Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Trailer Tuesday: ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (1950)

ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (1950) Directed by: Richard Fleischer.
Written by: Earl Felton and Gerald Drayson Adams.
Starring: Charles McGraw, Adele Jergens, William Talman, Don McGuire, Steve Brodie, Gene Evans.
Produced by: Herman Schlom.
Cinematography by: Guy Roe
Music by: C. Bakaleinikoff.

A couple of years ago at Noir City Hollywood they showed a restored version of a film called ARMORED CAR ROBBERY which featured the director and star of NARROW MARGIN, plus - to keep my movie connection string at the time going - William Talman from PERRY MASON. Afterwards I watched one of the FALCON movies that co-starred Barbara Hale who played Della Street. The “movie connection string” is a strange thing that I noticed happening by accident - I would see a film starring someone, and the very next film I saw would also star them... or maybe it would be movies that shared the same character actor in a supporting role. But random movies would have connections, and ARMORED CAR ROBBERY seemed to be the link between two other films due to Talman. But the film was amazing, so besides the random connection between films, it’s well worth exploring.

ARMORED CAR is like a 1950s version of Michael Mann’s HEAT, including a big end chase and shootout which takes place at LAX airport... probably before those letters meant anything. It packs a lot of story into a its brief running time and has plenty of twists and turns! One of those “lost” crime films that deserves to be discovered... especially by fans on the Mann movie.

Talman plays master criminal Dave Purvis who has never been caught because he is ultra cautious - he cuts the labels out of all of his clothes and meticulously plans his heists. He has no criminal record, not even a parking ticket. Perfectly clean as far as the police are concerned - almost a ghost. He changes motels every night - harder for the police to find him. He has contingency plans for every possible thing that can go wrong, and is ready to pull off the big one: He's going to knock over an armored truck at a baseball stadium - over half a million bucks.

The movie opens at Los Angeles City Hall’s police dispatch division as someone calls in a robbery in progress at Wrigley Field baseball stadium, and - because director Richard Fliescher’s previous film, TRAPPED, was a procedural about the Treasury Department, here we also get a procedural feel - and go from the emergency operator and follow the information card on a conveyor belt to the dispatchers, who call patrol cars and detectives... Including our lead Lt. Jim Cordell (the always gruff Charles McGraw) and his partner Lt. Philips (James Flavin).

At the baseball stadium, Purvis waits with a stopwatch, timing the police response time. When Cordell and Philips arrive, Purvis studies them - his opponents - and then hops in a cab, headed to a strip club. Cordell tells Philips that this is just another false alarm - the city has been getting a lot of them over the past week... they don’t know that these have all been part of Purvis’ “study” to find the best place to hit the armored truck. Like in HEAT - this film keeps putting these two opponents at the same location - it’s all about this cop and this crook.

At the Strip Club, Yvonne LeDoux (Adele Jergens) is dancing on stage as Benny McBride (Douglas Fowley) watches... and Purvis sits next to him. Yvonne is Benny’s estranged wife, and he wants to get back with her... but she is seeing some other guy. Benny needs money to win her back, so that makes him perfect for Purvis’ heist team. McBride brings along hot-headed get away driver Al Mapes (Steve Brodie - Mitchum’s double crossing partner in OUT OF THE PAST and the father of the director of my TREACHEROUS film) and another stick up artist Ace Foster (Gene Evens - from Sam Fuller’s STEEL HELMET). Purvis gives McBride his new phone number at his next motel, tells him to memorize it - never write things down. But as soon as Purvis leaves, McBride writes the number down in a matchbook. This is a story about intelligent people who plan ahead - and McBride is a loser.

Twist: That other dude who is sleeping with Yvonne the stripper? McBride’s estranged wife? Purvis. Who plans to kill McBride... maybe during the robbery. He is stealing the cash from an armored truck, and stealing his partner’s wife! And part of that plan involves “accidentally” shooting his partner. We are 7 minutes into the film, and all of this has happened! This movie doesn’t have any slow spots!

The planning scene is cool - the rolling window shade in Purvis old hotel room has the plans and map drawn on it, he pulls it down and the heist team goes over the plan. The reason for taking the armored car at the baseball field is that it’s one of the last stops - it’ll be loaded down with cash - and the police response time was slowest there. They have 3 minutes to pull the heist - if there’s money left on the truck they leave it. The plan comes before the money - what good is an extra thousand bucks if the police catch you... or kill you? You must be able to leave any extra cash behind, the same way that Purvis is willing to leave all of his clothes behind in the room if the cops knock on the door.
(Doesn't DeNiro talk about this in HEAT?)

