Armored Car Robbery (1950): Wrigley Field L.A. Noir

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Armored Car Robbery instantly had my rapt attention in part because of its location shooting and due to one place in particular. We start out at L.A. City Hall and soon a shooting and a robbery are being called in from nearby Wrigley Field, which sends Lt. Cordell (Charles McGraw) and his partner out to respond.

It proves to be a false alarm but the setting alone might throw some contemporary audiences for a loop. After all, Wrigley Field is synonymous with the ivy-laden bricks of Chicago, not Los Angeles.

Except L.A. enthusiasts might know that the area once held a Wrigley Field of its own, formerly the home of the original Los Angeles Angels expansion team in 1961. It also served as the backdrop in many classics including Meet John Doe and Pride of the Yankees. Added to that list is Armored Car Robbery, although it only uses a facade of the stadium, which could just have easily been a studio set.

Aside from always being fascinated by time capsule moments — Wrigley Field was all but demolished in 1963 — I had always heard talk of my Grandma growing up down the street in Los Angeles. She was born in L.A. County and her family ran a grocery store in the area. I don’t have much of a picture of that world and so even a brief image like the one provided here gives me a glimpse into yesteryear. But I digress.

Richard Fleischer’s heist noir is an obvious precursor to The Killing for its stadium locale and the ever necessary complications that begin to present themselves in due time. What good is a heist if it doesn’t go completely haywire?

Because of its limited time, Armored Car Robbery spends minutes on the preparations and the actual execution of the job. But the trick is, it’s all so efficient, we are never allowed time to get bored by the usual rhythms. Still, all the information is there for us to be brought into the crime.

Generally known as defense attorney Hamilton Burger on Perry Mason,  William Talman gives a far more insidious turn as a meticulous criminal obsessive about keeping a low profile and tying up every loose end so he can pull off the perfect crime. What’s more, he’s secretly got a bite on his accomplice’s girl, a heartlessly opportunistic blonde bombshell (Adele Jergens).

By night she’s got the entire male populous ogling. By day, she’s looking pretty, hanging around the bar, and getting miffed with her husband (Douglas Fowley), who can’t seem to make any dough. Hence her convenient extramarital operations. Dave Purvis is the man for her, taking charge of two other thugs as they set their sights on $200,000 of cold hard cash.

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But there’s always a slip-up. There can hardly be a heist genre without the wrench that causes everything to hurtle out of control. As it turns out, Lt. Cordell (Charles McGraw) and his partner are on the beat, responding to the subsequent distress call at Wrigley immediately. The culprits aren’t expecting it, and the ensuing shootout leaves one of the officer’s dead in the line of duty and one of the gangsters badly injured. Soon the alarm has been raised with roadblocks set out everywhere and the police force on high alert for the four fugitives.

For the rest of the film, Cordell must live with this galling injustice, stewing day and night in his own distraughtness and copious amounts of lukewarm coffee. First, jaded by the untimely murder of his partner and then saddled with a wet-behind-the-ears replacement (Don McGuire). Although the new recruit nevertheless proves to have a certain amount of gumption when it counts.

The film employs a low-budget airport terminal ending — one of the few times it lets slip its meager means — but the film goes for the narrative jugular. We see precursors to the likes of The Big Combo, The Killing, and even Bullitt. On multiple occasions, it’s not at all squeamish about letting the bullets fly and the death toll rises as a result. And it’s this disregard for the sanctity of life that gives the narrative real heft. No one is protected and there we have grounds for a thrilling drama.

These kinds of stories are awesome pulp classics with a stripped-down punchiness that’s instantly gratifying. RKO was such a wonderful studio in this regard for giving us such raw delights. They don’t make them like this anymore.  We waste too much time.

While not completely related, one should note RKO is the only of the major classic studios that completely folded. Those were the good old days. But all good things must come to an end. Wrigley got demolished. Actors die. Studios close down. That’s why cinematic memorials are often so important. They allow us to journey back into the past.

4/5 Stars

Park Row (1952)

Park_Row_FilmPoster.jpegIt’s no secret that Sam Fuller cut his teeth in the journalism trade at the ripe young age of 18 (give or take a year) and so Park Row is not just another delicious B picture from one of the best, it’s a passion project memorializing the trade that he revered so dearly.

It’s also his typical style of economical filmmaking, shot in only two weeks and clocking in at just over 80 minutes and also funded on his own dime. To show just how much this movie meant to him he wrote, directed, and produced it. It was, of course, a monumental flop at the box office (despite an opening at Grauman’s Chinese). Still, that type of result could never quell a maverick like Fuller always prone to be a bit of a loose cannon who nevertheless perennially released a string of enduringly interesting projects. Consider a lineup of pictures including Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets, Park Row, and Pickup on South Street from 1951 to 1953 and you get the idea.

