Armored Car Robbery (1950)

The pace and great location shots make it more watchable and enjoyable than some more renowned heist films.

Synopsis

It’s a beautiful summer day in Southern California. The local nine, the Los Angeles Angels of the old Pacific Coast League, are playing n afternoon game behind the Spanish-style facade of Wrigley Field. Sirens suddenly pierce the air around the stadium. A radio patrol car, comes screeching to a halt in from of the box office. The cops had received a call about a robbery in progress at, of all places, the ballpark, but on investigating the scene, they realize that all is well. It seems like a false alarm. What it really is, however, is master criminal Dave Purvis probing police response time to an alarm at the park.

Thus begins Armored Car Robbery from 1950. A taut, well-paced and captivating heist movie (with elements of a police procedural and an overlaying love triangle), it features William Talman as mastermind Dave Purvis, Charles McGraw as lawman Lt. Jim Cordell, Douglas Fowley as Benny McBride (Purvis’s lieutenant in the scheme) and Adele Jurgens as Yvonne LeDoux, aka Mrs. Benny McBride, (and sometime mistress of Dave Purvis).

After probing the police response time, we see Purvis, with Benny’s help, assemble a crew for the job. One problem, however, is that Benny is not, shall we say, the sharpest tool in the box. Not only can’t he see that his wife is carrying on an affair with Purvis, he can’t remember simple details like Purvis’s alias, “Martin Bell”, or where Purvis is staying without writing it down. No-no number one for smart crooks everywhere.

Benny does seem to assemble a somewhat competent crew for the job, consisting of Al Mapes (Steve Brodie) and “Ace” Foster (Gene Evans). The crew is introduced to “Bell”, and told of the plan to hit an armored car on its last pickup of the day–collecting the box office receipts from the ballpark. Needless to say, Mapes and Foster are less than thrilled with the plan–they were probably thinking about sneaking into a fur warehouse late at night, tying up an elderly security guard or two, and making off with the loot before anyone found out. Hitting a safe on wheels, protected by three heavily armed guards, in the middle of the day with hundreds (if not thousands) of witnesses around is not their idea of a good job. As Mapes says, armored car jobs are a quick way to get yourself a $60 funeral.

Benny asks if it would make a difference if the job was planned by Dave Purvis, who pulled off a similar job in Chicago not too long ago. They agreed it would, but they’re slow to catch on that “Bell” is actually Purvis until Benny finally let’s them in on the secret. (These guys are two-bit hoods, after all, not Harvard Law School grads).

With all this settled, the gang snaps into action for the day of the heist. The wheelman waits in the getaway car a block or so away from the ballpark, but within line of sight of the entrance. Another crew member endeavors to have his old jalopy break down directly behind the armored car; he’s fiddling with the engine, attracting the interest of one of the guards and two passersby, who, as you can guess, are Purvis and Benny.

The other guard comes out of the ballpark, satchel in hand, as he approaches the back of the truck, and his partner unlocks the door, a thick cloud of teargas shoots from the engine of the broken-down jalopy. Purvis and Benny sap down the guards, as the wheelman pulls the car around. The thieves quickly don gas masks, and begin to move the money from truck to car; Purvis is in charge of keeping track of the time. Based on his initial false alarms, it should take 2 minutes before the police respond; anything left in the armored car after that stays there.

While the crooks are starting their job, an alert ticket agent grabs the phone and calls LAPD. It just so happens that Lt. Cordell, along with his partner Lt. Phillips (James Flavin) are in a radio car and closer to the ballpark than they’d normally be. They come screeching up, catching the crooks mid-robbery. Realizing that his plan has gone awry, Purvis tells his crew to drop everything and leave. In an exchange of fire with the cops, Phillips is shot; before he goes down, however, he gets one or two shots of his own off, and plugs Benny in torso.

Leaving his partner wounded and writhing in pain on the ground, Cordell jumps and the car and takes off after the crooks. He manages to run his car up on a sidewalk and smack into a brick will; his car immobilized he finally radios in about the robbery, and that there is an officer down at the ballpark.

We cut to the hospital, where we see Cordell at the hospital, inquiring about his partner Phillips; of course he’s dead (though if Cordell had gotten him help earlier instead of playing cowboys and indians with the Purvis gang, who knows). We then get the obligatory scene of Cordell vowing to avenge the death to Phillips’s widow, and see Cordell being assigned a new partner, a young and wet behind the ears detective named Danny Ryan.

