Richard Fleischer, over the course of his very long career, delivered a number of indelible classics to the movie-going public in every imaginable genre from science fiction to musicals to fantasy scoring hit after hit after classic movie hit. But given my predilection for a meaty crime drama, it should be no surprise that my absolute favorite work from his impressive filmography are the hard-boiled noirs that he directed in the late 40s and 50s. His best-known noir is probably 1952’s The Narrow Margin, starring noir staples Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor, but two years earlier, Fleisher teamed the rock-jawed, gravel-voiced McGraw with the other essential B-movie goddess, Adele Jergens, in Armored Car Robbery. James Ellroy thinks this film is bloody brilliant, and brother, so do I. Certainly, the no-nonsense direction that will make The Narrow Margin such a terse, fast-moving ride is well in evidence here.
Like The Narrow Margin, Armored Car Robbery is a sparse, tightly-directed crime picture brimming over with sex and violence and suspense and hard-boiled characters as straightforward and direct as the title suggests. Charles McGraw is such a great movie tough-guy cop, I never understood why nobody ever tapped him for one or two of those Dick Tracy B-movies. He even has the comic-strip detective’s trademark hawkish nose and jutting jaw! He certainly makes the most out of his role as L.A. police lieutenant Jim Cordell, blowing a two-dimensional character up to pulp-novel (dare I say Dick Tracy-esque?) proportions, and even though the story itself is nothing too imaginative, its hard-driving grit wouldn’t seem out of place in Chet Gould’s long-running crime comic, at that. Of course, McGraw did his time on the other side of the law, too, in earlier noirs like The Killers, where he teamed up with William Conrad to erase that poor son-of-a-gun The Swede, but I always liked him better as a cop than as a hood. In Armored Car Robbery, the rather dull dialogue that McGraw is saddled with just seems to sparkle when it’s snapped out by that sandpaper voice of his, adding an extra bit of rush to an already fast-paced production.
Of course, nobody would want to rush past the luscious Adele Jergens as Yvonne LeDoux, a.k.a. Mrs. Benny McBride, a.k.a. Trouble, sashaying her way through a gloriously mild strip-tease number, so the movie pauses the story just long enough for us to appreciate Miss Jergens’s charms. As it happens, Adele Jergens started out in showbiz as a Rockette, quickly becoming crowned ‘Number One Showgirl in New York City,’ and she makes these brief modest scenes sizzle. Not as much as the filmmakers would have liked, maybe; you see, Yvonne is just the kind of easy, sleazy female character that used to make those creeps at the Hays office get their rosaries all in a tangle. So for purposes of screen modesty, those quite considerable aforementioned charms remain safely under wraps and out of reach. When we’ve seen all of Adele that we’re going to, and nuts to that, pallie, we can turn our attention to her cuckolded husband Benny (Douglas Fowley), who sleazily leers at her from the audience the way a hungry dog might eyeball a bit of prime steak.
See, as it is known far and wide by all, and especially by fans of the noir genre, dames like Mrs. McBride do not come on the cheap. These being the conditions that prevail, Benny is out to cash in on a big score so that he might be in a position to properly woo his wife out of the arms of the unknown interloper in the commonly accepted method, that is, with cash on the line. But she’s poison, as curvy glamorous dolls with long shapely legs tend to be in noir-world. Still, Benny is perhaps not seeing things as clearly as he might be if he were not dazzled by Mrs. McBride’s attributes, which are for the record a most respectable blonde 34-24-36. Unfaithful thought she may be, those are the kind of curves that’ll rattle your nerves, and Benny’s still carrying a torch. Which he would no doubt use to set fire to the skunk who’s been poaching his pulchritudinous doll, provided that he could ever lay hands on him. Slick gangster Dave Purvis enters the picture, played by William Talman, who’d go on to star in one of the defining classics of the noir genre as the psychopath serial killer Emmett Meyers in Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker before getting on the right side of the law as District Attorney Hamilton Burger on TV’s Perry Mason. Purvis, who imagines himself to be a kind of criminal mastermind type, has a meticulously planned robbery lined up, an armored car heist worth half a million dollars, plotted out with a detailed diagram and involving a trick exploding car and gas masks and all such as that, as all really good half-million dollar robberies should. It’s one of the charms of a life of movie crime – planning the caper can almost be more fun than actually pulling it off.
But plan as they might, it’s just not enough (is it ever, really?) and the robbery goes awry, as merticulously-planned robberies tend to in noir-world, and Purvis finds himself on the run with the gang, pursued by Cordell. A bit of bad luck throws off the heist’s clockwork execution, but Purvis’s biggest mistake is killing Lt. Cordell’s partner. The hoodlums manage to escape with the loot, but now it’s personal for Cordell. He’s real broken up about his partner”s death, as you can see when he takes a short break from his investigation to stop off at the hospital and sit awkwardly with his partner’s widow for a minute or two so that he can comfort her in the best way he knows how: “Tough break, Marsha.”
Jim Cordell has no time for the mushy stuff – he’s got killer crooks to round up, and the tough cop casts his net far and wide to catch the would-be mastermind and make him pay. Backing Cordell up is his new partner, baby-faced rookie Don McGuire, who found more success behind the camera than in front of it (his screenplay for the Dustin Hoffman comedy Tootsie scored him an Oscar nomination). As Cordell keeps the pressure on and investigates every clue, no matter how small, members of the gang begin to crack under the pressure. So Purvis decides to pull the mother of all double-crosses, keeping all the loot for himself. As you can probably guess, it doesn’t work out for him.
Based on an actual true crime, in the way that Hollywood usually tells true stories, which is to say very loosely, the movie zips along far too quickly (67 minutes!) to ever get tedious. And once or twice we return to the enticing Adele as she shakes her moneymaker – but the scenes, like her act, is more tease than anything else. Thanks to the economical storytelling, we spend more time gawking at burly men in suits gawking at her while tersely talking out of the sides of their mouths than we do gawking at Adele’s shapely legs. Because of the rapid-fire action and quick succession of twists, there’s just no time to linger. Shame, though – as Cordell’s freshly minted partner wistfully observes, “That’s a lot of woman!”
Well… Some guys might go for her.