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.
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.