(12:00 minutes into the movie.) The Robbery: The team is dressed like laborers. Mapes has the getaway car across the street idling. Ace pulls up directly behind the armored truck in an old clunker which stalls. Purvis and McBride go over to see if they can help. The two Armored Guards return from the baseball stadium with bags of money and unlock the back doors of the armored truck...

Wham! Ace sets off a smoke grenade under the hood of the clunker which covers the back of the armored truck in dense fog. The team puts on gas masks, knock out the guards and start transferring bags of money into the getaway car as Purvis starts his stop watch.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Someone calls the police. The card goes down the conveyor belt...

But Cordell and Philips are cruising in their car nearby - another false alarm? They get to the baseball stadium long before the three minutes are up, and there’s a big street shoot out that begins around 14:40 minute mark. (Like the shoot out after the bank robbery in HEAT.)

Purvis shoots Philips, Cordell shoots McBride... saving Purvis the trouble. But McBride is still alive - wounded. The robbers climb into the getaway car and Mapes speeds off. Cordell jumps into his unmarked car and roars after them.

We get a great car chase and moving shoot out through the streets of Los Angeles. Purvis shatters the rear window of their getaway car and shoves his pistol through the hole, firing at Cordell. Mapes pulls around a truck backing up and Cordell isn’t as lucky - crashing his police car. He immediately calls in the make and model and license number and an ambulance for his partner... and we see the inner workings of the police department again as they handle the information.

Hospital: Philips is dead. Cordell talks to the widow (Anne Nagel), and there’s a big emotional scene about how they were both Philips’ partners - day and night.

Then Cordell meets his new partner, rookie detective Danny Ryan (Don McGuire) and he’s no Philips. Just some punk kid who got promoted. Nobody does gruff like McGraw - he has the least sympathetic delivery of any actor in crime films and makes Clint Eastwood seem like a soap opera star. This is what makes him perfect for movies like this and ROADBLOCK because you don’t need to establish that he doesn’t give a damn about his new partner and you don’t need to have a long scene about how much he cared about Philips - he can speak *one* line about how Philips was his partner and it’s so different from his gruff default mode that it’s emotional.

Cordell and Ryan hear a radio report that the robbers dumped the getaway car under a bridge, and they drive out to the scene where a CSI Team is searching for clues. Smudged prints, gas masks and painter’s clothes - no clues. But somebody lost a lot of blood, just not enough to make Cordell happy. They are doing plaster molds of the tire prints of the new car they have switched to. Again, the procedural elements in this movie are great - this was decades before CSI hit CBS, but we get to see how a crime scene is actually processed for clues and information.

Meanwhile, McBride is bleeding like crazy in the new car... and ahead there’s a roadblock. All of the robbers are dressed in hard hats and work clothes - and look like a bunch of guys going to work at the docks. Mapes gets nervous about the road block ahead and tries to turn around, but a motorcycle cop cuts them off - they must go through the police checkpoint. This requires that McBride act as if he isn’t bleeding to death, and that they cover up the blood. All kinds of suspense in this scene as McBride keeps passing out... and a cop searches the interior of the car - around the bleeding McBride, then they can’t get the car to start for a very tense moment.

But they get through the checkpoint and are home free...

When one of the cops notices there’s blood on his leg. Where did that come from?

A motorcycle cop and a pair in a police car chase after the robbers... but the robbers evade them with some great driving by Mapes. One of the great things about this movie is that they probably didn’t have the money for big shoot outs and big car chases - it was a B crime movie, so they focus on suspense (which is basically free) and just when you think that the robbers have gotten away - TWIST - something goes wrong and we get a short piece of (low cost) action. There are no slow spots - it’s densely plotted and manages to uses suspense to keep it exciting without blowing the budget.

Now the police have a new search area - the harbor area - and Cordell and Ryan head to that division’s police station... where the Insurance Guy for the Armored Car Company shows up and wants to help... and Cordell tells him to get the heck out of his sight. He’s such a teddy bear.

Meanwhile the robbers are hiding in a dockside warehouse... where McBride realizes that he is dying. Purvis refuses to get him a doctor, and McBride pulls a gun - so Purvis kills him. Brutal. He shoots a dying man. If you thought Cordell was basically emotionless, Purvis tops him in this scene. What’s cool here is that McBride was supposed to be killed in the robbery, but by keeping him alive (and bleeding) the story uses him to create suspense and this brutal scene.

