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The modest but dependable Levy-Gardner-Laven team got a lean start in 1952's quasi-noir serial killer tale Without Warning!, a cheapie that was picked up for distribution by United Artists. Apparently an accomplishment of that magnitude could be rewarded in the 1950s, and the three partners (one director, two producers) made a better deal for the next year's Vice Squad, tapping the affordable Edward G. Robinson and Paulette Goddard for marquee appeal. Unjustly graylisted by the pamphlet Red Channels, Robinson no longer commanded a top salary. Ironically, the movie was a property he had purchased six years earlier, before the HUAC debacle crippled his career. Ms. Goddard had been out of circulation for a while, and traded a reasonable paycheck for what looks like a few day's work. The team came up with a serviceable script about a police captain trying to get a handle on a gang of murderous bank robbers.
Vice Squad is the equivalent of a modern TV movie, but featuring a selection of seasoned 1950s actors. Thieves Al Barkis (Edward Binns, repeating from Without Warning!) and Pete Monty (Lee Van Cleef) kill a policeman who discovers them stealing a car from a dealership. The event is witnessed by mortician Jack Hartrampf (Porter Hall of Double Indemnity). He refuses to admit to seeing anything because he was visiting his girlfriend, and doesn't want his wife to know. Hartrampf's sleazy lawyer Dwight Foreman (Barry Kelly of The Asphalt Jungle) stonewalls the cops, who desperately need a line on the cop killers. Captain 'Barney' Barnaby (Edward G. Robinson) arranges for Hartrampf's incarceration to be extended by having paperwork lost, etc. Deciding that the mortician must be made to cooperate, he then has him re-arrested for petty crimes, to keep him on ice. Meanwhile, stoolie Frankie Pierce (Jay Adler) intimates that a bank robbery will occur in Beverly Hills that same afternoon. Barkis and Monty must intimidate another member of the gang, Marty Kusalich (Adam Williams, the other 'star' of Without Warning!) when he hears about the killing of the policeman. Captain Barney deals with various problems in the department, appears on a TV show to publicize the good works of the L.A.P.D, and also manages to get a step ahead of the unknown crooks. He leans on his good friend, "escort service" proprietress Mona Ross (Paulette Goddard) for information; it's well known that many criminals habituate her establishment. Barney has to throw her girls into jail cells to expedite the issue, but Ross establishes the link between Marty Kusalich and the murderous bank robbers. With Frankie's information, the detectives set a trap at the Beverly Hills bank...
A reasonably exciting crime tale put together with modest resources, Vice Squad achieves an interesting vibe somewhere between Dragnet and L.A. Confidential. The action is restricted to a couple of sequences, but it's certainly good enough; the bank robbery actually takes place in the Beverly Hills, and locals will easily recognize the streets. The sullen Ed Binns is good as the gang leader and young Adam Williams excellent as the gunman who'd rather sit out the robbery with his girlfriend at Mona's place. (Regular film watchers will immediately recognize Williams as one of the bad guys harassing Cary Grant in North by Northwest.) Edward G. Robinson carries the film beautifully, even if we mostly see him in the halls and offices of police headquarters. Lawrence Roman's script has enough natural dialogue for Robinson to play with, and the actor proves yet again that he's incapable of making a dull movie.
What makes Vice Squad especially interesting now is its cavalier attitude toward Law and Order. The kindly Captain Barnaby flouts several basic no-no's of police administration in Los Angeles. In today's city, he'd be martyred in newspaper headlines for the slippery moves he shows here.
Barney has a 'winking' relationship with Mona Ross and allows her brothel to function in violation of the law. Mona reciprocates with information when Barney needs it. They carry on an ongoing flirtation, without any personal hanky-panky involved. It sounds all too much like a smokescreen for the then-common practice for cops of all ranks to be in cahoots with the very vices they're supposed to suppress; an entrepreneur like Mona would probably be servicing members of the police department on an equally off-the-books arrangement.
Even worse is Barney's harassment and intimidation of Jack Hartrampf. Barney's detectives use a female undercover cop to brush up against Hartrampf and then accuse him of molestation, so he can be held indefinitely. The event is treated as if it were standard operating procedure. Hartrampf is re-arrested twice in this manner, and slowly re-booked to break down resistance and coerce his cooperation. The exercise is treated as comedy relief, with poor Porter Hall sputtering in alarm. Barney is sufficiently informal in his dealings with Mona to cut corners, but he evidently won't level with Hartrampf and promise to keep his philandering quiet in exchange for information. It's basic persecution, that stinks like a cover-up for crooked police practices. Although serious reforms took place in many big cities, the badge-polishing of the "Dragnet" years completely whitewashed the image of cops in America.
Vice Squad concludes with a showdown in an abandoned concrete building, located about a hundred yards North of the California Incline on Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica. The bank robbery gets messy, with a hostage taken and a gun battle, but Barney's slick tricks down at headquarters save the day.
A nice sidebar story sees the L.A.P.D. helping out a 'friend' of City Hall, whose mother is being fleeced by a fake European count (John Verros) trying to get away with a crime called Marriage Bunco. Barney employs several paid city workers, including a language expert, to determine the 'Count's' true status before giving him the bum's rush to an Eastern-bound train. So the L.A.P.D. is there to help, as long as you're personally connected to the downtown elite.
All credit to Edward G. Robinson, who makes all these shenanigans look like noble social work!
This isn't a big show for Paulette Goddard, but she does give Mona Ross an appropriately flirtatious quality - and looks cute in furs entering and leaving the captain's office, as if it was a second home. The vivacious K.T. Stevens gets third billing but unfortunately has little to do. Lee Van Cleef assays yet another slimy crook, but the best bad guy role goes to Adam Williams as the nervous womanizer.
The MGM Limited Collection Edition DVD-R of Vice Squad can boast a very good B&W transfer. It was released in July of 1953, and the 1.37 Academy framing appears to be correct. In that year a few productions were already being filmed to be matted off to 1:66. The soundtrack is particularly clear, with Herschel Burke Gilbert's exciting music score adding pep to many scenes. Gilbert was often associated with the Levy-Gardner-Laven partnership. Production Assistant Pat Fielder apparently impressed the bosses as well: she became a writer for them just four years later on The Monster that Challenged the World and The Vampire and moved on to TV work in the 1960s.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Vice Squad rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.