MGM // 1953 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // February 12th, 2012
Stops you...like a slug in the chest! Shocks you...like a kick in the face! Holds you...like a gold digging woman!
For a plot description on the back of the Vice Squad box, MGM wrote this single sentence: "The life of a captain of detectives during the course of an ordinary day in the 1950s." If this is an ordinary day at a '50s police station, the world was a lot more messed up back then than I realized and they really deserved a whole lot more pay.
Late one night, a police officer is shot and killed during a botched car theft, but the single witness is unwilling to speak up because he doesn't want his wife to find out where he had been. As Captain Barnaby (Edward G. Robinson, Key Largo) tries to work the information out of him, he must orchestrate an operation to stop a bank robbery being planned by the very same people who killed the cop.
Edward G. Robinson was one of the finest genre actors of his generation and Vice Squad is a perfect example why. An otherwise tedious police procedural, Robinson takes it to another level with his charm and believability as the captain of the squad. Few would regard him as handsome leading man material and he was normally relegated to gangster and killer roles. Here, taking the character he had built in those characters, he's given full authority of the vice division and becomes a hero and leader that we can believe in. He cares about his squad, he cares about his duty to protect the citizens, and he expects the citizens to perform their own duty in the name of justice. He brings all three of these aspects together here with a completeness that makes the story work.
Without his presence, there's little doubt that this rote plot would have fallen apart completely. Once we learn a few minutes into the picture that the cop killers are plotting the bank robbery, everything comes together all too conveniently. It's a world where every informant gives up all the right information, where the police keep close connection to a brothel that gets the exact tip at the perfect time to crack the case, and where a crook who gets picked up is perfectly happy to rat out his cohorts. All these things happen quickly enough that, within about twelve hours of the shooting of the police officer, the force is at the bank waiting patiently to thwart the heist.
The final act redeems the plot a little, but just a little. In it, the two surviving bank robbers take a young girl hostage and run back to their hideout. It's not completely unexpected, but it helps the story to feel a little more substantial than it otherwise would be by adding a few characters and a little bit of suspense to the end of the film. It's not a lot, but it's enough to make me feel somewhat happier about the finish, even if the finale will come as no surprise to anybody. After all, this is a movie from 1953 and, of course, crime does not pay.
Director Arnold Laven (The Rack) only directed a few features before turning to television, where he had a pretty successful career, and the direction feels very much like a small screen drama. There are essentially only three sets in the movie and only a couple of scenes outdoors, revealing its low budget and narrow plotting. That's not always a bad thing, but the pedestrian storyline and general lack of tension sink it a little too much. Still, some of the performances are pretty good. Robinson, obviously, but Paulette Goddard (Modern Times) does a pretty solid job as the madam of the "legitimate" escort service that gives the force some information. Some of it, too, is that it was surprising to see this angle used in a production code-era film, which tended to eschew such prurient businesses, but Goddard is charming in her role. Also, watch for the great Lee Van Cleef (For a Few Dollars More) before his star turns in the Italian westerns, who plays one of the gangsters. He's low in the credits, but gets more substantial things going on than most of the rest of the cast. These three really help bring Vice Squad above the level of its story and make it basically worth a watch.
From MGM's Limited Edition collection, the DVD for Vice Squad is bare bones, but technically sound, surprisingly so given my experience with this division of the label. There has been no restoration done to the image, but there's only minimal damage to the print. There are some problems with dirt and a few lines here and there, but the black and white contrast is pretty good and the transfer itself doesn't have any real issues. The mono sound is as I expected, with a little bit of noise but perfectly audible dialog and music.
Fairly, Vice Squad is a little better than I thought it would be. I love Robinson and Van Cleef, but the story is about as predictable as one could expect. That said, the performances worked on me and the overall effect was positive. As a low budget procedural, if you don't come into it with too high of expectations, it works okay.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1953
MPAA Rating: Not Rated