Purvis and his crew have ditched the old car, and are currently disguised as oil field workers driving down to a warehouse along the water, someplace probably in Long Beach or San Pedro. Against an arid and barren landscape dominated by oil derricks and greasy little shacks, the men come upon a police checkpoint. Benny is in agony from his bullet wound, and can barely keep things together. He bucks up enough so as not to alert the police at the checkpoint, even as a motorcycle cop climbs across him in the back seat to check out Purvis’s ID. They bluff their way through the checkpoint, or so they think; the motorcycle officer notices that he has blood on his clothes, and a bulletin comes across with a general description of the new getaway car. Though the police set off after the criminal quartet, they eventually find their hideout, down by the docks.

The police, meanwhile, have at least one thing working for them–they know the general vicinity where the crooks disappeared making their getaway. They start blanketing the area.

Meanwhile, it become apparent that Benny is badly wounded and needs a doctor; this wrinkle doesn’t fit into the plan, and Benny gets shot trying to make an escape to find some help. Purvis tells Ace and Al to dump Benny and the getaway car off the end of a dock; outside, Ace and Al decide that Purvis (and the loot he’s holding) needs looking after as well, so Mapes stays behind to guard Purvis, who’s guarding the loot.

Things go from bad to worse as Ace is spotted by a police patrol dumping the hot car. He’s chased back towards the hideout; in a shootout, Ace is killed, Mapes just manages to get away in a speedboat, and Purvis is able to sneak past the police in the darkness, carrying the entirety of loot.

The cops quickly find Benny’s body, and, conveniently, the matchbook in which Benny recorded Purvis’s alias and temporary lodging. The cops soon make a connection between Benny and Yvonne; they wire her dressing room at the burlesque theater and her car with state-of-the-art wireless listening devices, hoping that Purvis would make contact with her. Their hope is strengthened when they pick up Mapes who, having the same idea about Yvonne as the police, was lurking around the theater; Mapes lets the cops in on the fact that Purvis and Benny’s wife had been an item.

It’s here that the movie starts in on its exciting ending, which starts with brave, young (and not too bright) Detective Ryan deciding to impersonate Mapes and try to put the squeeze on Yvonne. From there, it’s a race to the finish, which I won’t spoil here, though in a death that we see, you may be reminded of one of the more graphic scenes in Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark filmed three decades later.

Comments

I admit it, I have a soft spot for this film which at its start, combines two great American past times: baseball and rampant criminality. It packs a lot into its 67-minute run time, and doesn’t leave too much on the table. Obviously, there isn’t much in-depth character development going on, but I think that this movie shows how well-made and entertaining a B-movie can be. No, it can’t hold a candle to a truly great film noir heist movie like Asphalt Jungle, or one, like Rififi, with scenes that approach true cinematic art. But, I then compare ACR to a modern movie featuring the robbing of an armored car, Michael Mann’s Heat from 1995; the newer movie looks bloated and chock full of every crime movie cliche imaginable; I’m amazed Heat could contain the egos of its two lead actors with exploding. ACR is less intense to watch, and there are times when, indeed, this can make it more enjoyable to watch.

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New York Noir Neorealism: The Naked City (1948) and The Tattooed Stranger (1950)

Most of the early film noir classics are set, if not in Los Angeles, then someplace in southern California. Think Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Even when set a bit further afield, such as the San Francisco of The Maltese Falcon, the movies were shot in studios and backlots located in Hollywood. This isn’t very surprising–Los Angeles and its environs are sort of the default setting for movies of all types from all time periods. The movies that would much later be classified as film noir were just average studio projects made to put patrons in seats of movie theaters across the country.

The Naked City (1948) filmed entirely on location in New York, and oftentimes out in the streets, apartments, shops and offices of that great city, bucked the studio-shot trend. Where the films mentioned above evolved from an amalgamation of 1930s gangster & detective films, pulp fiction novels, and German expressionism, Naked City takes these influences and adds in a significant does of Italian neo-realism, using not only location shots, but also using some non-professional actors in supporting roles and focusing in on “ordinary” people and their stories.

None of this is new; the topic of The Naked City’s debt to films such as Rome, Open City and directors such as Vittorio de Sica has been written about by critics, writers and academics much smarter and more skilled than I. What is interesting is looking at what has become a landmark film, like The Naked City, and comparing it to a very similar film (which, from all appearances, was heavily influenced by TNC) shot just two years later, The Tattooed Stranger.

