“Tough break, Marsha.”
The heist movie is a subset of film noir that rewards brevity. The characters in these films are professionals, articulate men who find success in choosing their actions and their words carefully. Mere seconds can mean the difference between the take of a lifetime and a lifetime behind bars. As such, the best heist movies are often the ones in which the filmmakers mirror these lean attributes. Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing is 85 minutes. Both The Italian Job and Reservoir Dogs are a slim 99 minutes. Even Drive, a film characterized by its visual bombast, comes in at 100 minutes.
Then there’s Armored Car Robbery, perhaps the leanest and meanest the genre ever produced. At a taut 67 minutes, the film stands out for its minimalist approach to action and its ability to coerce memorable scenes from a premise that was already becoming clichéd by the 1950s. There are no fresh ideas to be found here, but rather an appreciation for the craft, and the visceral excitement of seeing men with guns chase each other through the streets of Los Angeles.
A brawny policeman named Cordell (Charles McGraw) tries to nab a criminal named Purvis (William Talman) after the latter stole from an armored car and killed Cordell’s partner. As one can probably infer, there are lots of moments where Cordell is acting tough and scolding other cops for not getting results. There are also lots of moments where Purvis is acting slimy and saying things like “No loose ends baby!” while waving a pistol in the air. They’re caricatures of their given profession, walking embodiments of lawman and loser, but the performances of McGraw and Talman are so riveting that they manage to elevate their pulpy material.
McGraw was the closest we ever got to a real life Mike Hammer. Like the fictional shamus, he was a hulking man whose mere presence carried the threat of violence, and whose allegiance couldn’t be won over by women or cheap flash. As a henchman, he was the unstoppable force who pummeled heroes like Dennis O’Keefe (T-Men, Raw Deal) and Ricardo Montalban (Border Incident) until they gunned him down. He rarely ever made it to the final reel.
Armored Car Robbery was the first time McGraw played against type, and seeing him try to hide his steely ferocity under a badge gives his Cordell a unique tension. It feels as though he could crack at any moment, and unleash a mean streak that would make the criminals he’s after look like punk teenagers. He doesn’t show mercy to his enemy, nor does he mince words with his friends. After learning that his partner was killed, he consoles the widow with almost frivolous detachment: “Tough break, Marsha.” He has a mission to carry out, and little to no time to take stock of his emotions.
Talman, who carries the criminal portions of the film, provides a similarly exciting turn. He takes the character of Purvis and colors him with tedious little bits that distinguish from the average crook. He insists that his flunkies never write anything down. He tears the tags off his shirts, and fancies himself a sharp dresser when he’s not planning million dollar heists. The script, penned by Gerald Drayson Adams and Earl Felton, never allows us to root for Purvis, but Talman is so gleefully bad, so smitten with what he does, that one can’t help but feel a bit of sorrow when his plans go awry. Talman would continue to hone his mean streak with films like City That Never Sleeps and The Hitch-Hiker, playing men so similar they could have been Purvis’ relatives.
Beyond capturing the actors, Richard Fleischer directs as though his storyboards were culled from building schematics. He moves the camera with precision and clarity, particularly during the scenes where Purvis and his crew are hiding out. Rather than a series of rapid cuts, a standoff culminates with a single take of a gun being picked up, fired, and then panning down to reveal a dead body. It is compact storytelling at its finest, and a prime example of how Fleischer was able to condense so much into an hour.
The director also shows off his talent for staging when Cordell visits Purvis’ home. He places Cordell in the top left corner of the frame, suspiciously looking over the parking garage, while Purvis lurks in the bottom right, hiding behind a car and waiting to pounce. That the teased confrontation doesn’t happen here only escalates our desire to get to the finale, and Fleischer is smart enough to exploit this desire. He would go on to revisit the film’s best pieces, including the clever staging and the casting of McGraw, for his next release, the B-movie masterpiece The Narrow Margin.
Armored Car Robbery was recently featured on the TCM series Noir Alley, and its reputation has grown over the years, but its influence on the genre as a whole still goes undiscussed. Along with The Asphalt Jungle, which was released during the same month in 1950, Armored Car Robbery helped normalize the heist as a kind of film noir that catered to action fans and suspense fans alike. Genre clichés have only gotten worse with time, but the colorful performances and direction still make this heist worth seeing. B
TRIVIA: Armored Car Robbery was often shown as the bottom-half of a double feature with another unique film noir, The Good Humor Man.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir specialist and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.