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Tag Archives: Douglas Fowley

Armored Car Robbery (June 8, 1950)

Armored Car Robbery
Armored Car Robbery (1950)
Directed by Richard Fleischer
RKO Radio Pictures

Richard Fleischer’s Armored Car Robbery was originally conceived and shot with the title “Code 3,” but RKO Radio Pictures opted for extreme truth in advertising. It’s a great example of the kind of tough, no-nonsense B-noir that RKO specialized in.

Fleischer had an extraordinarily long career in Hollywood. He directed his first short in 1943, and worked throughout the 1940s making short features and short documentaries, as well as low-budget features that no one remembers, like Child of Divorce (1946) and Banjo (1947).

Fleischer worked consistently throughout the decades, and went on to make huge movies that everyone remembers, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Fantastic Voyage (1966), and Soylent Green (1973). His directorial style is hard to pin down, as are any personal or authorial touches. Fleischer made movies in practically every genre; film noir, science fiction, war movies, horror flicks, and docudramas. He made trash classics like Mandingo (1975) and the remake The Jazz Singer (1980), which starred Neil Diamond. Toward the end of his career, Fleischer made entertainingly bad movies like Amityville 3-D (1983), Conan the Destroyer (1984), and Red Sonja (1984).

Back in the 1940s, Fleischer was one of those competent, hard-working craftsmen who toiled away in the studio system and produced movies that were entertaining, but not particularly memorable. (He was the son of legendary animator Max Fleischer, who created Popeye and Betty Boop, as well as the great Superman cartoons of the early 1940s.)

The last movie Richard Fleischer directed that I reviewed was Bodyguard (1948), which starred legendary tough guy Lawrence Tierney. Because there are always more movies to watch than I can possibly make time for, I missed Fleischer’s next few flicks, The Clay Pigeon (1949), Follow Me Quietly (1949), Make Mine Laughs (1949), and Trapped (1949).

McGuire and McGraw

I almost passed on Armored Car Robbery, but I decided to give it a watch for two reasons. First, it’s a heist movie that came close on the heels of one of the greatest and most game-changing heist movies of all time, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Second, it stars granite-jawed tough guy Charles McGraw, whom Fleischer would direct again in one of my favorite noir thrillers of all time, The Narrow Margin (1952).

So I wanted to see how Armored Car Robbery stacked up against The Asphalt Jungle, and I wanted to see what Fleischer and McGraw were getting up to before they made The Narrow Margin together.

Considering its small budget and tight shooting schedule, Armored Car Robbery stacks up pretty well against The Asphalt Jungle. The heist is not nearly as detailed, but it’s believable, which is a surprisingly difficult thing to pull off.

Like Fleischer’s Bodyguard, Armored Car Robbery features a lot of location shooting in Los Angeles. For instance, the heist takes place outside Wrigley Field. (I know what you’re thinking, isn’t that in Chicago, where the Cubs play?) In Los Angeles, Wrigley Field was a ballpark that was in operation from 1925 to 1965 and demolished in 1969. It was built by the same chewing-gum magnate who build the other Wrigley Field.

The leader of the heist crew, played by William Talman, calls in a series of false reports outside Wrigley Field, then observes police response times. He puts together a string of heavies, including dependable baby-faced heavy Steve Brodie and dependable haggard-looking heavy Gene Evans, along with an oily Lothario played by Douglas Fowley.

If you’ve seen a heist movie before, you’ll know that the best laid plans often go awry. Talman is shtupping Fowley’s girl on the side, which can’t possibly turn out well. Incidentally, Fowley’s girl is played by the lovely and talented B-pictures mainstay Adele Jergens, who gets to show off her gams as a burlesque dancer. Armored Car Robbery gives her a nastier, more fun role than the one she played as a dancer in Ladies of the Chorus (1948), in which the 30-year-old Jergens played Marilyn Monroe’s mother(!).

McGraw and Jergens

After the commission of the heist, Armored Car Robbery is a tightly paced cat and mouse thriller in which the robbery crew narrowly avoids capture by the police as McGraw and his new partner track down leads. A lot of it is shot quickly and unpretentiously, but the cinematography by Guy Roe is always excellent, especially in the nighttime set-ups and the paranoia-inducing low-angle shots when the crew is beginning to unravel.

Armored Car Robbery is great entertainment, and a wonderful showcase for its dependable cast. If you’ve never seen Charles McGraw in a movie before, Narrow Margin is a great place to start, but Armored Car Robbery isn’t a bad place to start either. And it contains the memorable moment when McGraw comforts a friend whose husband has just died with three words, “Tough break, Marsha.” In his book Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy, Alan K. Rode called it “the bluntest expression of bereavement in film history.”