Here’s the general plot of The Naked City: A young woman is found dead in New York City; responding to the crime are a veteran homicide detective, and a young WWII veteran recently transferred over the the homicide squad. At the scene of the crime, we see a 1940s version of CSI: New York. There aren’t many clues, but they take what they have and hit the pavement. We have also witnessed, earlier, the murderer dispatching his accomplice, who’s a hopeless alcoholic. The police begin their investigation by interviewing people who knew the victim, and the places that she worked and frequented. Throughout their search, their movements are followed by the murderer. Finally, it becomes apparent that the dead woman was involved in a criminal enterprise, and that one of her accomplices is her murderer. The young detective goes on a hunch and hunts down the perp, who leads him on a foot chase through New York, and meets his end in a shootout with police.

The same plot could be used to basically describe The Tattooed Stranger. Certainly, details were changed and they are not exact carbon copies of each other (Tattooed Stranger adds in a love interest for the young detective in the investigation, and it drops complexity of burglary ring from The Naked City). The differences in the quality and ultimate impact of these movies are profound, though, as a more detailed look at each will reveal.

The Naked City was director Jules Dassin’s next to last film shot in the U.S. before he fled the country, under investigation by HUAC and, like some many others, persecuted for his political beliefs. He had a number of direction credits under his belt already, and just prior to TNC, he had directed the prison drama Brute Force, coaxing from Hume Cronyn a chilling portrait of the sadistic prison guard, Captain Munsey.

While in Brute Force Dassin is confined by the four thick, solid walls of the prison, in The Naked City, Dassin can take the action and his camera across the entire expanse of the city. We see it from the first scene of the movie, an aerial shot of the city, of the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building, taken from an airplane circling the southern tip of Manhattan.

This aerial shot is accompanied by a voice-over by the movie’s producer, Mark Hellinger (as strange as it sounds to have the producer narrate some of the film, was a famous New York city columnist, along the lines of Walter Wintchell), and is followed by a series of vignettes on city life at one in the morning–a dark and empty street in the financial district–a cleaning lady in Grand Central Station, bemoaning that the world consists of dirty feet–a typesetter for a newspaper, commenting favorably on being left alone at work–a latenight disc jockey, who’s only listener is his wife–a bunch of swells at a swinging after hours party. Only after seeing these quiet, somewhat serene scenes of the city the never sleeps, well, if not sleeping, then slumbering, we see the murder that will set the story in motion.

The opening montage sets the tone for the movie–throughout the film, Dassin will return to the technique, allowing us to see the case connected to the wider fabric of life in the city, while at the same time offering us fleeting glimpses into the lives, thoughts, troubles and desires of just a few of the city’s 8 million residents. It is the latter effect, the lying bare the lives and thoughts of his characters, which makes Dassin’s film different from our other “New York noir”, The Tattooed Stranger. Throughout the film, Dassin comes back to the voice-over and vignettes, constantly expanding the viewer’s horizon to the city as a whole.

The two lead characters of the film, Detective Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and Detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor), could easily descend into typical stereotype and flat characterization: the Irish-immigrant veteran detective who has seen just about everything the City has to offer, and the young, wet behind the ears pup just promoted from the beat. Dassin gives each extra texture, though, showing Muldoon humming to himself and making breakfast at his apartment. Particular attention is paid to young Detective Halloran’s home life, not only his young pretty wife, but his young son as well. The sequences involving Halloran at home have a very non-noir, mundane feeling to them, showing a couple dealing with the realities of new parents everywhere.

The Hallorans are, in a way, juxtaposed with another set of parents in the film, Jean Dexter’s, Mr. & Mrs. Batory (Jean changed her name on moving from rural New Jersey to New York to something less “ethnic”). We meet them as they are taken to the morgue by Muldoon and Halloran to make a positive identification of their daughter’s body. Mr. Batory (Grover Burgess), a gardener from New Jersey, has the morose silence of a man facing one of the most horrific tasks imaginable. Paula Batory (Adelaide Klein) is the exact opposite–expressive and emotional, she reveals the deep hurt that Jean had inflicted on her parents. After leaving home and changing her name, Jean rarely called and almost never saw her parents; her daughter, Mrs. Batory says, was always too concerned with living beyond her means, always ashamed of where she came from, always too selfish to think about how her actions may impact her parents.

Paula Batory’s resentment and animosity come seething through the screen. Yet they melt away in an instant, when they enter the identification room, and the nurse pulls back the sheet on Dexter’s body. Overcome with the sight of her daughter lying dead, Mrs. Batory breaks down; in that instant, Dassin gives us a glimpse of real, conflicted emotions inherent in any human relationship.

