“Armored Car Robbery” (1950)

by A.J. Hakari

"Armored Car Robbery" poster


For many, the film noir genre is synonymous with anything involving detectives and gangsters, but it’s about so much more than that. Movies of this type present viewers with conventional roles being turned on their heads, be they heroes who don’t hesitate to get their hands dirty or villains placed in the position of protagonist. The moral implications give the audience plenty to mull over, and while 1950’s Armored Car Robbery only flirts with bringing such issues to the screen, it’s hard to miss it all when it’s such an entertaining thriller in the meantime. A no-frills potboiler that wastes no time in getting down to business, the picture’s simplicity is its best angle, assuring the audience that it needs no gimmick to capture their interest other than just doing its job succinctly. Part film noir and part heist drama, Armored Car Robbery stores a good deal of excitement within a small yet very effective package.

It was supposed to be the perfect crime. Professional mastermind Dave Purvis (William Talman) and his gang of three cronies were to stick up an armored car, absconding with its dough after making its last stop of the day at Wrigley Field. The caper was planned down to the second, and all contingencies were accounted for…except the law making an earlier appearance than anticipated. Upon the big robbery breaking out, Lt. Cordell (Charles McGraw) hits the scene, only for his partner to tragically perish in the ensuing gunfight. After the hail of bullets has ceased, the two forces scatter, each one scrambling to stay one step ahead of the other. Fueled by revenge for his partner’s death, Cordell hunts down every possible lead that might bring him to the Purvis gang, one of whom is suffering from his own gunshot wound. Slowly but surely, the law creeps in upon the panicking Purvis, who won’t hesitate to coldly blast away any unrest in his crew if it means escaping with both his life and the cash intact.

Directed by The Narrow Margin‘s Richard Fleischer, Armored Car Robbery boils down the thriller to its very essence. It takes a basic premise and does away with nearly all the filler, giving us strictly the highlights and giving the whole thing a healthy coat of grit. The fact that the catalytic caper is underway before we even reach the fifteen-minute mark should give you an idea of how expedient the film is, laying out all viewers need to know before plunging them into the cat-and-mouse game that comprises the bulk of the running time. On the one hand, this is good, because it’s a fantastic way to ramp up the tension and put both the good and bad guys in a real bind. The clock ticks and plans unravel from the word go, with each side of the law equally hell-bent on outfoxing the other. However, the downside to this is that the movie is given only enough room to hint at the sort of psychological exploration that’s served as the backbone of the finest film noirs. We see a little bit of this in action, what with Purvis being our main character (or at least the one we follow around the most) and Cordell exhibiting a dark side as he tracks down his partner’s killers. They’re interesting angles, but again, they’re touched upon just briefly, giving but a moment’s consideration towards any kind of moral complexity before returning to the standard cops and robbers routine.

But what a routine it is, as Armored Car Robbery effortlessly plays up its intended suspense, regardless of how traditional certain details may be. Fleischer’s visual style isn’t quite documentary-quality, but it’s close, evoking a realistic mood that serves as a convincing backdrop. There’s just a touch of stylizing at work, with the burlesque halls, motor courts, and police stations in which our characters dwell not far removed from reality at all. Fleischer knows how to wring tension out of the simplest scenarios, from Cordell’s men tracking the crooks at their waterfront hideout to Purvis attempting to evade capture at his trailer home. The actors themselves do a great job of embodying the film’s unglamorous attitude in their own performances. Talman provides a particularly stirring turn as Purvis, a hardened fink who doesn’t react well to his best laid plans coming apart at the seams. It goes without saying that he’s not terribly loyal to his fellow thieves (what with carrying on a fling with the wife of one of the gang), but that he doesn’t double-cross anyone until he’s backed in a corner makes Purvis that much more dangerous and unpredictable. McGraw’s Cordell is nice and stoic, Adele Jergens makes for a fitting (and fading) femme fatale, and character actors like Steve Brodie, Douglas Fowley, and Gene Evans do fine work in filling out Purvis’ criminal ranks.

You can bicker over to what genre Armored Car Robbery “really” belongs, but the fact that it’s a damned tense flick from start to finish is what’s really important. The pacing is taut, the photography is moody, and the acting is solid, all ingredients that should entice you to see how this whole noirish stew comes to a boil. Clocking in at just an hour and change, Armored Car Robbery is a quick sit, but it’s the rare genre flick that knows how to space its thrills out instead of saving it all for the finale.