Armored Car Robbery will be shown on Turner Classic Movies Friday, July 10, 2015, at 12:15 PM (ET).

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Desperate (May 9, 1947)

Anthony Mann’s Desperate stars Steve Brodie (not to be confused with the other Steve Brodie) and Audrey Long (the future Mrs. Leslie Charteris) as a young married couple on the run from sinister thugs led by the glowering Raymond Burr.

Steve Randall (Brodie), the owner and sole operator of Stephen Randall Trucking, is such a sweetie that he buys flowers for his wife Anne (Long) on their four-month anniversary. (When I watched this movie with my wife, she turned to me and said, “You didn’t get me anything for our four-month anniversary.” Thanks for making the rest of us look bad, Steve.) But the happy couple’s celebration has to be postponed when Steve gets an offer he can’t refuse … $50 for just one night’s work.

When an offer sounds too good to be true, it usually is. The crew of mugs loading merchandise from a warehouse into Steve’s truck are clearly up to no good. When one of them flashes a rod, Steve balks, so they shove him back in the truck and keep the gun on him. They need a clean “face” for the cops.

When a police officer shows up to investigate, Steve signals him with his lights, which leads to a shootout between the cops and the thieves. Steve drives away. Al Radak (Larry Nunn), who has one foot on Steve’s back bumper and the other on the loading dock, falls and is captured by the police. His older brother, Walt Radak (Raymond Burr), the leader of the crew, gets away with his henchman, Reynolds (William Challee).

Walt’s crazy about his kid brother, and Al will face the death penalty for the cop who was killed during the warehouse heist. So Walt demands that Steve turn himself in to the cops and claim he was responsible. To convince him, Walt calls in Steve’s license plate number and then has his boys work him over in a dark room with a single swinging overhead light. It’s a stunning sequence, and quintessentially noir.

When Steve doesn’t give in, Walt tries a new tactic. “Say, I’ll bet that new bride of yours is pretty,” he says while holding a broken bottle. “How ’bout it Steve?”

Walt has found Steve’s Achilles’ heel, and he agrees to Walt’s plan. Walt says, “I don’t care what you tell them, but if Al doesn’t walk out of that police station by midnight, your wife ain’t gonna be so good to look at.”

But Steve manages to slip away from Reynolds and call Anne from a pay phone. He tells her to meet him at the train station. They’ll go on the lam together, so Anne will be out of Walt’s reach.

Most of the rest of the film is an extended cross-country chase, as Steve and Anne move from place to place, establish new identities for themselves, and pick up work where Steve can find it. They’re pursued not only by Walt and Reynolds, but by the authorities, since Steve is still a person of interest in the murder of the police officer at the warehouse.

Along the way they have the obligatory conversation about how he can’t turn himself in to the police because they won’t believe him. They have a second wedding on the Minnesota farm owned by Uncle Jan and Aunt Klara (Paul E. Burns and Ilka Grüning) because their first marriage was just a courthouse deal and they deserve a big gathering with a real priest. Anne finds out she’s pregnant. They are crossed up by a sleazy private investigator named Pete Lavitch (Douglas Fowley) and they are assisted by a sympathetic police detective, Lt. Louie Ferrari (Jason Robards), who’s not above using Steve as bait to catch Walt.

Desperate is not a long film (it’s less than an hour and 15 minutes), but it drags a little during its middle act, which sometimes feels repetitive. It redeems itself completely in its final act, however, which is as dark and as tense as any film noir fan could ask for. Steve insures himself for $5,000 and heads for Walt dead-on, like a man playing chicken with an oncoming freight train. Six months have passed since Al was arrested, and he’s set to be executed. Walt gave up a long time ago on the idea that his brother could be freed, and all he wants now is the satisfaction of killing Steve at the exact moment that Al dies. A life for a life.

Walt and Reynolds take Steve to an apartment. Walt places a clock on the table between them in the kitchen. It’s a quarter to midnight. He gives Steve a last meal — sandwiches and milk — and a cigarette, and promises to shoot him at the stroke of midnight. There are increasingly tight close-ups of their three sweaty faces. “Now who was it said time flies?” Walt asks sardonically.