Dassin takes the action of the film throughout the streets of Manhattan, from visiting rich doctors in Midtown, to talent agents in the Bowery; from the subway out to Queens, to the teeming tenements of the Lower East Side. He gives the viewer a sense of place, a sense of continuos energy; even though the city may be crowded and teeming with life, there is always a semblance of order amidst the chaos.

Pounding the pavement and wearing out shoe leather, Halloran finally gets on the trail of the suspected murderer, a former wrestler Wille Garzah (Ted de Corsia); meanwhile, Muldoon has spent his time attacking the case from the other side, unraveling the burglary ring led by Dexter (and which employed Garzah in committing the actual crimes). Thus supplied with both a suspect and the motive, the movie careens on to a suitably exciting denoument.

The film ends with yet another montage; with the Dexter case solved, we see New York’s newspapers moving on to the next big case, the city’s people turn their attention to their summer vacations or the Yankees. It’s a brief meditation on the fleeting nature of what constitutes news, and it’s striking if only because it may be more true today–with our 24 hour news cycle, blogs galore, and 300 television stations–than it was in 1948 (time to move on to the next young, pretty, missing blonde). Yet Dassin also shows those people on whom Jean Dexter made some impression–young Jimmy Halloran, her friends, and finally, her parents, sitting on a porch in the country on a warm summer evening, miles and miles from New York, but connected to the naked city through tragedy.

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The Tattooed Stranger on the other hand, is a thoroughly conventional film noir that gives you a very different sense of New York than The Naked City. As has already been noted, its plot is suspiciously close to the one from Naked City; unlike The Naked City, though, The Tattooed Stranger has a director (Edward Montague) who’s later claim to fame would be directing episodes of the television series McHale’s Navy and a lead actor (John Mills) who would never work again.

Aside from a distinct difference in talent, the film, unlike the previous, takes place not in Manhattan for the most part, but in the outer boroughs. While the shots of the city in The Naked City are teeming with life, the streets and businesses of The Tattooed Stranger are strangely silent. It’s almost as if the action and scenery of each movie mimics the importance of the case–while in The Naked City, the murder of Jean Dexter is front page news, in Tattooed Stranger, the murder of the unnamed woman (with a Marine corps tattoo on her arm, hence the title), is relegated to an inch of column space on the inside pages of the paper, right below the crossword puzzle.

The case begins with the aforementioned tattooed woman, found dead from a shotgun blast in a car located in Central Park. Veteran Detective Corrigan (Walter Kinsella) responds to the scene, and oversees the CSI examination of the site. Back at the Homicide Bureau, he’s told that his partner on the case is a transfer to the squad–newly minted Detective Frank Tobin, who had previously worked in the NYPD technical bureau, who served as an MP during the war, and who went to college in the intervening years.

From the start, we see Corrigan’s adherence to old fashioned shoe leather detective work, while Tobin goes in for the more technical side of the case, which is rich in interesting features–the woman was killed by a shotgun blast, but not by buckshot or a slug. Instead, the murderer filled a shell with compressed sand, not wanting to leave any evidence of where he bought the ammo. Also, since there was no other damage to the car (stolen the day before), it was obvious that the woman was killed someplace else; that someplace else had its own unique features, including a strange piece of plant matter adhering to mud on the woman’s shoes.

The movie soon takes Corrigan and Tobin to the Bronx docks, where they find the tattoo artist who gave her the ink–they find her name, and the last place where she worked. They also find out that it was actually a double tattoo–she had an anchor put on first, then a time later, she had the globe added, to make the Marine Corps emblem. It soon becomes apparent, through the shoe leather side of the investigation, that she had been marrying multiple men deploying overseas during the war, and collecting their benefits when they died. (Nothing like a little insurance scam–just ask Walter Neff).

Corrigan hits the streets to flesh out this thread of the investigation, while Tobin meets a beautiful young botanist (Patricia Barry) and starts on the task of identifying the strange grass on her shoes, and where it may have come from (and hence, where the murder scene was).

As with Halloran in The Naked City, Tobin eventually tracks down the subject on his own, and goes after the criminal. The ending of The Tattooed Stranger is handled much less deftly and much more conventionally than in the earlier movie, and when it’s done, you’re left with the feeling of seeing an entertaining movie, but not a great one.

At the end of the day, that’s probably all that one can expect from a B movie like The Tattooed Stranger.  It was meant to entertain, on the cheap, and the director obviously didn’t have the aspirations (or skill) of Jules Dassin. Two movies about Manhattan, with very similar general plots–in their differences, they show the diversity of film noir, and provide a nice point-counter point to each other.