In some ways, Park Row seems like an invariably different film than its compatriots, very unlike Fuller, and yet it still gives off glimpses of Fuller’s style and sentiments.

The year is 1886. An industry has been developed and honed out of the invention and tradition of the likes of Johannes Gutenberg and Ben Franklin. The names of Horace Greeley and Joseph Pulitzer are as good as gold and the hub of that honorable profession, known to the masses as journalism, is based in Park Row.

Phineas Mitchell portrayed by Gene Evans–Fuller’s favorite brawny everyman–is a reporter at The Star, the publication that has a bit of a monopoly run by the icy empress Charity Hackett (Mary Welch). As he badmouths the very same newspaper at the local watering hole, he subsequently finds himself relieved of his position along with a couple of his colleagues.

But together, with the help of an eager benefactor they set out to craft their own newspaper. As envisioned by Mitchell, The Globe will be a paper for the people, devoted to honest to goodness journalism beholden to the facts. And in the subsequent days they take an abandoned office space, build a ragtag team, fix up a printing press, and scrounge around for any type of paper they can get their hands on. What they lack in resources they make up for with grit and determination. Because they have something Charity never had–verve and ingenuity. It sets their little paper apart and the public takes note.

Thus, the film’s entire narrative captures the ensuing journalistic feud between the established paper The Star and their rising rival The Globe. The main conflict coming from the very fact that their business models and mission statements are diametrically opposed.

Led by Mitchell, The Globe finds compelling cover stories to reel in the public. First, it’s a rallying cry for a man sent to prison for illegally jumping 120 stories off the Brooklyn Bridge and living to tell about it. They become his voice, interceding on his behalf and people listen. Next, it’s a public fund to help pay for the base of The Statue of Liberty–that symbol of goodwill, friendship, and ultimately, American liberty and idealism. Every member of the community, no matter the contribution, gets their name printed in the paper out of gratitude.

Still, Ms. Hackett is not about to be outplayed and while she admires her competitor’s tenacity, she is ready to resort to any means necessary to sink them for good. She tries all number of tactics, some more destructive than she ever anticipated. And while she might not be the most virtuous individual she’s hardly a killer. Mitchell hates her guts, rightfully so but that’s not how she wants to be known. There’s some nuance in their relationship, in fact, there’s a great deal of appeal to many of these relationships because they’re brimming with life.

Some noticeable hallmarks of Park Row include Sam Fuller’s typically dynamic camera that moves rapidly into close-ups and tracking shots gliding down the long avenues of Park Row with its horse-drawn carriages, train tracks, and the general hubbub of humanity. There are the accustomary fistfights and explosions, but the film stands out among Fuller’s other narratives for its championing of virtue, honor, and integrity especially in relation to a profession like journalism. It would have been so easy for this to be another expose of lurid sleaze and corruption and yet it’s surprisingly laudatory to the very end.

3.5/5 Stars

Shock Corridor (1963)

shockcorridor1“This long corridor is the magic highway to the Pulitzer Prize” – Johnny Barrett

Being a jack of all trades, producer, director, screenwriter extraordinaire Sam Fuller also had a stint as a journalist. Therein lies his obvious stake in Shock Corridor, a film that looks frightening on paper, and is even more eye-opening in execution. True, this is not an altogether realistic film, but that’s what makes it such a stirring portrayal. It dives into the darkened recesses of a sanitarium showing us things we don’t want to believe. They probably weren’t all true, but there’s still that shred of doubt. We’ve seen enough One Flew of the Cuckoo’s Nest and read enough horror stories to know better. Fuller plays off that fear which intrigues us as much as it alarms.

Investigative journalist Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) can see it now. If he infiltrates a mental institution he can dig up the truth on a murder case that occurred behind closed doors and was quickly hushed up. Such a piece of detective work could earn him the Pulitzer Prize easily, and the tantalizing prospect is too good to resist. His girlfriend played by Constance Towers pleads with him to back out, because she wants no part of the plan.

But he teams up with his editor Swannee and Psychiatrist Dr. Fong to cook up a backstory the people in charge will buy. Barrett gets coached in how to act and respond to every question. It’s a potential long shot, but just like that, they buy his sordid story of obsession with his sister thanks to a performance by Cathy. He’s in.

shockcorridor3Behind the pearly gates, there are brawls galore and noisy neighbors riddled with all sorts of neurosis, quirks, and ticks. There are the good cop and bad cop who help care for the patients and keep them at bay. Johnny even begins to have hallucinations of his girlfriend drifting through his dreams. He gets introduced to hydrotherapy, dance therapy, and even faces a traumatizing experience at the hands of women in the female ward.

