Home Video Reviews
Warner's "Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 5" contains eight titles, all new to DVD, bringing the total number of titles Warner has released in these volumes to 33. Each collection has had its share of lesser-known but still great obscurities (one of the great joys of film noir is that a large percentage of movies made in the style are B films), and Volume 5 is no different, with titles like Desperate (1947) and Armored Car Robbery (1950).
Armored Car Robbery is especially satisfying -- a trim, taut, tough heist film with a 68-minute running time, directed by Richard Fleischer two years before his similarly compact masterpiece The Narrow Margin (1952) (which is already out on DVD). Here, Fleischer keeps things moving with remarkable speed as ruthless, clever bad guy Dave Purvus (William Talman) organizes -- you guessed it -- an armored car robbery with his henchmen played by Douglas Fowley, Steve Brodie and Gene Evans. The robbery happens 12 minutes into the movie; the rest covers the aftermath, because of course things go a bit wrong. For awhile the movie basically cross-cuts between the bad guys trying to hide and get away, and the cops trying to track them down; later, things get more intertwined.
That Armored Car Robbery is able to simultaneously build up intriguing character relationships in a manner far more intricate than one could reasonably expect from such a brisk low-budgeter speaks to the talent and craftsmanship of all involved. Talman, for instance, is secretly sleeping with Fowley's estranged wife Yvonne, played by the sizzling Adele Jergens as one of noir's most memorable tough dames. (Fowley's blunt take on Jergens: "She's strictly high-rent and I'm broke, but I can't forget her that easily.") And McGraw deals with the loss of his partner and the introduction of a new one in a way that is substantial and affecting despite its terseness.
The story crisscrosses Los Angeles using actual locations, such as the long-defunct Wrigley Field (a minor league ballpark in south-central L.A.), the Long Beach shipping yards, oil fields, a motel and the airport. The variety of locations -- and the speed with which they change as the story goes along -- does a lot to increase the film's excitement and scope. (It also probably explains why the film's working title was Somewhere in the City.)
But it's good old-fashioned visual storytelling that Fleischer puts to the best use. Take a look at Talman's entrance into the story. His very first shot, filmed from a low, oblique angle outside Wrigley Field, instantly makes him look menacing and tells us all we need to know about his character. A sequence in a getaway car as the men must deal with a police checkpoint is superbly edited for suspenseful effect. Fleischer and his cameraman, Guy Roe, prove equally adept at building dread in day and night scenes. A sequence at a motel in the middle of the day, for instance, is just as riveting as a final tour de force at a nighttime shipping yard. In the motel sequence, Fleischer manages to find a way to create a stunning shot from Talman's point of view, where he hides behind a car pointing his gun at the unsuspecting McGraw; the brightness of the background image (McGraw) creates a suspenseful counterpoint to the menace of the foreground image (Talman's gun).
Charles McGraw was a staple of film noir with memorable turns in The Killers (1946), The Threat (1949), Roadblock (1951), The Narrow Margin (1952) and many others, excelling equally as cops and killers. He rarely got the chance to topline a film as he does here. He blazes through Armored Car Robbery with tremendous focus and purpose, and he gets his fair share of dialogue zingers, courtesy of writers Earl Fenton and Gerald Adams. When a cop points out a bullet-hole in one of the bad guys' shirts, McGraw replies bluntly: "I see it. I put it there." When told someone in a getaway car lost a lot of blood, he says: "Not enough to suit me." That's McGraw, and that's the movie: lean, terse, to the point. (For more on McGraw, look for his biography by ace film-noir historian Alan K. Rode that was published in 2007.)
Armored Car Robbery was shot in 16 days, and the advertising emphasized the realism of the story and the police methods that are depicted in occasionally semidocumentary form. "Thrilling as Today's Headlines!" screamed the newspaper ads. The picture opened in June 1950, two weeks after The Asphalt Jungle (1950), a much bigger-budget, A-level heist drama directed by John Huston that was later nominated for four Oscars. In New York, in fact, the two pictures opened on the same day, June 8! The Asphalt Jungle is a terrific movie, but in terms of unadulterated, raw, nasty noir, Armored Car Robbery, the lower-rent entry, is even more satisfying.
The fact that Armored Car Robbery, in quintessential B-movie fashion, opened in Hollywood as the bottom half of a double bill with the slapstick comedy The Good Humor Man (1950), did not keep it from being discovered by audiences and critics alike. Variety called it "loaded with suspense and the hard, glittering sex appeal of Adele Jergens," adding that it "thematically emphasizes that crime doesn't pay when a bulldog detective like Charles McGraw is on the tail."
Warner's DVD of Armored Car Robbery is sharp and clean with excellent sound, as per usual for Warner Bros. catalogue releases. The other titles in this agreeably diverse collection are Cornered (1945), directed by Edward Dymytryk, Deadline at Dawn (1946), which is based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, Anthony Mann's Desperate (1947), the Vincent Sherman-directed mystery Backfire (1950), Dial 1119 (1950), a hostage drama starring Marshall Thompson, Phil Karlson's important semi-documentary The Phenix City Story (1955), and Don Siegel's Crime in the Streets (1956), a juvenile-delinquent tale starring John Cassavetes and Sal Mineo.
A couple of the titles come with trailers; otherwise, there are zero extras, which is a huge change from previous Warner sets. Every single title in every previous volume came with an expert commentary, not to mention further material. Undoubtedly this new bare-bones approach is the result of the current economic climate. But then every distributor has cut way down on classic-film releases altogether in the past couple of years, so we're lucky to have these films available at all.
For more information about Armored Car Robbery, visit Warner Video. To order Armored Car Robbery (it is only available as part of the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5), go to TCM Shopping.
by Jeremy Arnold