Sgt. Steve Johnson (Sterling) is a detective with the LAPD bunco squad, charged with rounding up swindlers, con men, and other crooks. His latest case is working on breaking up a ring of con artists headed by Anthony Wells (Ricardo Cortez); the group uses seances to convince a wealthy bereaved woman, Mrs. Royce (Elisabeth Risdon), that her recently deceased son wants her to leave them her fortune. Believe it or not, she's dumb enough to buy into the plot.
Before it's all over, a murder has been committed and a whole lotta brake lines have been cut on cars. Was it really that easy to turn a car into a potential deathtrap?
Sterling is a genial presence as the dedicated detective, and there's a cute side plot involving his girlfriend (Joan Dixon) being a bit part movie actress. However, in this straightforward role Sterling doesn't get the same opportunity to shine as he did in the previous year's RKO Western ROUGHSHOD (1949), a really fine little movie which made me wish Sterling had done a lot more Westerns.
There are some great shots of 1950 L.A.; I even freeze framed a couple scenes just to take a moment to take in all the signs before the action moved on. There are lots of old gas station signs, in particular. For a Southern Californian, the glimpses of how L.A. used to look are great fun.
The film is also a great example of how to economically and quickly move a plot forward on a low budget. There's a great car wreck scene where the ultimate crash is depicted with a single shot of a spinning wheel on the corner of an overturned car. Another death is instantly conveyed via a newspaper headline, without a second wasted showing it.
Where films like this tend to lose me is when they spend too much time focusing on the crooks and the commission of the crime. In particular, there's a couple seance sequences here I really didn't care to watch; they were just silly, and I didn't find the plan to free Mrs. Royce from the bad guys' clutches believable. Watching Cortez and company plot their crime struck me as ho-hum. I'm much more interested in the procedural aspects, watching how the detectives conduct their footwork and use various resources to solve the crime. The movie would have benefited by showing more of that type of thing than it did.
Side note: What's with Tol Avery, playing Sterling's police captain, pronouncing Los Angeles as Los Angle-ees?! I actually rewound the movie just to listen to him say it a second time.
This was the first film appearance in 14 years of Marguerite Churchill, who plays Mrs. Royce's secretary. Churchill's movie roles included starring opposite John Wayne in the landmark early widescreen Western THE BIG TRAIL (1930), directed by Raoul Walsh.
Douglas Fowley, John Kellogg, Bernadene Hayes, and Robert Bice round out the cast.
This 67-minute film was directed by Herbert I. Leeds. Leeds directed a number of entries in the Michael Shayne, Mr. Moto, Charlie Chan, and Cisco Kid series. He passed away in 1954.
The screenplay by George Callahan was based on the novel FORTUNEER by Reginald Taviner.
BUNCO SQUAD is available on DVD-R from the Warner Archive. The print is very good.
Watch for this RKO film to be shown on Turner Classic Movies.
I love "B" movies and am glad I saw BUNCO SQUAD, but it could have been better. For a different take, check out Mark's enthusiastic post at Where Danger Lives.