Note: One last note–the academic film noir historian Alain Silver called The Tattooed Stranger “one of the seediest films ever made” in his classic Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style.  While I certainly wouldn’t call the movie elegant, his definition of “seediest” and mine are vastly different.

Union Station (1950)

Union Station – Tough Cops, Dumb Hoods

Looking at Rudolph Mate’s Union Station–starring William Holden, Nancy Olson and Barry Fitzgerald–is a useful counterpoint to the two movies recently reviewed here, The Naked City and The Tattooed Stranger. That earlier pair of noir films show the influence that Italian neorealism had on their directors–both were not only set in New York City, but mainly shot there as well. They have a gritty authenticity about them.

Union Station on the other hand is a classic studio movie–set supposedly in Chicago’s train station, it was actually filmed in its entirety in Los Angeles, with LA’s Union Station standing in for its counterpart of the same name in the Windy City. A scene set in Chicago’s world famous Union Stockyards is actually shot in the much less known stockyards in Los Angeles.

In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with this–not all movies, especially film noir, had the budgets to be shot on location. One problem is that it’s never quite apparent why the film has to be set in Chicago rather than in Los Angeles (a feature unique to Chicago does have an important, though not irreplaceable, part in the film). Certainly, setting the movie in LA itself would have allowed Mate and his cinematographer to focus more on the architectural beauty of the Los Angeles station, instead of having to hide it behind fake latticework to evoke its Chicago sister station; of course, aesthetics probably wasn’t foremost  on the producer’s mind in making this film.

The choice as to location, though, is especially unfortunate in light of the fact that both Holden and Olson were coming off their star performances in Sunset Boulevard, one of the truly great film noir, and one that brings a taste of classic Hollywood home to the viewer. This is not to say that the movie isn’t good–just the opposite, it’s a first rate, highly entertaining film.

The movie opens with Joyce Wittecombe (Olson) taking the train home to Chicago from her employer’s summer home; while steaming through the countryside, she sees a car racing the train, stopping at a rural station just as the train arrives. Two men jump out of the car, and board the train separately, sitting apart from one another on the same Pullman coach; Joyce’s suspicions are further raised when she notices one of them carrying a gun.

Back in Chicago, the head of station security, Detective Lieutenant Calhoun (Holden), is sent to interview Joyce when her train arrives in the city. After following the men and retrieving a valise left by them in a station locker, Calhoun realizes that Lorna Murchison–the blind daughter of Wittecombe’s employer has been kidnapped. Sure enough, a ransom demand is soon sent to the father, and this brings Chicago Police Department Detective Donnelly (Fitzgerald) onto the case as well. On a side note, it’s never clear why the FBI isn’t brought in on a case that not only falls under its jurisdiction (kidnapping) and that involves a substantial ransom demand ($100,000).

The kidnapper was clever in one regard–he decided to use the station as the hub for his contact with Murcheson, as well as the place where the money drop will take place. In such a large area, with tens of thousands of people passing through every day, the kidnapper figures, no one will be able to trace his steps. Unfortunately, he was very stupid in another regard (aside from committing the crime in the first place)–he has surrounded himself with a bunch of third string, small time hoods; they seem like they’d  barely be able to run a three card monty scam, let alone a kidnapping.

The other thing that the crooks didn’t count on was the skill and tenacity of both the station and city police (Bill Holden was a star–they weren’t about to make his character an idiot). The cops blanket the station as unobtrusively as possible; the half-witted crew hired by the kidnapper are rolled up one by one. The first is pursued on the El trains to the stockyard, where during a shootout, he manages to scare some cattle into stampeding and is crushed in the onslaught–it’s one of the most unique ways to die in a film noir that this reviewer has ever seen.

The second crook is picked up by the cops in the station (thanks to some independent detective work by Joyce), and the cops work him over for information. This scene, and another later with Detective Donnelly confronting a boarding house landlord, looks like it belongs in a modern-day noir, rather than one made in 1950s. After using what the Bush administration might call “enhanced interrogation methods” on the crook, Calhoun and his men take him to the train shed, and hang him over the rail in the path of an oncoming express train. The small time crook sings, naming Joe Beacon (Lyle Bettger) as the kidnapper. These cops aren’t the clean-cut lawmen that you see in The Naked City or even The Tattooed Stranger. They’re more than a little willing to do what it takes to get the info they need, and are a little closer to the characters you’d see in L.A. Confidential.

