My notes on the hardboiled noir, currently in rotation on the Talking Pictures TV channel.
‘Hey Tony, I know a sure cure for a nosebleed. A cold knife in the middle of the back.’
Has there ever been a better trio of screen armoured car robbers than Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand? And that’s just the start of Phil Karlson’s hardboiled noir, in which a perfect crime goes awry because the unintentional patsy takes umbrage and goes after the crooks on his own. Unusually, and in the spirit of its mastermind, the film doles out information sparingly … we don’t find out until halfway through who exactly ‘Mr Big’ is and what his motivation might be, and even then his endgame isn’t apparent until near the triple-cross of a climax. Foster (Preston Foster), a middle-aged hard guy, puts on the sort of mask that would do for a serial villain or a 1980s slasher movie and separately recruits the three sleazy, desperate psychos – jittery, chain-smoking gambling addict Pete Harris (Elam), who is on the run from the cops and crooks he ratted out … sleek, smug, vicious bowtie-sporting ladies’ man/getaway driver Tony Romano (Van Cleef), a two-time loser facing mandatory life under ‘the habitual criminal act’ if he’s caught one more time … and Boyd Kane (Brand), a cop-killer with a short fuse.
Foster’s plan – a precedent for the set-up of Reservoir Dogs – is that his three goons wear masks on the job so they can’t identity themselves, and lay low after the getaway until he deems it safe to dole out the take, giving each a torn playing card for identification and tickets to somewhere out of the country. The raid goes like clockwork, with the getaway van driven into a truck while the cops seize on the flower delivery van the thieves have imitated … hauling in embittered war veteran ex-con Joe Rolfe (John Payne) as a likely suspect. Subjected to still-shocking police brutality, Joe can’t talk and when the real van is found has to be turned loose … only now he wants to know who set him up and is out to track them down, though we’re not sure if it’s for revenge, a share of the take or simple vindication and the underrated Payne is good enough to suggest that he doesn’t exactly know what he’ll do.
The first act is typical of the sort of 1950s noir that managed to combine a semi-documentary aesthetic with something like grand guignol – brisk, brutal, efficient, cynical and all too credible, shot on real streets with an emphasis on criminal and cop procedural elements. Then, when Joe follows his first lead and tracks Harris to studiobound Tijuana, the tone changes and becomes something more like an ultra-tough 1940s globetrotting B. From TJ, Joe – carrying Harris’s torn card – heads for a Mexican fishing resort and a hotel where the other three robbers, not all known to each other, are hanging around with genuine vacationers and awaiting the cut. Also in the mix is Helen Foster (Coleen Gray), a law student in bathing suit, who is out to reopen an old case which led to her father’s dismissal and who takes a shine to Joe (this redemptive strain is the one fakey touch in the film, though Helen’s relationship with her father is more interesting and unusual).
Everyone spends a lot of time on games – craps, cards, even fishing stories – and plots and schemes against everyone else, with secret alliances and enmities coming in the open and poor sap Joe having to fight harder to stay above water. Plus, it’s admitted in a throwaway line that the million and change Foster has stashed on a boat called the Manana is in useless marked bills – though there’s still a way to profit from a gross betrayal. In Hemingway style, it boils down to gunplay on a boat and a satisfying payoff for all the bad characters – there’s a real pleasure in watching great character actors snarl, squirm, lash out or get cut down – plus a more conventional one for the slightly less squalid.