Friday, March 11, 2016

Man in the Vault (Batjac Productions/RKO, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles a movie he’d recently downloaded, Man in the Vault, along with a couple of shorts, a 1952 NBC-TV show called The Magic Clown whose sponsor, the Bonomo candy company (they were a subsidiary of something called Gold Medal Candy and they made mostly Turkish taffy and peanut brittle), integrated their product pitches so smoothly into the program it would have been virtually impossible to edit them out again (it was obviously a kids’ show, the sort that Mad magazine and Laugh-In so viciously parodied) and In the Suburbs, a 20-minute 1950’s production that was actually an infomercial for Redbook magazine, obviously pitched to Redbook’s prospective advertisers, that established Redbook as “the magazine of young adults,” back when “young adults” didn’t mean what it does now (teenagers) but people in their 20’s and early 30’s who had just bought their first house (in the suburbs, of course!) and were starting to have kids. Man in the Vault was part of the detritus of RKO Radio Pictures in its later years, a 1956 crime “B” co-produced with John Wayne’s Batjac Productions (and it ended up with a modern-day Paramount logo in front of it because Wayne’s heirs sold the Batjac catalog to Paramount after Wayne’s death), though Wayne did not take an executive producer credit (today a star of his magnitude insists on some sort of producer credit for any project he or she even breathes on!) and it really has nothing to do with the sort of filmmaking Wayne was famous for.

About Wayne’s only creative input into the film was picking the director, Andrew V. McLaglen, son of actor (and frequent Wayne co-star) Victor McLaglen and the person who has the interesting distinction of directing more episodes of the Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel TV series than anyone else. Man in the Vault was written by Burt Kennedy (who’d later become a director himself, specializing in Westerns) from a novel by Frank Gruber — this was at a time when the people who had formerly written for pulp magazines were placing similar novel-length stories with cheap paperback publishers like Crown and offering them as “paperback originals” — and it’s the sort of movie you think you’ve seen before even if you haven’t. It’s basically the old chestnut of the innocent, naïve young man embroiled in a web of crime; the innocent young man is Tommy Dancer (William Campbell), who works as a locksmith at Grover’s Lock and Key on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. This was at a time when location filming was becoming easier and film crews could shoot on actual city streets instead of painstakingly built re-creations on the studio backlot. According to, there was a real Grover’s Lock and Key there and the filmmakers used the real storefront instead of building one as a set — though this doesn’t explain why, to play a lock-shop owner with an Anglo name, they hired David Leonard and let him do the stereotyped Jewish accent. Anyway, Our Hero (sort of) is playing at a bowling alley (it’s La Cienaga, owned by Art Linkletter, and towards the end of the film there’s a big shot of the outside sign with Linkletter’s name prominently displayed) when he’s accosted by a crook named Willis Trent (Berry Kroeger, who in the official credits lost the first “e” in his last name), who wants to hire him to open a footlocker. Tommy takes the job — and when he shows up at Trent’s house he gets introduced to the full-tilt criminal underworld, including Trent’s girlfriend (Nancy Duke) — that’s how she’s identified on the cast list — as well as Betty Turner (Karen Sharpe) and Flo Randall (Anita Ekberg, four years before she became an international sensation in La Dolce Vita — imagine, everyone in this film just one degree of separation from Fellini!).

Trent’s real ambition in all this is to get Tommy to sneak into a bank and make two keys for a safety-deposit box so Trent can steal its contents from its rightful owner, Paul De Camp (James Seay) — though we’re told in the dialogue that De Camp aced Trent out of the illegal gambling business in L.A. and therefore we’re not supposed to have sympathy for either of them. While all this is going on Tommy starts dating Betty even though she’s ordinarily a gold-digger who gets presents from her rich admirers, including a Cadillac and a fur stole (back when furs were considered a status symbol instead of a symbol of animal abuse); they go on innocent outings like a drive to the grounds of the Hollywood Bowl and they’re sufficiently drawn to each other that Trent and his “enforcer” Louie (Mike Mazurki, clearly recognizable even though quite a bit more bloated than he was in his greatest performance, as Moose Malloy in Murder, My Sweet 12 years earlier, when both he and RKO were seeing better days) finally get the reluctant Tommy to participate in the scheme by threatening to beat up Betty’s face if he doesn’t. The plan is Tommy will rent a safe deposit box of his own in that bank and that will give him access to the vault where the boxes are kept, so he can insert blank keys in the target box and later make duplicates — and there are some nice suspense scenes over whether Tommy will be able to do this without either the woman bank official in charge of the room where the boxes are kept, a security guard or another customer catching him — only Tommy is persuaded by yet another crook in his current circle of “friends” to steal the contents of De Camp’s box, which is $200,000 in cash, instead of turning it over to Trent for a measly $5,000 reward. Trent and Louie respond by taking Betty hostage and once again threatening either to burn her face or kill her outright if Tommy doesn’t give them the money, and there’s an exciting final shoot-out in the bowling alley in which the baddies try to flush Tommy out by rolling bowling balls down the alleys in hopes of crushing him and forcing him to come out of his hiding place so they can shoot him.

The alley is still using pin spotters who set up the pins between bowls by hand — I’m sure automatic pin spotters existed by 1956 but at the end the fact that the pins are still being set by hand is an important plot point — and as the pin spotter Batjac hired Pedro Gonzalez Gonzales. He’d had his 15 minutes of fame on Groucho Marx’s quiz show You Bet Your Life in 1953 — where Groucho had predictably found his double last name irresistibly amusing — and at one point he even tells Tommy he’s on his way to appear on TV — “You bet your life!” he says, whereupon Tommy asks him what’s the name of the show he’s going to be on and Pedro answers, “You Bet Your Life!” The big problems with Man in the Vault (which I had expected to be the old chestnut of someone getting locked in a bank vault instead of the old innocent-guy-involved-in-crime chestnut) are the director, the leading actor and the overall familiarity of the story. McLaglen was a great Western director — he’s one of only three (along with John Sturges and Don Siegel) who worked with both Wayne and Clint Eastwood — but he’s utterly wrong for the claustrophobic world of urban crime; the film is oddly slow-paced (despite running only 72 minutes) and scenes that would have benefited from noir atmospherics don’t get them. And William Campbell, who looks like RKO was trying to create their own Tony Curtis, simply doesn’t have the acting chops to make us believe he’s really torn between a normal life and a criminal one — the young John Garfield would have been ideal but Hollywood wasn’t exactly awash in “Garfield types” in 1956 (the young actors who could have pulled it off were instead copying Brando or Dean). Nor do the women help; Karen Sharpe is such a bland screen presence we don’t for a moment believe in her as a gold-digging femme fatale and so it’s no surprise when she turns out to be good at the end. Man in the Vault would never have been a great movie, but it certainly had the potential to be better than it is!