All the while, he is sniffing around for any information on the man named Sloan who was killed with a knife by a man in white pants. He makes his rounds questioning three different witnesses and amid their idiosyncrasies, they give him bits and pieces of fact. However, their own mental capabilities are clouded by traumatic war experiences, racist ramblings, and fear of impending nuclear war.

shockcorridor2The boisterous, tumultuous chaos of the ward does almost become maddening, even to the viewer. Johnny has a few angry outbursts of his own as the strain of the facility gets to him more and more every day. Electric shock therapy among the other treatments leaves him mixed-up, confused, and overtly paranoid. He’s hardly the man we met in that office so many days ago and even if he got the scoop he was looking for, at what cost? Shock Corridor has a thunderously disconcerting ending worthy of a Fuller production.

From casting Philip Ahn as a knowledgeable psychiatrist to the absurdity of an African-American obsessed with the KKK and Pro-White sentiment, Fuller once again does a lot on the racial front. He manages to represents Asians in a positive light and the character of Wilkes points to the still inherently twisted nature of southern white supremacists, even after the advent of such legislation as Brown v. Board.  Thus, once more he gives us a sensationalized story with a surprising amount of depth to it. No doubt he had a soft spot for journalism since that’s what he made his living off of at one time. But Shock Corridor implies that there is such a thing as crossing the line. It’s the utter extreme, but it’s cautionary nonetheless.

3.5/5 Stars

The Steel Helmet (1951)

steelhelmet1“What a fouled-up outfit I got myself into” – Sgt. Zack

Samuel Fuller always had an eye for the visually dynamic and a nose for controversy. His war picture The Steel Helmet was at the forefront of films about the Korean War, in fact, it was probably the first.

Despite, being shot in a few solitary days in California, he somehow managed to develop a generally atmospheric terrain overflowing with fog of war and overgrown with foliage. It’s an unsentimental, gritty, sweaty storyline. In other words, it’s very Fuller and its cynical lead is Gene Evans as the thick-headed Sergeant Zack weighed down by war-induced pessimism. He’s got a bullet hole in his helmet to prove it. He’s been good enough to last through this game of survival of the fittest thus far, and he hopes to keep it that way.

Zack picks up a peppy young South Korean, the original “Short Round,” and the sergeant reluctantly allows him to tag along as he continues his pilgrimage. Next, comes the African-American medic Corporal Thomson, who like Zack was the sole survivor of his unit. In the forest depths, they run into a band of soldiers led by the experienced Lt. Driscoll. Although Zack wants nothing to do with them, he agrees to stick around after they get pinned down by a couple snipers.

Their mission: to set up an observation post at a nearby Buddhist temple.  However, the road ahead includes booby traps and other menacing perils of war. They have one of their hated “gooks” waiting for them, and he causes some havoc before being captured. However, perhaps more insidiously he tries to undermine the men by going after Thompson and the “Buddha head” Nisei vet named Tanaka (Richard Loo). The wily enemy, in perfect English mind you, notes the hypocrisy of an American society where African-Americans can die on the battlefield, but then only get to sit on the back of a bus. He then suggests how he and Tanaka have a great  more in common, aside from their eyes, especially since the American government put Japanese-Americans in Internment camps

steelhelmet2But the old WWII vet simply acknowledges the facts and retorts with his own piece of trivia. In the all Japanese-American regiment the 442nd 3,000 Nisei “idiots” got the purple heart for bravery. All he knows is that he’s an American no matter how he’s treated. That doesn’t change. Once more Fuller delivers some of the most engaging portrayals of Asian characters ever and the discussions of race relations were way ahead of their time. Both Richard Loo and James Edwards are honorable characters who hardly fall into any common stereotype.

After staving off this psychological warfare, the band calls in an artillery barrage on some nearby snipers. But soon the enemy is swarming them and it’s a wildly thrashing, blasting battle to the death.  The fight scenes are sheer chaotic madness, but then again isn’t that what war often escalates to? It just doesn’t make sense. Billows of smoky haze engulfing the war zone. Whirrs, bangs, explosions, and every other sound imaginable except silence. That comes when the bodies are dead and strewn all over the battlefield. In truth, silver stars mean very little when you’re just trying to survive.

Fuller was prophetic by suggesting that there is no end to this story. He was right. It went on for a couple more years and ended in a cease-fire that still continues between North and South Korea to this day. He’s also one of the great economical filmmakers where less is most certainly more. What a stroke of brilliance that he could use a weeks time, the grounds of The Griffith Observatory, and a few minor actors and extras to create such a fascinating film.

4/5 Stars