Wednesday 9 June 2010

Vice Squad (1953)

Director: Arnold Laven
Stars: Edward G Robinson and Paulette Goddard

I was going to mention that it's been too long since I've seen an Edward G Robinson movie but then I realised that it's always too long since I've seen an Edward G Robinson movie. He may just have been the most consistent and reliable actor ever to work in Hollywood, along with the most underrated and overlooked. It isn't just the famous films, from Little Caesar to Soylent Green, it's all those films in between that I'd never even heard of. As I catch up with each of these movies I often discover why I'd never heard of them but I never regret seeing the master at work that one more time. This one pairs him with Paulette Goddard, who was more successful off screen than on, losing out on parts like Scarlett O'Hara but landing husbands like Burgess Meredith and Charlie Chaplin. She'd divorced both by this point but hadn't married the German novelist Erich Maria Remarque yet, who wrote All Quiet on the Western Front. So many husbands, so little time.

There's another major star here but he wasn't at the time, a mere year after a small role in High Noon and the same year as an even smaller one in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. He's Lee Van Cleef and he's so far down the title credits that he doesn't even fit on the first 'and' page. We still see him first though, stealing a car at 14th & Hamilton while his partner keeps a lookout and shoots Officer Kellogg when he tries to interrupt. Van Cleef is Pete Monty and his partner is Al Barkis, both of whom are gone by the time reinforcements arrive, leaving innocent bystander Jack Hartrampf to be discovered with the body. He's guilty of nothing except being in the wrong place at the wrong time, very wrong given that he's a pillar of the community who was spending time with a young lady with a Marilyn complex instead of a corpse. He's an undertaker and she's presumably a kept woman. No wonder he keeps his mouth shut until his lawyer arrives.
By the time he does, Officer Kellogg is dead but the captain of detectives stumbles onto a lucky break. He's Capt Barnaby, known as Barnie to one and all, and even though this is 1953 he runs a Hill Street Blues sort of precinct where everyone has a dozen things on the go all the time and they skip from busy scene to busy scene. One of the many little stories that swamp the precinct involves a cheap crook called Frankie Pierce who's been picked up for another stupid little crime while he was on parole. This time he's prepared, though, with details of an upcoming bank job that he heard about in prison to trade for leniency. It's an attempt on a branch of the Federal Savings Bank that's being masterminded by Al Barkis, freshly released from jail to become a cop killer. Given that we know whodunit from moment one, the joy of this film ends up being in trying to figure out the writing challenge of how these two subplots will intersect once more.

It also becomes a character study. The more the film runs on the more it becomes obvious that the case at hand isn't quite as important as the exploration of Capt Barnaby's character. He has to juggle so many balls at once its unreal and he can't afford to drop a single one of them. It isn't just the big cases either, the bank jobs and the cop killers. He has to find a way to uncover a phony European count who's planning to marry a rich widow for her money. He has to appear on TV for an interview. He has to console the parents of a kidnap victim. He even gets to deal with a kook who thinks television signals get projected onto him whenever he leaves the house. And in his spare time he gets to exercise all sorts of manouevres so that people like Jack Hartrampf go from being in the wrong place at the wrong time to being in the right place at the right time and people like Marty Kusalich, who bottle out of the bank job at the last minute, do the opposite.
Vice Squad is a very well constructed film, merely not the one I expected to watch. I expected a straight forward crime drama, given that this is 1953 and film noir was fading but the excesses of the seventies were far in the future. I expected a police procedural focused on a single case and the progressive steps taken to wrap it up. I even expected a buddy story of sorts, given suggestions that the case would be solved only through teamwork between the chief of police and Mona Ross, the madam of a brothel, erm, I mean the lady proprietor of an escort service. That's what you get for judging a film on the basis of its promotion, I guess, because it's none of the above. It's just another opportunity for Edward G Robinson to strut his subtle stuff and show us a day in the life of a captain of detectives. The stress must be insane but of course he wins out in the end and finishes off with a throwaway comment like, 'See you in the morning, Lacey.'

What else it shows us is just how easily the cops could bend the rules a little in order to get to a desired outcome. Capt Barnaby never breaks them, because he's an honest, upstanding man, but he bends them every which way but loose. Poor Jack Hartrampf gets brought back in twice after his lawyer gets him out, because they know full well he was just a witness, one who's hiding what he saw to avoid having to testify in court and thus expose his illicit relationship with Vicki the Marilyn wannabe. It's beautiful choreography. One moment his lawyer is walking him out of the police station, the next he's being walked back in for molesting a young lady who conveniently walks into him as he turns around. Once released from that he gets arrested for being drunk and disorderly because someone slipped a bottle into his pocket. It's all subtly but cleverly done, but more importantly it's all utterly routine. It's a very telling film indeed.

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