Soon, Calhoun and Donnelly, with Joyce almost always in tow, are after Beacon and his girlfriend as they move the kidnapped girl around the city. The final drop is scheduled for the train station, and from there it’s a race to see whether Calhoun and company can both find the kidnapper and save the life of Lorna Murcheson.

All and all, Union Station is an exciting, well paced noir with above average performances from the leads, Holden and Olson, as well as members of the supporting cast, including Fitzgerald and Allene Roberts as the kidnapped girl. It’s also interesting, since the bulk of the movie, at least two thirds and nearly all of the important scenes, occur in the same place–the train station, or its immediate environs; you could almost picture it as a stage drama. At the same time, the hustle and bustle of the station gives the movie a sense of constant movement and energy that make it a highly entertaining film.

Note

The underground tunnels that play an important role in the film actually existed in Chicago–they were a subterranean freight railway system operated by the Chicago Tunnel Company. Originally built to house telephone and telegraph wires, a narrow-gauge railway was installed to bring coal and other supplies to buildings around the city. In 1992, construction workers driving a bridge piling in the Chicago River accidently breached the tunnel network, causing millions of gallons of water to inundate the basements of buildings throughout the Loop; the event became known as the Chicago Flood.

Scene of the Crime (1949)

Scene of the Crime – Why You Should Always Stick to Your Strengths

While Scene of The Crime is a stunningly average, if acceptably entertaining film noir, it is notable for being one of the few films of the genre produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and for being one of the only film noir to star Van Johnson, both known more for their war films, musicals, and romantic comedies. The rough equivalent today would probably be Tom Hanks starring in a dark, moody thriller (maybe this is why the film version of The DaVinci Code landed at the box office with such a resounding thud). At the end of the day, what SotC proves is that MGM and Johnson probably should have stuck with what they knew best, and left noir to the likes of Warner Brothers, RKO, and the poverty row studios.

The movie opens on two young lovers, hiding themselves in the shadows of a darkened street, catching one last embrace before they head home for the night. Their bliss is interrupted, however, as a confrontation between two men also on the street ends with one dead and the other hightailing it out of the area in a car driven by an accomplice. It turns out that the dead man was a police detective named Monagan, and no one–neither his captain or his ex-partner (who bounced him from the homicide beat because Monagan was showing his age and slowing down) knew what he was doing wondering down that dark street.

The only clues that his ex-partner (a detective named Conovan, played by Johnson), assigned to investigate the murder, has to go on are the recollections of that young couple–they didn’t get a good look at the perp, but they remembered that he had a large splotch on his face, and a severely twisted hand; also, the getaway car driver called the shooter “a crazy lobo”. The street also happens to be the location of an illegal gambling parlor; we find out that there have been a string of robberies of bookie joints, clip shops, and similar illegal enterprises. Needless to say, the local crime syndicate is unhappy.

So far, so fine. Sounds like a pretty standard noir setup. Unfortunately, from here on out, serious flaws appear inScene of the Crime which ultimately make it a mediocre film noir at best. First, MGM can’t seem to leave melodrama behind–the top cops think that Monagan was dirty and was pulling double duty guarding the gambling parlor; we get to see Monagan’s teenage son make an impassioned plea to Conovan to clear his father’s name. Further, we have to see Conovan’s stressed home life, where his poor wife Gloria (Arlene Dahl) continually has her dinners, movies and sleep interrupted by emergency calls to her husband. Also, she’s deathly afraid that he’ll leave one night and end up as a stiff in the morgue.

As if this bit of family drama wasn’t enough, it soon becomes apparent that the writers at MGM needed to watch a few of their competitors’ films noir in order to figure out the basic conventions of the genre. For instance, we see the local crime syndicate pick up one of the guys that they suspect has robbed them; followed by the cops, they take him to an abandoned warehouse where a bookie IDs the guy as one of the stickup men. Actually, to back up the step, before “lineup” the mobsters invite the cops in to observe. Then, once the syndicate has the man who ripped them off, they let him go without so much as a stern warning.

The absurdities and pointless melodrama pile up, one upon another, as the film proceeds. The “twist” ending sounds like it was cooked up by a five year old who couldn’t think of any other way to end his story.

Scene of the Crime should be of interest only to those trying to acquire a complete knowledge of the limited number of films noir produced by MGM. Instead, seek out the best film noir produced by that studio, The Asphalt Jungle.

Stakeout on Dope Street (1958)

The scene: a back alley somewhere in LA late one night. Two narcotics detectives have just picked up a suspect carrying a leather valise containing run-of-the-mill ladies toiletries: eau de parfum, lipstick, makeup, facial powder. Except that last can doesn’t have facial powder in it; instead, it holds two pounds of pure, uncut heroin–junk, smack, H.