Ace puts the body in their car and drives it off the edge of the pier while Mapes stays with Purvis - afraid of a double cross. A guy who would kill a dying man would also just take off with the money. Purvis tells Mapes that McBride’s wife gets McBride’s cut... then beats up Mapes. Just for fun. Actually, I don’t think Purvis does anything for fun - this was to show Mapes who is the Alpha Male - so that Mapes doesn’t double cross him later. Everything with Purvis is calculated.

(31:30) Bad luck, as a pair of patrolling cops come upon the sinking car with McBride’s corpse in it moments before it’s about to vanish under water. They call it into dispatch, and Cordell and Ryan overhear it on the radio and ask for the make and model of the sinking car... it matches the basic information they have from the tire prints. What are the odds?

At the pier, Cordell and Ryan check the tire tracks against their plaster cast of the new getaway car - and it’s a perfect match. Ryan drives and Cordell stands on the running board of their unmarked car and they follow the tire tracks through the dark, spooky warehouse area. What makes this great is Cordell hanging onto the outside of the unmarked police car as it creeps through the industrial alleys - keeping his eyes on the tire tracks. It seems dangerous and like an action scene... and is an original way to “follow the trail” to find the badguys.

Another great HEAT type moment as Purvis, Ace and Mapes leave their hide out... and almost bump into Cordell and Ryan! They hide behind some equipment. And there’s a tense scene as Cordell, Ryan and the uniform cops search the area where Purvis and the robbers are hiding - it’s like a game of hide and seek. Purvis and the robbers must be super quiet as they move from spot to spot moments before Cordell and the cops moves to search the spot where they just were. Another great scene that builds suspense on a low budget - lots of close calls!

Purvis gets his gun ready and tells the others that they have to make a run for it - one at a time - to the boat at the next pier that is waiting to take them to Mexico. Mapes goes first and gets to the boat, but Ace loses his footing as he runs and trips - making a sound loud enough to attract Cordell and the cops! They chase after Ace and shoot him... Mapes hears the shots, starts the boat and gets the hell out of there. Cordell and the cops race to the pier and shoot at the boat, but it gets away. While they are shooting at the boat, Purvis sneaks away with the suitcase full of cash from the robbery. Was this his plan all along?

(36:00) A newspaper fills the screen, the robbery is the headline. When the newspaper vendor lowers the paper it exposes the Strip Club... as Yvonne leaves work. Great shot! We follow her into an all night diner, where she spots... Purvis. She heads to a phone booth on one side of the diner, Purvis heads to a phone booth on the other side of the diner. “How does it feel to be a free woman?” he asks her. “Just the same.” They arrange to meet at the new Motel - she has memorized all of the information that her now-dead husband couldn’t remember. She smiles at him through the phone booth window as she leaves - it’s a promise of things to come.

Valley Motor Court Motel. Yvonne and Purvis lock lips, then he pops open the suitcase full of stolen money. He warns her that due to her husband’s untimely death, the police will show up to question her - and coaches her on how to act. Also says that they can not see each other until it’s time for them to split the country.

(40:00) Cordell and Ryan look over McBride’s rap sheet - no shortage of arrests and convictions. Ace’s rap sheet - the same. And both men knew another convicted armed robbery get away driver named Mapes - and they look at his rap sheet. That’s 3 out of the 4 gang members, and Mapes and the unknown suspect are in the wind... and Cordell (being a complete hard ass) tells Ryan that these three are just stupid stick up men and Ryan shouldn’t care about them. It’s the Fourth Man who is important. He was the planner. He is the man they need to get off the street.

At McBride’s Apartment - while waiting for the fingerprint crew to show up - Cordell and Ryan do a search and question the landlady, who says that McBride had three friends over a couple of times during the last week. They find a framed photo of Yvonne and Ryan volunteers to check it out with modeling and talent agencies. She’s hot and Ryan *does* have time for women in his life. Cordell is poking around and notices something - asks the landlady what happened to the window shade? Stolen? That’s odd. Then Cordell finds the matchbook with Purvis’ new phone number. He dials the number... “Valley Motor Court.”

Valley Motor Court Motel. Cordell and Ryan drive up and go into the manager’s office...
As Purvis packs in his room, ready to go to the next place. He looks out the window and sees the unmarked car!
The Manager leads the Detectives to Purvis’ room!
Purvis grabs the suitcase full of money and hops out the back window just as the Manager knocks at the door!
Cordell tells the Manager to use his pass key. They enter the motel room and Cordell sees all of the packed clothes.
Purvis tries to get away, but Ryan is next to the unmarked car... blocking the exit. Purvis is trapped! He pulls out his gun and hides behind a car parked in a carport, just as Cordell and the Manager step out of the room - only a few feel away!
Purvis waits until Cordell goes back inside to continue searching the motel room and then slips away... leaving everything he owns behind, except for the money.

