Thursday, January 27, 2011

Bank Alarm (Condor/Grand National, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Bank Alarm, a 1937 production from Edward L. Alperson’s Condor company, released through Grand National (and bearing the Condor logo at the beginning and the Grand National logo at the end) and posted to with an advisement that it was about a husband-and-wife team of FBI agents (it isn’t; the co-leads, Conrad Nagel as Alan O’Connor and Eleanor Hunt as Bobbie Reynolds, are both FBI agents, they work together and end up in a romantic clinch at the end, but they’re not playing a married couple) and that it featured many of the same actors as Captain Calamity (which it doesn’t; only one actor, Vince Barnett, is in both, and he’s once again playing a comic-relief character — a hapless newspaper photographer who keeps tripping over his own tripod).

Written by future Universal and PRC horror writer Griffin Jay with David S. Levy, and directed by Louis Gasnier (who’d directed the original The Perils of Pauline in 1914 and kept working into the 1930’s on films like Reefer Madness — yet more evidence that, despite all the wild tales about Reefer Madness’s provenance, it really was a Grand National production), Bank Alarm is about a gang of unscrupulous bank robbers who are being chased by both the his-and-hers FBI agents but also by Los Angeles Police Department inspector J. C. Macy (William Thorne). The gang is headed by Joe Karlotti (Wheeler Oakman), who runs it out of the back room of his fancy nightclub, Club Karlotti (and Grand National, though an independent company, had a big enough production budget that it really looks like a lavish nightclub — and a long enough schedule so that Gasnier could work out some traveling-camera shots across the nightclub floor instead of just sticking his cameras in front of the principals and keeping them rooted to the floor), and he’s just imported a thug from out of town named Jerry Turner (Frank Milan), who shows up at the Club Karlotti posing as an aspiring screenwriter and with Alan O’Connor’s sister Kay (Wilma Francis) as his date.

Naturally, she takes his false identity at face value and has no idea her new boyfriend is really a crook — the sort of preposterous coincidence that has powered all too many movie plots throughout the history of the medium — but there’s some invention as Turner and another one of Karlotti’s gangsters plot a payroll robbery of $40,000 from a Works Progress Administration camp and work out a neat way of doing it: since the money is being held in the post office, which is also the jail being used by the county sheriff of the remote location of the work camp, they disguise themselves as vagrants, get themselves arrested, pick the lock of their cell, steal the money, then let themselves back in the cell, lock it and wait for the sheriff to release them in the morning. (The sheriff nearly discovers the plot when he decides the mattresses in the cell are too lumpy and they should be changed — the crooks are hiding the money inside the mattresses — and it looks for a moment this movie might be heading towards Ocean’s Eleven territory, but the crooks distract him and get away with the dough.)

The title comes from a robbery of the Second National Bank which the crooks pull off with another audacious stunt — they send one of their own into the bank posing as a maintenance person from the company that maintains their burglar alarm, thereby turning the alarm off at the precise time the rest of the gang is going to commit the robbery — and as if that weren’t enough, they are able to crash Macy’s office and kill both the police inspector and Overman (Wilson Benge), a witness (a bank clerk) who noticed that in addition to robbing the Second National they were also using it to launder counterfeit money through Karlotti’s business account. Eventually the gang is traced to a farm on the outskirts of town — the farmer claims to be a victim of the gang but is really part of it — and Turner lures Kay away from her brother and claims to have kidnapped her, threatening to kill her unless the feds stop going after him and the other crooks, but eventually there’s a shoot-out, the good guys live, the bad guys die and Vince Barnett once again trips over his own camera and misses the scoop of Alan and Bobbie kissing. According to the American Film Institute Catalog, this was the fourth and last in a mini-series called Federal Agent with Nagel in the lead, and in some ways it has the air of what the TV series Law and Order would have been like in the 1930’s: some pretty melodramatic plotting (especially in the sweeping reach the gang is described as having) but also a tough, unsparing and unromantic vision of what police work is like — though overall it’s a good movie but also a flat and ordinary one, completely lacking the insouciance of Captain Calamity.