Desperate is the first really good noir from Anthony Mann, a director whose name is now inextricable from the term “film noir,” but who started out in Hollywood making mostly musicals and comedies. Desperate is not as interesting as T-Men (1947) or as powerful as Raw Deal (1948), but it’s a well-made, well-acted, exciting thriller. Audrey Long (recently seen as Claire Trevor’s little sister in Robert Wise’s Born to Kill) is probably the weakest actor in the film, but she’s called on to do the least. Steve Brodie is an appealing protagonist. He has a pleasant face and a regular-guy demeanor, and he’s believable as a man who’s pushed too far.

The real treat in Desperate is Raymond Burr as the vicious Walt Radak. This was only Burr’s third credited appearance on film, and while I enjoyed his role as the villain in William Berke’s Code of the West (1947), Desperate plays much better to his strengths as an actor. Burr was a remarkable heavy (no offense intended, big guy), and I never stopped to consider how ludicrous Walt’s plans were while I was watching this film. Burr sells every one of his hard-boiled lines with ruthless efficiency.

Mann’s cinematographer on Desperate, George E. Diskant, deserves mention, too. While he’s perhaps not as famous as Mann’s frequent collaborator John Alton, Diskant’s photography in Desperate is beautiful — full of darkness, hard angles, and vertigo-inducing chiaroscuro constructions.

Scared to Death (Feb. 1, 1947)

Christy Cabanne’s Scared to Death is a terrible film, but I had enormous goodwill toward it after the first reel. I get that way when the front door of a house flies open in a movie to reveal Bela Lugosi and little-person actor-extraordinaire Angelo Rossitto standing on the front porch, wearing matching black suits.

If you don’t know Rossitto by name, you might recognize him by sight. He had an incredibly long career in TV and movies, stretching from 1927 to 1987. He was the quiet, dark-haired dwarf in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and Blaster’s better half, Master, in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a lot to do in Scared to Death, and the sheer awfulness of the movie ground down all my goodwill to dust by the final reel.

Scared to Death is notable for two reasons — Lugosi only appeared in three color films, and Scared to Death is the only one in which he received top billing. Also, it’s a picture that’s narrated by a dead woman on a slab in a morgue. Trust me when I tell you that neither of these things is a reason to run out and see Scared to Death.

The color process used for Scared to Death was Cinecolor, which is a two-color film process, and it just doesn’t look that good, at least in the public domain print I watched. Also, the narration by the dead woman is interesting at first, but it becomes unbearable after the first dozen or so times her corpse cuts into the action to speak its piece. Part of the problem is that the sound editing is so terrible during the transitions that the viewer will start to dread the corpse’s appearance, especially if the viewer is sensitive to loud, abrupt noises.

Scared to Death is only worth seeing if you love corny old horror-comedies or are a connoisseur of bad films. Lugosi and Rossito are always fun to watch, as is George Zucco, but everyone else in the cast is either flat or intensely grating, like Nat Pendleton, who supplies comic “relief” as the dim-witted police inspector.

Bottom line — among films narrated by a dead person, Scared to Death will never be confused with Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Don’t Fence Me In (Oct. 20, 1945)

Don’t Fence Me In is a particularly good Roy Rogers picture. Directed by John English (who with William Witney directed some of the best Republic serials of the late ’30s and early ’40s), it’s a well-paced, exciting, and thoroughly enjoyable B western.

The film opens with a western montage, accompanied by the Cole Porter song from which the film gets its title. After the credits roll, we’re treated to a cheap-looking Boot Hill set with a matte painting background that looks as if it’s about two feet away. A narrator tells us that “Once upon a time, as a matter of fact nearly forty years ago, there was a notorious western outlaw named Wildcat Kelly. He didn’t want to be fenced in either. But they stuffed him into a pine box and buried him six feet under the sod, on Boot Hill.” A masked man rises from behind Kelly’s tombstone, carrying a gun and a Wells Fargo case. The narrator, sounding surprised, says, “Wait a minute, that looks like Wildcat Kelly. It is Wildcat Kelly. There’s something mighty strange about this. I think we’d better investigate the story of Mr. Wildcat Kelly.”

And investigate we shall, but the job will fall on the pretty shoulders of a girl reporter named Toni Ames (Dale Evans). Toni has enough moxie to make an 800-pound gorilla stop dead in his tracks. When we first meet her, she’s performing the song “A Kiss Goodnight” while dancing on the table at a hot party in a big city, displaying her shapely gams to maximum effect. She’s doing it all for a story, though. A reporter for a tabloid called Spread magazine, Toni is undercover, secretly snapping shots of the party’s guest of honor, a dirty old cad named Cartwright (Andrew Tombes) who’s running for mayor as an incumbent.

