Cast & Crew
Herbert I. Leeds
Sgt. Steve Johnson and his partner, Sgt. McManus, of the Los Angeles bunco squad, are assigned to investigate the possibility that all of the local charlatans are working for a single boss. While Steve and McManus question fortune-tellers, numerologists and tarot card readers, confidence man Anthony Wells ingratiates himself with wealthy widow Jessica Royce and her attractive secretary, Barbara Madison. After Tony learns that Jessica has been seeing Dr. Largo, a "consulting psychologist," he visits his former partner, crystal ball reader Liane Hill, and suggests that she plot with him to bilk Jessica. Liane, "graphologist" Annie Cobb and "swami" Drake, all of whom are known to Steve and McManus, join Tony and his cohort, Frederick Reed, to form the Rama Society. Tony declares Liane the group's leader and himself its silent partner, then instructs his workers to find out everything they can about Jessica's dead son Philip. After a number of anecdotes about Philip have been collected from various unsuspecting people associated with Jessica, Tony sends Reed to talk with Largo. Reed threatens to expose Largo, who he knows was once convicted of fraud under another name, unless he "advises" Jessica to visit the Rama Society. As instructed, Jessica attends a séance at the Society and is stunned to hear "Philip" talking to her, calling her by her pet name. Anxious to speak with Philip again, Jessica arranges for a private sitting the next day. Steve, meanwhile, learns that Liane, Annie and Drake have left their jobs and eventually tracks them to the Society building. After a fruitless discussion with Liane, Steve starts to leave and notices Jessica arriving for her sitting. Steve takes down Jessica's license plate number and, upon discovering her identity, goes to talk with her. To his surprise, Jessica dismisses Steve's warnings and remains firm in her support of the Society. While Steve and Jessica talk, Reed, who has followed Steve there, tampers with his brakes, causing Steve to crash as he is driving away from Jessica's house. With the sergeant momentarily out of the way, Tony orders the group to pressure Jessica to name the Society in her will as her sole beneficiary. A recuperated Steve, meanwhile, is told about Reed and Liane's past associations with Tony, and concludes that Tony is the ring leader. To trap Tony, Steve convinces his girl friend, aspiring movie actress Grace Bradshaw, to impersonate a medium and sends her to Dante, a retired magician, to be trained. Steve then travels to Kansas City to speak with Philip's best friend, Danny Bowman. Danny shows Steve the last letter Philip wrote to his mother before his wartime death, which Danny never mailed. Back in Los Angeles, after Liane convinces Jessica to change her will, a distressed Barbara tries to contact Steve. Unable to reach the sergeant, Barbara unwittingly confides in Tony her fears about the Society. Later, Barbara is killed when her car crashes, and Steve suspects murder. After Steve coerces Largo into advising Jessica to visit Grace, who is acting under the name Madame Bradshaw, Jessica is thrilled to learn about Philip's letter. Tony soon gets wind of Grace's operation and sends Drake to intimidate her. Instead, McManus and Dante beat up Drake, who rushes back to the Society and is followed by Steve. Before Steve can question them, Tony and Reed slip away and head for Dante's house. There they deduce that Grace is part of an undercover operation and take Jessica, who is having second thoughts about her will, at gunpoint, intending to kill her with another phony car accident. Steve, however, shoots Reed as he is fleeing Dante's and frees Jessica. Tony manages to jump into Jessica's car but, while being chased by Steve, loses control of the brakeless vehicle and crashes. With Tony's death, Steve is promoted to lieutenant and almost convinces Grace to marry him.
Herbert I. Leeds
Albert S. D'agostino
Walter E. Keller
John E. Pommer
Lewis J. Rachmil
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
According to a Los Angeles Daily News news item, this film is based on a book by Reginald Taviner entitled Fortuneer, and on the film Crime Ring, a 1938 RKO release for which Taviner wrote a screen story. (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.0872). All other sources, however, list Taviner's story for Bunco Squad as "unpublished." It is not known if Taviner wrote additional material specifically for Bunco Squad. The Los Angeles Daily News item also noted that the film incorporated "material from recent files of a Los Angeles bunco squad." Bunco Squad was the first theatrical film that Herbert I. Leeds directed after a two-year stint as a television director. Dante was a famous real-life magician. The 1938 film Crime Ring was directed by Leslie Goodwins and starred Allan Lane and Frances Mercer.