Friday, June 4, 2010

Vice Squad (Gramercy/United Artists, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually ran the 1953 United Artists movie Vice Squad, an interesting if flawed policier starring Edward G. Robinson as police captain “Barney” Barnaby, who’s simultaneously investigating a tip about a major bank robbery about to happen and trying to catch the killer of a police officer, Kellogg (William Boyett). His problems include the reluctance of his one witness to the killing, mortuary manager Jack Hartrampf (Porter Hall at his most Porter Hallness), who doesn’t want to talk because he saw the crime at 1:30 a.m. while sneaking out of the apartment of a woman other than his wife (she was away on vacation and while the cat was away, mousy little Porter Hall wanted to play … ); the source of the tip — a parolee who got re-arrested for burglary and wants the charge to disappear so he doesn’t get returned to prison as a parole violator — and a whole slew of other crimes, none of which seem to involve vice. (The movie is horrendously misnamed, but the title of the source novel, Leslie T. White’s Harness Bull, is even more incomprehensible.)

About the only connection to vice in the whole piece is one of Barnaby’s informants, Mona Ross (played by Paulette Goddard, who was still a big enough star that she got second billing, above the title, but not so big that she got much footage — she’s only in about 10 minutes or so of this 87-minute movie), who runs an “escort service” (which in 1953 meant the same thing as it does today) and through whom Barnaby hopes he can locate the robbers because some of them are in from out of town and they may have hired some of Mona’s girls. Vice Squad is a frustrating film because visually it’s a film noir masterpiece — though by 1953 the trend was to shoot on actual locations rather than try to recreate the noir cityscape inside a studio, director Arnold Laven and cinematographer Joseph Biroc create many atmospheric, half-lit chiaroscuro shots and make Vice Squad at least look like a film noir.

Alas, their efforts are not seconded by Lawrence Roman’s screenplay based on White’s novel; the film throws so many intrigues and petty crimes at us it’s hard to keep our focus on the central plot thread (when the bank robbers started driving towards their target in the van we’d seen them steal earlier, I did my Anna Russell impression and said, “Ya remember the bank robbers?”), and this is yet another film from the dog days of the original noir cycle that captures the visual look of noir but lacks its moral ambiguity (except for a bit of the Hartrampf plot line): the good guys are very, very good and the bad guys (including future “spaghetti Western” star Lee Van Cleef as, of course, one of the bank robbers) are very, very bad. By far the best story line in the film is Hartrampf’s reluctance to testify and his insistence on not speaking until his lawyer arrives (this was in the pre-Miranda days the current U.S. Supreme Court majority would probably want to return us to) — and the lawyer, Dwight Foreman (Barry Kelley), is a marvelously slimy shyster who tells Hartrampf to keep saying it was too dark out for him to get a good look at the cop-killer. Also give the writers credit for linking the two big crimes: the cop was killed by a member of the bank-robbery gang because he caught them in the process of stealing the van they needed for their getaway.

But what could have been a crackling tough thriller drenched in noir atmospherics turns out to be a fairly routine policier — the sort of thing Law and Order and its franchisees do better every week with about half the running time — and the Production Code circumlocutions needed to work in plot elements like adultery and prostitution don’t help either. Vice Squad is a perfectly nice film, and Edward G. Robinson acts with power and authority even though (as in the much better film Tight Spot he made two years later) by 1953 he was too avuncular to be as credible as a tough guy (on either side of the law) as he’d been two decades earlier. It’s just yet another one of those frustrating films that could have been better in so many ways …