The plot eventually takes Toni out west to the R Barr Dude Ranch to investigate the legend of Wildcat Kelly, who it turns out faked his own death nearly 40 years ago and has been living as a regular western Joe named “Gabby Whittaker.” He’s played by George “Gabby” Hayes, and it’s a good part for him. In a lot of these pictures, Hayes was able to just coast on his ornery persona, but Don’t Fence Me In actually gives him something to do.

Rogers plays that charming and laconic singing cowpoke character called “Roy Rogers” that he played in dozens of movies. Roy is Gabby’s friend, and the only person who knows his secret. He tries to convince Toni not to publish what she knows about Wildcat Kelly, but she goes ahead with her story, and that’s when things get interesting.

There are a group of gangsters whose motives are shadowy, but who clearly want Kelly dead once it’s revealed he is still alive. One of them is played by the great character actor Marc Lawrence, who had a very long career as a sinister-looking hood.

This is a fine showcase for all of the regulars from the ’40s Roy Rogers pictures. Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers back Rogers up both musically and when it’s time for fisticuffs. And the wonder horse Trigger does a high-stepping dance, with Rogers astride him, to an instrumental version of “Don’t Fence Me In,” and even takes a bow when he’s finished.

Roy and Dale’s relationship is more antagonistic than in many of their other pictures, but it’s still fun to watch. When she first shows up and tries to stow away in the boot of a coach, Roy tosses a hunk of stinky Limburger cheese in the back with her and takes her on a bumpy ride. She later pays him back by pushing him into a swimming pool.

Don’t Fence Me In ends with a delightful rendition of the title song performed by Roy, Dale, and the Sons of the Pioneers, with a few lines added at the beginning about Wildcat Kelly to tie the whole thing together.

Along the Navajo Trail (Sept. 15, 1945)

AlongTheNavajoTrailThere are no Navajos to be found in this run-of-the-mill Roy Rogers picture, or American Indians of any tribe, for that matter. The title comes from a popular song that was written by Dick Charles (a.k.a. Richard Charles Krieg), Larry Markes, and Edgar De Lange in 1945, and is sung by Rogers, Dale Evans, and the rest of the gang to close the picture. No, the only people of color in Along the Navajo Trail are Spanish-speaking Gypsies, who are portrayed in much the same way Mexicans were in Hollywood westerns except that they wear funny clothes, travel in wagons, and the men wear gold hoop earrings. They also provide George “Gabby” Hayes’s character with a series of comic interludes in which he attempts to cheat the Gypsies, and is in turn cheated himself. These horse trades don’t add much to the plot, but they do result in Hayes sputtering the memorable line, “I sure have gypped that gyppin’ Gypsy!”

In Along the Navajo Trail, Rogers plays a character named “Roy Rogers” who at first appears to be an itinerant cowpoke, but whom we later discover is a Deputy U.S. Marshal. Dale Evans plays a ranch owner named Lorry Alastair, and Hayes plays her foreman, Gabby Whittaker. Lorry is skittish about Rogers when he drifts onto her property, the Ladder A Ranch, and orders Gabby to run him off. She changes her tune, however, when she walks to his relocated campsite herself to kick him off her land, but he ends up singing to her under his tarp in the rain, making up a song as he goes, and asking her if she knows a girl’s name that rhymes with “Saskatoon.”

Lorry eventually finds the Deputy U.S. Marshal badge in his boot and realizes beyond a doubt that he’s one of the white hats. The black hats in Along the Navajo Trail are the representatives of the Santa Fe Drilling Company. There isn’t any oil on Lorry’s land, but the company needs to lay a pipeline through her property, and they’ll stop at nothing to do so.

Along the Navajo Trail is heavier on action than some of Rogers’s efforts, and it should please most fans of old B westerns. As usual, Rogers solves problems with haymakers and gunplay, but stops short of ever getting too bloodthirsty, since plot contrivances take care of the worst of the bad guys. The climax of the picture occurs when the final black hat loses control of his buckboard, and it flies over a cliff and he falls to his death (in the form of an especially noticeable dummy). Rogers rides to the edge of the cliff and surveys the destruction with the same look of mild disapproval one reserves for drunks puking in Dumpsters in the middle of the afternoon.

At the end of the picture, Rogers, Evans, and the rest of the cast gather to sing “Along the Navajo Trail,” and then they all live happily ever after. Or at least, their characters do. Rogers, Hayes, Evans, and Trigger would all be back exactly two Saturdays later, when Sunset in El Dorado was released into theaters.