Nick. Scott’s role was changed so much it seems like she lost interest in it halfway through. William Talman is a good guy for once as the honest young cop who looks up to McQuigg, paying for it with his life. Ray Collins as the D.A in the pocket of the syndicate shines, as does William Conrad as the detective who acts as enforcer for the gangsters. The film’s loaded with Familiar Faces, including Robert Hutton as the reporter smitten with Irene, and Don Beddoe , Brett King, Harry Lauter, Eddie Parker, Don Porter , Walter Sande, Milburn Stone , Les Tremayne, and Herb Vigran .

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THE RACKET is okay for what it is, but when I think about what it could have been, I just shake my head. The early Fifties were a time of extreme paranoia in Hollywood, with both the censors and the Communist witch hunters clamping down on anything that didn’t jibe with their party line, making them just as bad as the other side. I haven’t seen the rarely-screened 1928 silent version (which lost the Oscar to WINGS), so I can’t really compare the two. What we’re left with is a film that’s like drinking a shot of watered-down booze; unsatisfying and in need of a stronger kick. If there’s any “classic” film in desperate need of a remake, this would be it. Are you listening, Hollywood?                 

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