Monday, December 17, 2012

Gang Busters (General Teleradio, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I had watched a quite different sort of movie: Gang Busters, a 1955 release from General Teleradio (a branch of General Tire that got into producing TV shows and later that year bought the RKO studio from Howard Hughes, only to sell it three years later to Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball for their Desilu company) based on a popular radio show by Phillips H. Lord that General Teleradio had already transferred to TV. (A search for Gang Busters on revealed none of the radio episodes but 10 of the TV shows and a 13-episode Universal serial from 1942.) According to an “Trivia” poster, this film was actually edited together from three of the TV episodes from 1952, but the plot, though a bit episodic, holds together well. It’s a nervy gangster story centered around criminal John Omar Pinson (Myron Healey), who works in Oregon and repeatedly gets caught and sentence to Oregon State Penitentiary, only he manages to escape just about every time he’s sent there. While he’s in prison he assembles a gang including Slug Bennett (Frank Richards), Mike Denike (Rusty Wescoatt), Louie Feth (William Justine) and Larry Ogilvie (Allan Ray). He also attracts the seemingly homoerotic attentions of Wayne Long (Sam Edwards), a milquetoast robber who wants Pinson to show him the ropes so that when he is released he’ll be a better criminal. The nervy relationship between Pinson and Long is one of the weirdest Gay-themed plots in the Production Code era (rivaling the similarly quirky tie between Lawrence Tierney and Elisha Cook, Jr. in the otherwise useless Born to Kill); while they’re in prison together Long is constantly cruising Pinson (there’s no other word for it, really) and Pinson couldn’t be less interested in him, criminally or sexually.

Once they’re out Long blows one of Pinson’s attempts to flee the cops and Pinson is finally caught — we’re supposed to assume for good even though we’ve seen him escape so much one expects him to boast, “No prison can hold me!” Long even made one of his previous escapes possible by slipping him a hacksaw blade through which to saw through the bars of the cell in which he’s been put in solitary. The film was written and directed by Bill Karn, who used two narrators — Phillips H. Lord in his accustomed third-person role and Don C. Harvey playing the lead police detective out to capture Pinson — which occasionally got stentorian and almost insulting to the intelligence (one expects a movie to show us things rather than hearing an unseen — or, in the first reel at least, seen — voice telling us what’s supposed to be going on), but the film itself is fast-moving, exciting and full of intriguing devices (like Pinson’s way of tying a gun into his palm so he can go about without anyone suspecting he’s armed). Its debt to the 1949 James Cagney vehicle White Heat is pretty obvious — the unscrupulous and crafty super-criminal, the attempt to infiltrate an undercover cop in his cell, even a detail like the shoebox-sized mobile phone with which the police try to stay in touch with each other as they track him down — but the 1955 Gang Busters emerges as a surprisingly good movie, effective and entertaining, powered by a marvelously matter-of-fact performance by Myron Healey. Whereas Cagney in White Heat turned out the bravura gangster performance to end all bravura gangster performances, Healey in a similar role here is coolly understated, a man who became a criminal not because of some weird family dynamic or out of desperation to feed his family but simply because he wanted to, as if he did an assessment of his employable skills and decided crime was the career for which he was most suited.