by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Bunco Squad, a 1950 RKO “B” I have a certain fondness for — Charles and I watched a videotape of it years ago but I wanted to see it again, especially since reading Russell Miller’s biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had put me in the mood to see a film exposing the tricks of phony spiritualists and mediums. The 67-minute film was based on a novel by Reginald Taviner and was written by George Callahan (also the author of many of the scripts for Monogram’s Charlie Chan movies) and directed by Herbert I. Leeds (who’d done some of the detective series films at 20th Century-Fox just before the war and was a hack, but a competent one with a pretty good sense of pace). Though “bunco” was a general term referring to con games in general, after a short introductory film showing some of the more terrestrial cons the film focuses on a spiritualist racket masterminded by Tony Weldon (Ricardo Cortez), a.k.a. Anthony Wells, who recruits a motley crew including “The Swami,” t/n Drake (Robert Bice); graphologist Annie Cobb (Vivien Oakland) — who willingly gets involved with Weldon again even though the last time she worked with him, she got arrested and served three years in prison while he got off scot-free; and medium Liane (Bernadene Hayes). The film as a whole takes a very superior attitude towards anybody who would believe this sort of nonsense.
In order to fleece wealthy widow Mrs. Jessica Royce (the great Elizabeth Risdon) out of the $2 million by pretending to make contact with the spirit of her dead son (he was killed in the Normandy invasion during World War II), the four form a front organization called “The Rama Society” and invite her to its séances, complete with sheet-clad “ghosts” making appearances on schedule and speaking with sepulchral voices that don’t sound like those of any living person, They also blackmail her previous spiritual advisor, Dr. Largo (Frank Wilcox), by threatening to reveal his true name, Mike Finlayson, to the police, who still want him for similar cons committed in another state. Though they don’t charge for their services initially, their intent is to get the spirit of Royce’s “son” to urge her to will her entire estate to the Rama Society, and once she signs the will they intend to kill her and make it look like an accident.
For people engaged in what is usually a non-violent sort of crime, these folks are pretty bloodthirsty; they off Royce’s secretary, Barbara Madison (Marguerite Churchill), after Weldon has pumped her for information by dating her (though Ricardo Cortez had clearly aged from his glory years in the silent era and in early talkies like The Younger Generation and the 1931 The Maltese Falcon, he was still good-looking enough one could believe he could attract a woman visibly half his age) only to find that she was totally skeptical about the whole spirit business and might, if allowed to live, be able to keep Royce from doing anything stupid like willing her fortune to phony psychics.
The good guys in all this are bunco squad detective sergeants Steve Johnson (Robert Sterling) and Mack McManus (Douglas Fowley) as well as Steve’s long-suffering girlfriend, Grace Bradshaw (Joan Dixon) — who in an interesting twist in the plot is also a minor contract player at RKO. The significance in making the (good) female lead an actress emerges when the police realize that the only way to pull Mrs. Royce from the influence of the Rama Society is to set up a phony spiritualist operation of their own, and to that end they recruit Dante the Magician (playing himself — eight years after he appeared in the Laurel and Hardy film A-Haunting We Will Go) to show her the tricks of the phony spiritualist trade — Dante apparently having taken up where Houdini left off in demonstrating that the spiritualists’ manifestations were simply the same sorts of tricks he pulled on audiences as an entertainer. Dante and the cops coach Grace to speak in a suitably low and deep voice when she’s supposedly channeling the souls of the dead — and at one point she complains that she’ll never be able to memorize the stupid dialogue she’s instructed to use to convince the gullible Mrs. Royce that she’s genuinely in communication with her dead son.
Though Bunco Squad is one of those movies in which the crooks, who until then have been acting cautiously and carefully, have to get obnoxiously stupid in the last reel in order for the police to be able to catch them, it’s still an entertaining little movie and actually superior to the 1938 film Crime Ring, which used the same story source but had an overly complicated plot in which the syndicate was involved in way too many rackets for either the filmmakers or the audience to keep track — and it has the services of Cortez, a gentlemanly and appealing actor even in a black-hearted villain’s role and worth seeing in almost anything (even if his quite good performance in the 1931 Maltese Falcon, probably the best of his career, has been overshadowed by Humphrey Bogart’s even better one in the far more famous 1941 remake).