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Bunco Squad (1950), starring Robert Sterling, is a routine crime programmer from RKO Radio Pictures, featuring a dense plot full of potentially colorful characters, those on the side of the law as well as a variety of con men, grifters, and charlatans. Despite some interesting casting and situations, Bunco Squad is restricted by an unimaginative script and the low budget potboiler production values.
As the film opens, Los Angeles Detective Sgt. Steve Johnson (Robert Sterling) is showing a civic group a film that explains the sort of criminal activities he investigates as part of the Bunco Division. Phony mind-reading, séances, numerology, fortune-telling and the like cost Americans $200 million a year, and can be convenient fronts for big-time swindlers, he explains. Johnson and his partner Sgt. McManus (Douglas Fowley) are called to headquarters and learn that a major swindle has resulted in a victim committing suicide after losing his money; the pair is assigned to look into the possibility that local charlatans are in cahoots with a big-league planner. Meanwhile, con man Anthony Wells (Ricardo Cortez) has a plan for a major swindle that could net $2 Million for a small group in on the scheme. He gathers together crystal ball reader Liane Hill (Bernadene Hayes), fake Swami Drake (Robert Bice), and a "graphologist" Annie Cobb (Vivien Oakland) to form a séance racket called the "Rama Society." Their single target is the wealthy Jessica Royce (Elisabeth Risdon), who has recently lost her son Philip. Using knowledge gathered from around town about the deceased, the fakers convince Mrs. Royce that they have made contact with her departed son. Royce's secretary Barbara Madison (Marguerite Churchill) does not buy the fakery and helps Johnson with his investigation. Johnson also enlists the help of his fiancée Grace Bradshaw (Joan Dixon), a bit-part movie actress, and Dante (Harry A. Janssen), a retired magician, to try and outwit the charlatans at their own game. The investigation turns deadly when Wells and his cronies fear that they may lose their wealthy meal ticket.
Bunco Squad was based on a book, Fortuneer, by Reginald Taviner, who had also written the screen story of the similar Crime Ring (1938) earlier for RKO. While the workings of the fake mediums and fortune tellers are potentially interesting, the police investigation and the tactics of the cons are repetitive and dull. For example, there only seems to be one way that the con artists can think of to eliminate pesky investigators or victims, and that is to cut the brakes on their car and hope for a fatal plunge off of a cliffside road. After the third cable-cutting incident, the viewer is apt to think that these con artists are not very clever or imaginative after all.
Along with the Mark Robson-directed Western Roughshod (1949), Bunco Squad was one of two films Robert Sterling made at RKO in the period in which he was trying to reestablish his career following war service. The former MGM contract player returned to his old studio the following year for a notable role in Show Boat (1951). Sterling also tried his hand at nightclub work and live television, but finally found his greatest popularity when he and his real-life wife Anne Jeffreys played the free-spirited ghostly couple "the Kerbys" on the TV series Topper (1953-1955).
Bunco Squad featured the debut of Howard Hughes discovery Joan Dixon unfortunately her career stalled after a few more RKO programmers and some TV appearances. (Her role here features some of the most unrealistic behind-the-scenes action on a movie set ever attempted, as we are expected to believe that a minor actress would be allowed to take telephone calls from her boyfriend a few feet from the film crew shooting a take on a soundstage!)
Bunco Squad provided the final big-screen role for Marguerite Churchill, and her only role after having retired from the screen in 1936. She had been a leading lady of the 1930s, notably in pre-code melodramas like Girl Without a Room (1933) and Quick Millions (1931) opposite Spencer Tracy. She had also starred with John Wayne in The Big Trail (1930), and in two horror favorites, Dracula's Daughter and The Walking Dead (both 1936).
Stage performer Dante the Magician (aka Harry A. Janssen) plays himself in Bunco Squad; his only other major screen appearance was in the Laurel & Hardy comedy A-Haunting We Will Go (1942).
Producer: Lewis J. Rachmil
Director: Herbert Leeds
Screenplay: George Callahan; Reginald Taviner (novel "Fortuneer")
Cinematography: Henry Freulich
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Walter Keller
Music: Paul Sawtell
Film Editing: Desmond Marquette
Cast: Robert Sterling (Det. Sgt. Steve Johnson), Joan Dixon (Grace Bradshaw), Ricardo Cortez (Anthony Wells), Douglas Fowley (Det. Sgt. Mack McManus), Elisabeth Risdon (Jessica Royce), Marguerite Churchill (Barbara Madison), John Kellogg (Fred Reed), Bernadene Hayes (Liane), Robert Bice (Drake, aka The Swami), Vivien Oakland (Annie Cobb), Dante (Dante the Magician aka Harry A. Janssen)
by John M. Miller