They oughtta teach Bunco Squad in film school, it’s that good. A 1950 product of the famed RKO B unit, it’s a first-rate example of narrative economy and efficient picture-making.
Now I’m no knucklehead: Bunco Squad isn’t The Narrow Margin. I’m not out to compare those two pictures, because beyond their B status and shared studio they have little in common. The Narrow Margin is an exemplary noir thriller with an iconic tough-guy actor in his greatest part. Bunco Squad doesn’t really rate as a film noir and has a far less prestigious or able cast (the actors in Bunco Squad even mispronounce words, tough ones like occult and Los Angeles).
Still, this is a little movie that crackles. It’s contrived, heavy on coincidence, and might even be a bit campy, but in spite of all this it still begs to be watched and doesn’t disappoint those who do. It’s a gem of a mid-century crime picture, and although it’s not really a film noir, it’s one that certainly rates a few days in the spotlight on this blog.
I included the definition above because “bunco” is hardly a household word. It never registered with me until I read James Ellroy--even though Jack Webb devoted a section of his cop manifesto The Badge to the LAPD bunco squad way back in 1958. That same unit is the subject of our movie, which beyond a rare television airing was nigh on impossible to see until it recently became available through the Warner Archive.
The picture opens fast, with star Robert Sterling lecturing a citizens’ group about all the ways that flimflam crews get over on the squares. He’s even got a home-movie screen with 8mm visual aids. Movies such as Southside 1-1000, Code Two, Appointment with Danger and The Street with No Name (to name a very few) sport openings with a narrator speaking over some montage of stock footage, telling us about how the treasury boys, the motorbike unit, the postal cops, or even the g-men are putting themselves on the line for the sake of law, order, and Wonder Bread.
Bunco Squad does the same thing: we get the footage, we get the narrator, we get the same results. But in this case the speaker happens to be our star, and by introducing him in this way it trims some fat from the running time. And by making the montage sequence a movie-within-the-movie, it allows us to watch how the on-screen audience reacts. When Sterling’s Detective Steve Johnson mentions how the palm readers and tarot card shams contribute to the $200 million per year bunco haul, a old man in the crowd looks down his nose at his wife, who turns away, red in the face. Yet when Johnson adds the wheel of fortune and roulette to the list, it’s the wife who gets to glower. As Johnson wraps up his speech his partner rushes in--the captain needs them downtown--with a hot tip on a new racket. The scene runs just over two minutes, but it’s one of the many frugal but effective moments that sets Bunco Squad apart. It packs a wallop of important information: we meet our star and his partner; get a fix on the bad guys, what they do, how they do it, and who they do it to.
The cops here are one-dimensional, pure cardboard; their moral certainty is absolute. At 67 minutes, time can’t be wasted agonizing over ethical ambiguities or on character development--in fact, there’s no character development at all, which is the most damning evidence against Bunco Squad as a film noir; it has none of the alienation, obsession, and desperate choices that we tend to associate with noir. We have to take for granted why the police are compelled to uphold order and why the crooks would choose to do ill. Fate never takes a hand and irony must have been busy elsewhere.
These points aren’t offered to disparage Bunco Squad, but to differentiate it from the film noir and show that such a picture can nevertheless succeed by other means. What Bunco Squad does well is show us, exposé style, how the con artists organize and carry out their scams. The notion makes sense: audiences generally have a sense of how cops do business, but in a movie that deals with crooks who use brains instead of bullets, there’s big upside in showing how they pull the rabbit out of the hat--particularly when it’s a spooky séance scam.
Here are the details: con man Tony Weldon (Ricardo Cortez, the film's lone name star) rolls into L.A. on the heels of Mrs. Royce’s secretary, knowing that if he can get close enough to the old bird he might pry loose her 2.5 million dollar nest egg. When Weldon learns that Mrs. Royce’s boy was killed at Normandy he knows exactly how to work her. He builds a crew of professional swindlers, including ex-con crystal ball gazer Princess Liane (Bernadene Hayes, not bad in a role tailor-made for Marie Windsor), professional shill Mrs. Cobb (Vivien Oakland), restaurant swami Drake (Bob Bice), and the smooth-talking Fred Reed (John Kellogg). They develop an elaborate shell game in order to convince Mrs. Royce to bequeath her money to the “Rama Society.”
There’s a fine sequence that depicts each of them uncovering seemingly banal pieces of information about the dead son’s schoolboy days, that when sewn together and dressed up in an otherworldly séance, take on the look and feel true mysticism. The plan works, and Mrs. Royce amends her will. When the secretary gets suspicious of Weldon her car plummets into a canyon—no brakes! (Weldon cuts so many brake lines in the movie that if were a mob picture they’d call him “Snips.”)
Meanwhile, the cops are pounding the pavement trying to make a case—they know who’s involved, but can’t prove a crime has been committed. In a spectacular B-movie coincidence, Steve shows up at Rama society headquarters just in time to see Mrs. Royce. When the cops brace her she scoffs and tells them to buzz off—which Detective Johnson does, and how: straight over a cliff with cut brake lines! He lives, barely, and enjoys one moviedom’s briefest convalescent periods. Finally, the cops contrive to beat Weldon at his own game, with the assistance of famous magician Dante (playing himself) and Johnson’s actress girlfriend, posing as a rival medium. When their scheme gains traction with Mrs. Royce, Weldon resorts to violence, setting the stage for Bunco’s finale--and yet another brakeless car careening through the hills above Malibu.
The fixation on murder by cutting brake lines jeopardizes the movie’s credibility, but it’s also another one of those expeditious touches that allow a whole lot of story to be crammed into a few reels. The first time it happens we get plenty of detailed information: the killer approaches and climbs under the car; we hear him cut the lines; we see him resurface and stow the cutters. This takes a modest thirty seconds; the final time it takes just six. The cinematic value of this method of attempted murder is significant. Bullets are difficult to dodge, but the brake line technique generates suspense--and a special sort of suspense at that, given that the amount of time between the cutting of the lines and the car ride itself can be shortened or lengthened to suit the plot.
Most B pictures rely on contrivances stacked on top of one another, often combined with outrageous coincidence. Bunco Squad is no different, yet it’s all done so smoothly you’ll hardly notice and won’t care if you do. It borrows one of the quintessential devices of the caper picture to great effect: that of the criminal who builds a crew and executes a clever plan; except in this case it’s not a heist but a swindle the crooks have in mind. There’s nothing spectacular about the story or the cast, and its noir credentials are tepid. But Bunco Squad is a crackerjack crime movie anyway. It’s polished, well constructed, features a ton of on-location L.A. exteriors and surprising special effects. It goes a long way towards reminding us that not all mid-century crimes movies were steeped in the noir style, and that such films shouldn’t be dismissed--or forgotten.