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‘Armored Car Robbery’ literally makes a quick getaway

‘Armored Car Robbery’ literally makes a quick getaway

Armored Car Robbery

Directed by Richard Fleischer
Written by Earl Felton, Gerald Drayson Adams et al.
U.S.A., 1950

The subject of a common argument amongst film lovers pertains to a given movie’s length. Was the movie too short, too long or just the right length? The easy answer is, naturally, that it depends on the film and what story the screenwriter and director want to tell. Said easy answer is but an open door to many other directly related questions, the most crucial being ‘How well do the screenwriters and director go about telling said story during the specified running time?’ That is where the real debate lies. Movie A required more time to flesh out character arcs, to which one can reply that, on the contrary, movie A is long enough as is. The shorter the film, the more economical the creators must be, although if done right, lean and mean can feel perfect. For instance, Armored Car Robbery, the 1950 Richard Fleischer directed film, is, believe it or not, a scant 68 minutes. It definitely has the ‘lean’ down pat, but how ‘mean’ is it?

Los Angeles, City of Angels, is the setting for this chase film. Dave Purvis (William Talman), a cocky, wise, experienced thief of large bounties, has planned the robbery of an armored vehicle transporting at least half a million dollars which shall soon make a pit stop at Wrigley Field (not the one in Chicago, apparently) before reaching its final destination. His team is a tiny unit, with Benny McBride (Douglas Fowley) and Al Mapes (Steve Brodie) being his closest associates in the caper. Little does Benny know however that his wife, the showgirl Yvonne (Adele Jergens), is cheating behind his back with non other than the leader of the operation, Dave. The plot does not go as planned given that the cops are tipped off, with Lt. Kim Cordell (Charles Mcgraw) and his partner quickly making their way to the stadium and opening fire on the fleeing robbers. The latter gladly fire back, killing Cordell’s partner in the process before eventually escaping the premise. Cordell, a stocky, tough individual, makes it his personal duty to catch the culprits, now guilty of both robbery and murder of a policeman. Thus begins a tactical cat and mouse game, wherein Lt. Cordell and Dave Purvis, depending on who believes to be possessing the upper hand, take on the role of the cat.

Whether there ever was a longer original version to the script or not remains a mystery. Suffice to say, the end result is a film which kicks along at the speed of a bullet. Side plots are kept to a bare minimum, as are the number of influential supporting characters. Director Fleischer keeps Armored extremely focused on exactly what the general plot synopsis is about, that is, Lt. Cordell’s desperate attempt to nab killer and thief Dave Purvis as well as the latter’s ever evolving strategies in eluding the protagonist. For a film to work on that premise alone in less than even 1 1/4 hours, every individual scene is therefore obligated to convey exactly what is necessary and, whenever possible, develop a sense of character, yet of course never use up too many scenes in the character development department. To say that said objective is tricky is an understatement.

This review shall not argue that Armored is a masterfully woven piece of compelling, thought-provoking drama since, as lazy as it might appear as an argument, the filmmakers simply do not award their film enough time to accomplish such a feat. Nevertheless, it does manages to touch on at least a few interesting nerves, therefore lending itself a degree, small as it may be, of emotional integrity and heft. Arguably the most noticeable is the recurring repetition of Cordell’s partners’ lives being put in immediate danger and suffering as a consequence. Cordell is a focused lieutenant, not one to dance around a subject matter, conveying a powerful sense of presence. He is not, however, so shy as to not show an emotional side despite certain difficulties in finding the right words to say. A brilliant example of this comes when he visits the wife of his deceased partner at the hospital just after learning of the latter’s passing. His partner was also a friend, meaning that he knew his wife. The mixture of shame (for failing to protect his now dead friend whose wife he knows personally), empathy and sadness when trying to explain to her what the death means not only for him, but for her as well, is very well played. Soon thereafter Cordell is dealt a new partner, a younger man named Danny Ryan (Don McGuire), whose life is also on the line whilst in Dave Purvis’s clutches during the final stretch of the film. Cordell remains focused on catching up with the villain, which is the primary objective, but it is clear enough to understand that there is concern for Danny. Here is an officer in deep trouble, but also another partner. One more death could be more than Cordell can take. Had the movie played on this idea more fully, say, by having Danny fall into Dave’s trap earlier, then the emotional gravitas of the plot point would be even more satisfying. As it stands, the idea is certainly there on paper, with the direction and acting doing enough to make the point clear, only that far too little time is allocated to reap greater benefits which could have been.

For the most part however, the script cuts as much fat as possible. Early scenes indicate how slippery the chief antagonist is, seeing how he is in a relationship with the wife of his closest ally, with plans to eventually dispatch Benny and live happily with Yvonne. Once the robbery actually occurs, the film is a series of close calls as Cordell and his new partner Danny are continuously closing in on Dave without ever snatching him until the final moments. The scenes evolve rapidly, but thankfully not to the extent that they fail to give a sense of danger. There is a nifty scene occurring under darkness at a loading dock which offers some solid action, and the climax itself is rather exciting as well. Seasoned noir viewers shall catch glimpses of unexpectedly graphic violence, the highlight being when Dave decides to part ways with the fatally wounded Benny, shooting him dead. Benny falls to the ground, with the picture frame resting for a good a second or two on Benny’s face, his wide open, indicating the undeniable pain and shock he suffered in his last moments on Earth.

While the supporting cast members are serviceable for the most part, the two leads are strong, if not exceptional. Charles McGraw makes for a compelling protagonist, if mostly for his screen presence. The man clearly looked like he could play a tough guy, hence seeing him play the hero, in a sense, reassures the viewer that the protagonist is someone who is absolutely ready to grind it out till the end if need be. He can fight the good fight and obliterate the enemy in the process if need be. William Talman is a different story yet no less impressive. While not owning the compelling physicality of his opposite, Talman oozes his way comfortably into the role of a dangerous and sneaky rat. He is an actor one can easily envision playing a real cool cat, a smooth talker on whom the audience can rely for a good time. Those qualities of his do in fact play a part in Armored, only that here he is a villain, oftentimes a downright nasty one at that. He uses his charm to convince people to align themselves with him, much like a con artist would his or he victims. The surprise is that, unlike a typical con artist, Dave is more than willing to get rid of someone, permanently, if they become a burden.

Armored is a decent enough thriller, offering viewers a couple of very stimulating scenes and two high caliber performances. The remainder of the picture is perfectly fine, but never reaches beyond that adequate if not particularly impressive level of quality. It is not essential viewing by any stretch of the imagination, although some might get a kick out it.

-Edgar Chaput