Another very tense suspense scene where Cordell and Purvis are within spitting distance of each other, which makes us focus on the HEAT-like cop vs. robber element of the story. It’s these two men in a chess match using guns - each trying to outsmart the other. Lots of tension in a scene with guns but no gunplay... just the threat of a shoot out erupting if Cordell spots Purvis.

Back at the police station: The CSI Lab Guy tells Cordell the height, weight, and other information about Purvis from the clothes they found in his room - and the hair on his comb that was left behind. There’s also some lipstick on one of the shirts - and it’s analyzed. A theatrical brand not available in retail stores. They now have a good description of the Fourth Man. That’s when Ryan calls with the name of the dame in the picture - Yvonne, a stripper (“You ought to see her in her work clothes”) and she’s McBride’s wife... er, widow. Cordell wonders if the theatrical lipstick may have come from the stripper.

(46:45) The Strip Club. Cordell and Ryan go to question Yvonne... but she’s working. “There she is, with bells on.” “Very few bells.” They decide to watch the show until she’s free... Ryan enjoys watching, Cordell thinks this is just a waste of time.

Outside, a man’s silhouette is looking at the poster of Yvonne. Purvis? No, Mapes! He enters the club... walking right past Cordell and Ryan to find a seat up front.

Cordell and Ryan spot Mapes and split up in order to box him in. Suspense builds as Cordell gets to Mape’s row and sits to his right... and Ryan sits to his left. Mapes knows something is up and tries to split, but Ryan pulls down his coat - binding his arms, and Cordell grabs Mapes’ gun from the shoulder holster.

At the police station: They question Mapes... Cordell wants him to fry for killing Philips. They bring in one of the Armored Truck Guards who I.D.s Mapes as the getaway driver. Oh, and they have his fingerprints from McBride’s apartment (more CSI procedural authenticity - in crime fiction the procedural subgenre is all about the actual procedures used in solving crimes - from CSI’s blood spatter charts to Ed McBain’s novels filled with police reports and crime scene sketches). Mapes says he was the getaway driver, but didn’t kill Philips - that was Dave Purvis. The Fourth Man. Also Yvonne’s boyfriend... why else would he brutally kill McBride but want to give money to the widow? But Mapes has no idea how to find Purvis. He has no convictions, no arrests, nothing. Purvis is a ghost - his name might not even be Purvis, who knows?

Ryan follows Yvonne in hopes that she leads them to Purvis.
They bug her dressing room at the strip club.
They bug her car.

(53:00) The Strip Club. Ryan reports to Cordell: “She comes in, hangs up her coat, puts on her make up, takes off her clothes.”
“How do you know that?”
“The zipper makes a noise.”

Then they overhear her telling the club owner that she is quitting... as of tonight. They are going to lose her! So Cordell sends Ryan undercover as Mapes to press Yvonne to contact Purvis so that he can get his cut. Has she ever met Mapes? What if she knows what he looks like? (This is a great suspense builder - it turns a meeting into a potential for danger.) “What do we got to lose? Only me.” Cordell is worried that the kid might suffer the same fate as his previous partner, who Purvis killed... but he doesn’t show it. What might be a whole scene in some other movie is just a glance from Charles McGraw that tells us he cares about the kid.

(55:30) In that all night diner: Yvonne sits alone at a table... and Ryan sits next to her, says he’s a friend of Dave Purvis... named Mapes. Ryan plays the role - roughing her up a little. Demanding that she get in touch with Purvis so that he can get his cut of the dough. Really convincing.

But guess who walks through the doors?

Like DeNiro’s character in HEAT who lives by: "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner" - and then can’t leave without Amy Brenneman’s bookstore clerk, Purvis leaves all of his clothes in the motel room... but can’t leave Yvonne.

Purvis goes to the phone booth on one side of the diner - as he did before. Yvonne tells Ryan that she will call Purvis so that he can get his money, and goes to the phone booth on the other side of the diner. Ryan insists on standing outside the phone booth and listening in, so that she can’t double cross him. Great suspense because we know that Purvis has seen Ryan and knows that he isn’t Mapes. Purvis says on the phone, “That guy’s not Mapes, it’s a cop.” Will she show it and blow it? She keeps her head. He tells her to stall him until he can get away, then she should run out the back door - there may be cops out front. She keeps talking, even though Purvis has hung up and left the diner.

She hangs up and tells Ryan that Purvis wants to talk to him. When Ryan gets into the phone booth next to her, she slams him, closes the door trapping him inside, and runs out the back door.