Before backup can arrive, though, the drug mule’s associates ambush the threesome, killing one officer and critically wounding the other. Handcuffed to a fallen officer, the perp tosses his valise to his confederates; in the dark, trash-strewn alley, however, they can’t find it. As a backup prowl car comes screeching down the alley, the thugs put a couple of slugs in the drug mule, figuring no doubt that dead men tell no tales.

Up until now, pretty typical of a 1950s film noir; the next morning, typical noir meets typical 1950s wholesomeness as the valise is found by  Julian “Ves” Vesupucci as he is out on a delivery for his father’s grocery. Bringing the bag to the grocery’s back storeroom–where Ves and his friends Jim and Nick hang out–the trio quickly jimmy the bag’s lock, hoping to find a fortune in jewels inside. Their disappointment in finding the bag filled with beauty supplies is palpable; they figure they can get at least four or five bucks for the bag from the local pawnshop, and Jim decides to give the perfume and some of the makeup to his girlfriend, Kathy, who works the counter at the local bowling alley. With facial powder seeming less romantic than perfume, Jim leaves it in the storeroom as the trio hits the streets.

From there, the movie follows a somewhat formulaic path mixing both elements of film noir (both the cops and the criminals spread a dragnet over LA looking for the lost drugs) and teensploitation films (see Americas youth corrupted by demon drugs). Needless to say, the three friends find out from the newspapers that the valise contained two pounds of heroin, and, somewhat improbably, they recover the can after sifting through piles of garbage at the city dump. They soon decide to seize this opportunity to realize their dreams of wealth, and with the help of an ex-con junkie who works with Nick, they begin to unload the junk across the city.

As one could imagine, three teenagers and a drug-addled loser living in a tarpaper shack can’t outwit both the crime syndicate and the police forever.  Both sides of the law finally close in on the four drug entrepreneurs,  and the movie moves towards a conclusion that would warm the heart of the then recently-retired Joseph Breen. (Of course, two-thirds of the movie spends most of its time flaunting the production code openly).

 

Commentary

So ‘Stakeout on Dope Street’ isn’t the best film noir ever made; heck, it isn’t even the best film noir released in the spring of 1958 (that honor would go to ‘Touch of Evil’, which premiered a week or so before ‘Stakeout’). It does, however, have a few things that make it an interesting movie.

First off, the movie was shot on location in Los Angeles; like the best on-location noir (such as ‘The Naked City’), ‘Stakeout’ gives you a feeling of the other side of the city, aware from the bright lights and celebrities. They’re all there–nice businesses like a jewelers or a Mercedes dealership, average businesses like a grocery or bowling alley, seedy businesses like a pawnshop or a pool hall.

The realism continues as we get to know the three main characters, Ves, Jim and Nick. Nick and Ves aren’t that interesting, stereotypes in their own ways–Nick is the overbearing bodybuilder with no moral qualms; Ves is the ultimate follower, who’s just bright enough to deliver groceries for his father. Not really ‘Father Knows Best’ or ‘Leave It To Beaver’ types.

Jim is more interesting; the sensitive artist type, his dream is to use any money he makes from selling the drugs to settle down and marry his girlfriend, Kathy, and travel to Rome and Florence to learn art. Goaded on by Kathy, he’s the one with the moral qualms about dope dealing; he’s the one who feels he needs to find out first hand about the after affects of dope; he’s the one who’s the ultimate hero of the movie. He’s a beatnik without beard, bongos and goofy language; he may be rebel, but it’s in the cause of art and love.

The movie also takes a look at some of the social realities of the Eisenhower years, painting a more interesting picture than the nostalgic image that the country generally carries of that time. Kathy remarks offhand how she wishes Jim would draw a picture of her where she wasn’t nude, so her family could see it. In an extended and graphic sequence, we also hear and see Danny, the junkie they hired as their dealer, go through the pain and terror of detox.

 

Interesting trivia

This movie was the directorial debut for Irvin Kershner; 22 years later, he would go on to direct ‘Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back’. ‘Empire’ would be the highlight of Kershner’s otherwise mediocre career. The last feature film that he directed was ‘Robocop 2’ in 1990.

Mystery novelist James Ellroy picked ‘Stakeout’ as one of the movies to be broadcast on the night that he was guest programmer for Turner Classic Movies in 2007. During an interview with TCM host Robert Osborne, Ellroy stated that the movie had a special resonance for him since it was set in 1958 in Los Angeles; that was the year  when Ellroy’s mother was brutally murdered in L.A. In 2003, the book ‘Black Dahlia Avenger’ posited that  Ellroy’s mother was murdered by the same person who killed the Black Dahlia.

