Friday, May 11, 2018

Noir Watch: Armored Car Robbery (1950)

Watched:  05/10/2018
Format:  Amazon Streaming
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1950's

It will surprise you that a movie entitled Armored Car Robbery (1950) is, indeed, about the robbery of an armored car and the fallout of that same robbery.

In almost all respects it's a classic heist picture - thugs planning a heist, attempting heist.  Cops in pursuit.  On it's surface, probably something you'd skip over as it's got no star power and an on-the-nose name.

I watched this one mostly because (a) it was short and (b) because it seems to get mentioned a lot and I was curious as to why.  The Amazon streaming description is as follows:

A well-planned robbery goes awry, with tough cop Cordell in pursuit.
Everything you've always wanted in a movie.

Well, it didn't have any robots, apes, Ida Lupino or space ships, so...  we'll agree that at least the first sentence is accurate and call it a day. 

I like a good mid-century heist flick, and it would be interesting would be to pair this film with The Killing or The Asphalt Jungle.

Armored Car Robbery also follows the goings on with a band of heisters, and like the other two movies, the heist doesn't go terribly well, especially in the aftermath.  People get injured unexpectedly, the plan isn't air tight. They don't have the money at the film's end.  That's almost a necessity under the Hayes Code.  I can't imagine a film of the era where a heist goes well and crooks walk off with the dough/ jewels/ what have you.*

The film is more of a B-picture than the John Huston directed Asphalt Jungle which appeared in 1950 as well, but what's interesting about Armored Car Robbery is it either sets or polishes up the template for so many movies that would follow, from the partner-killed-by-the-heisters making our cop a guy with a vendetta, to the dogged chase for the crooks using the latest technologies.

Charles McGraw plays Cordell, a gravelly voiced tough guy cop in the Dick Tracy mold.  He's all nerves and contained emotion - which you wouldn't figure McGraw for, but that he's capable of pulling off.  His conversation with the widow of his slain partner - killed during the titular robbery - turns into the widow comforting a guy who isn't used to using his words when it comes to feelings.

The plot is fairly simple - a gang is put together to rob an armored car at the end of its collection route at a local ballpark.  The gang has timed out the job and sorted out how to pull it off with precision.  McGraw and his partner answer the call to the robbery and walk right into a shoot out.

Meanwhile the ringleader had been making time with one of his teammate's estranged wives, a burlesque dancer (gotta get the folks in the theater somehow, and one can ponder the death of this sort of unironic burlesque show). 

The heist DOES go awry, and McGraw's partner dies.  A new partner (a total horndog who can't keep his eyes on the job) is assigned.  They pursue. 

The direction by Robert Fleischer is kinetic, from staging to line delivery to actual motion of vehicles and people on the move.  Fleischer is the son of one of the animation-studio Fleishers, and I'd argue he brought all the right lessons with him to live-action film.  Keep it exciting, give the viewer something to work with all the time. 

McGraw is still a couple years out from Narrow Margin, but he's getting to where he'd be there - the lantern jawed guy with the boy scout innards fully present. 

And our villain, played by William Talman, is written as a somewhat brilliant criminal for a guy pulling scores rather than getting into white collar crime.  You'll recognize him but not be able to place him (Perry Mason reruns) - and plays his "unassuming guy" bit to his advantage - coming to life as a sociopathic shark with the drop of a hat.

I dug the actual heist idea.  It's not as crazy as the one described in the Parker novel Slayground (which involves an ill-got landmine), but it feels buyable and way less messy than the one in Criss-Cross

It's hard to ignore the similarities in the finales of Armored Car Robbery and The Killing, right down to some similar imagery, The Killing giving a far more sympathetic view to the crooks' plight.  I mean, The Killing is probably the more solid movie from a narrative and visual standpoint (early Kubrick) with better characters, but it's questionable if we would have made the leap there without this movie as a light to point the way.

All in all, it's a pretty solid hour+ of movie, and when it shows again this summer on Noir Alley, it'll be worth tuning in for.

*The Thomas Crown Affair seems like a good example of when Hollywood was comfortable showing crooks to be both at least a bit sympathetic and capable of pulling off their plans without ending up dead (spoilers).

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