There’s a foot chase outside as she runs to her car, but Ryan catches up with her. Catches her. Prevents her from escaping. Good news!
Then Purvis jams a gun in Ryan’s back. Bad news!

Purvis takes Ryan’s gun and tells him to get into the front passenger seat. Yvonne gets behind the wheel, Purvis sits in the backseat behind Ryan - keeping his gun jammed against the cop’s neck.

In front of the diner, Cordell and another cop hear Yvonne’s car start up... and Cordell gets in the unmarked car with the receiver and they follow. They hear Ryan ask Purvis where they are going... and Cordell and the other cop follow after Ryan mentions the traffic on Figeroua Street.

Ryan is doing a great job of slipping in the street names so that Cordell can follow, but Purvis doesn’t trust Ryan - knocks him unconscious - and decides to find another car - the police know what Yvonne’s car looks like.

Cordell has lost them... and maybe gotten Ryan killed.

They pull into a lumber yard and Purvis and Yvonne get out of the car. Purvis tells her to find a cab - they are going to the Los Angeles airport where he has a plane chartered. Ryan hears all of this - he is not really unconscious. He waits until Purvis and Yvonne aren’t looking and then Ryan tries to run... but Purvis shoots him in the back! As Purvis gets ready to shoot Ryan in the head to finish him off... a police car creeps by a street away. Purvis can’t shoot without attracting attention... so he and Yvonne run. Find a cab, and head to the airport.

One of the things I like about how this story works is that things go wrong - which creates suspense and plot twists. Ryan would be dead if it weren’t for that police car creeping past. The police car isn’t some random accident - they are searching for Yvonne’s car in this area. But every time either Cordell or Purvis gets a step ahead, something goes wrong and the balance changes. Nothing ever goes wrong because a character is stupid and makes a mistake, these two men are experts at their jobs. It’s the things that they can’t control that go wrong.

Ryan - dying - crawls back to the car, climbs inside, gets next to the bug and says his name and location - the lumber yard. Cordell hears it and they head to the lumber yard...

They enter the lumber yard with guns drawn - they don’t know if Purvis is waiting for them, if this is a trap. Then they spot Ryan unconscious in the car and Cordell runs to him - and speaks to him softly, gently cradling him. McGraw still sounds as if he was gargling with gravel between takes, but just by not barking orders he sounds more emotional. Ryan tells him that Purvis and the girl have gone to the airport, where they have a chartered plane.

Cordell calls an ambulance for Ryan and then gets in his car and races to the airport. Just like Pacino in HEAT - someone he cares about may be heading to the hospital, but the crook is getting away! He has priorities. He radios in to have all private planes kept on the ground.

Purvis and Yvonne get into the private plane, the engines fire up, and they head to the runway... when the tower radios them to stay put. Purvis pulls his gun and tells the pilot that he only takes order from Purvis. The plane gets back on the runway - ready to take off. But the tower radios that there is another plane *landing* on that runway! The pilot stops the plane at the end of the runway... and then they hear the police sirens.

Cordell has arrived.

Purvis grabs the suitcase full of money and bails out of the plane, running like crazy down the runway.

Cordell rolls out of his police car and fires at him - and Purvis returns fire... then keeps running down the runway.

Where that plane that is landing runs over him and smashes him flat - busting open the suitcase full of money so that all of the cash flutters in the wind.

We end with Cordell visiting Ryan at the hospital, and the two men have become friends and partners.

ARMORED CAR ROBBERY is like a predecessor for Mann’s HEAT, and I wonder if he saw it before he did his TV movie L.A. TAKEDOWN (1989) - which HEAT is almost a remake of. Though the print of ARMORED CAR ROBBERY was a restored version, heck - these are the kinds of movies that I used to watch on the Late Late Movie at 1am, and maybe Michael Mann did, too. These are so many parallels that it seems impossible that he hadn’t seen it.

But even without the HEAT parallels, this film is a great little crime flick with a cat and mouse game between McGraw and Tallman through Los Angeles that brings to the surface how each treats their partners, with lots of great procedural stuff on both sides, from planting bugs and doing tire casts and showing how a 911 call (yeah, it wasn't called that at the time) goes from operator to dispatcher; to methods for crooks to contact each other and how to get past police road blocks. Oh, and there's a stripper! We will probably look at some more films from this director in the future, because he not only mad a bunch of great low budget crime films in the 50s, he directed FANTASTIC VOYAGE and 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA and MR. MAJESTYK and SOYLENT GREEN and CONAN THE DESTROYER. The most amazing career for a director you may never have heard of!

- Bill

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