The soundtrack to the movie, bopping along to the cool tones of West Coast Jazz, was performed by the Hollywood Chamber Jazz Group. The soundtrack was released on LP back in the ‘50s, and can still be found on eBay. –JMD

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D.O.A. (1950)

On the run from a commitment with Paula – girlfriend/office assistant, Frank Bigelow takes a gentleman’s week away from Banning to San Francisco.

He stays at the St. Francis and runs into some swells celebrating a corporate victory in the room across from his. A guy comes in to ask to use his phone. The guy invites him out with his compatriots to an evening of nightclubbing. The guys wife starts hitting on Frank. Frank gets uncomfortable and heads for the bar and orders a drink. He takes a sip from his drink and spots a pretty girl at the end of the bar. He saunters over to chat with the lady. In the process, he asks the bartender to slide his drink over to him. Not realizing that his drink has now been switched on the bar by some mystery man.

He takes a sip of the drink and realizes there’s something not right with it and asks for a new drink. He proceeds to chat with the lady, gets her number and heads back to the hotel. Prepared to call his new lady friend, Frank returns to find a bouquet of flowers and a note of love from Paula. Frank kicks himself and tears up the phone number.

The next day Frank wakes up in pain and goes to the doctor. The doctor tells him he’s fine – until the blood work/toxicology come back in.. Now they tell him he’s a dead man – he’s got luminous poisoning. He has a day, two days, at most a week to live. In disbelief he flees from the building. Goes to Dr. #2 same story. Frank has been murdered only he’s still breathing.

In the background of this, Paula has alerted him that a gentleman has been trying desperately to reach him in Banning – the home office – but she has referred the guy to his hotel in Frisco.

So this is where the story takes off. Frank is on the hunt for his killer-the man that poisoned his drink. It leads back to Frank simply having notarized a bill of sale for some iridium. The man trying to reach Frank turns up dead, apparent suicide, but the plot thickens. The man was killed by a psychopath Chester who flung him from a window. After repeated abuse at the hands of Chester, who is the henchman of the man behind the sinister plot, Chester is disposed of by the LAPD in a drug store.

What makes this movie work is Edmond O’Brien is very believable as this man conflicted by love and a desire to be free. Even though O’Brien is not handsome enough to be believable as Cary Grant or Gregory Peck in a leading man’s roll that is his strength. O’Brien has an “every man” quality to him – he’s a bit pale, he’s a little overweight, his hair’s a little stringy but you believe he’s a man. What makes you want to watch him in this is two things – first you like a guy who doesn’t take this lying down. Frank doesn’t roll over and wait to die or play out a week long maudlin love scene with Paula. The second thing is you are attached to the character. You begin to feel his palpable desperation and you hope against hope that, despite the title, he’s not going to drop dead at the end of the movie.

As the plot unfolds you begin to get a darker sense of reality however. In this film Mate has masterfully used location shooting in San Francisco and Los Angeles to present the filmgoer with the sense that the cities are alive, especially at night. The jazz club and the chase scene with Chester and the other hoods exemplify how your location can take on a life of its own in a picture. The use of the skeletal and black Bradbury building at the end of the movie is also a master stroke reemphasizing the darkness of the moment and the complex journey that Frank has gone on just to find, and kill, one man.

The editing is fast, the volume is loud, the pace is frenzied and the viewer is left dizzied wondering where the whirlwind will end. The culmination of all of this is Frank’s final scene with Paula. In the dark shadow of his hotel, Frank and Paula say goodbye, both pretending that they don’t know it’s their last.

Much like many other noir films, it is easy to fault D.O.A. with having somewhat one-dimensional female characters. You have the trampy wife, the pretty girl at the bar, the fly-by-night whore, and of course the dutiful girlfriend. It’s not to say these parts aren’t well acted, they simply aren’t given the chance to grow teeth. Frank can rest assured in his love for Paula because the other alternatives presented are all unappealing to a degree.

What’s also of interest in this story is the function of the police. For the most part Frank does all the dirty work him self. We see the police passively listening to Frank’s story, they perfunctorily make Majaks’ goons move their car, and even at the drugstore Frank has flushed out Chester so the LAPD cop has an easy shot. In fact, after the crime is committed Frank takes matters into his own hands and becomes his own policeman, judge, jury, and executioner. — LEF