Cast & Crew
Edward G. Robinson
K. T. Stevens
In Los Angeles, as Alan Barkis and his accomplice, Pete Monte, attempt to hot-wire a car in a sales lot, Vicki Webb bids farewell to her lover, married undertaker Jack Hartrampf, in a neighboring apartment building. The thieves are interrupted by patrolman Kellogg, and Hartrampf hides under the stairwell when he sees Barkis retreating behind a nearby wall. Barkis shoots the policeman when he attempts to arrest Pete and the thieves escape in the car. Hartrampf reluctantly tries to help Kellogg and is later brought to police headquarters for questioning. Hartrampf fears his wife, who is currently out of town, will find out about his affair, and refuses to cooperate with Lt. Bob Imlay in identifying the killers. When "Barney" Barnaby, captain of the detectives, arrives at work, his secretary Ginny informs him that Kellogg is still unconscious, Bob has not yet filed his report, and several people are waiting to see him. Barney first meets with Miss Easton, who believes her mother is being victimized by a fake foreign count. Barney assigns Sgt. Atkinson to look into it under the aegis of marriage bunko, then meets with Frankie Pierce, a convicted felon who wants to trade information in exchange for dropping attempted burglary charges against him. Barney refuses to make a deal but gets Frankie to reveal that Barkis, with whom he was in jail, is planning to rob the Federal Savings Bank. Barney assigns Ed Chisholm to investigate Frankie's claims. In another part of town in a condemned warehouse, Barkis and his colleagues, Pete and Lou, await the arrival of Marty Kusalich, and their fifth partner, Dutch, who unknown to them, is being held for a line-up as a suspect in Kellogg's murder. When Hartrampf's well-connected lawyer, Dwight Forman, arrives at the police station, Hartrampf admits it was too dark for him to see the killer's face, and when he is questioned again, he unintentionally reveals that he had been leaving a nearby apartment house. Barney orders Bob to dismiss all suspects except Hartrampf, and find out who the undertaker had been visiting. Ed, meanwhile, arranges with Federal Savings Bank president Schaefer to set a trap for the potential robbers. When Dutch finally arrives at the warehouse and learns that Barkis shot the policeman, who has since died, Marty becomes afraid and wants to quit, but is pressured to stay. Forman, meanwhile, arranges for Hartrampf to be released, but Barney orders desk sergeant Fred to delay their departure. Later, Bob meets off-duty detective Dave at Hartrampf's mortuary, where Dave poses as a telephone repairman and surreptitiously retrieves Hartrampf's address book, which includes Vicki's address on a street next to the car lot. As Hartrampf attempts to exit the police station, a female vice squad detective bumps into him and has him arrested for lewd behavior. Barney continues investigating the possible bank robbery by calling in escort agency owner Mona Ross. Although she is unfamiliar with Barkis, she agrees to stay alert for information, in exchange for a small payment. Barkis and his men position themselves on a street near the bank in preparation for the robbery, while inside, police Lt. Chisholm has set up his undercover men. After briefly meeting with Count Alfredo Di Novi, whom Atkinson is questioning, and politely discouraging a mentally unstable visitor named Jenner, Barney leaves for a scheduled television interview. As the interview begins, Barkis and his men enter the bank, except for Marty, who escapes in a taxi. Although they hold concealed weapons on Schaefer and the vault guard, Chisholm signals a policeman. An alert Barkis shoots Chisholm as he draws his gun. Lou and Dutch are killed during the ensuing gunfire but Barkis takes bank clerk Carol Lawson hostage and escapes. Barney concludes his interview early when he receives news of the attempted robbery. Later at the station, Frankie is unable to identify the two dead robbers, and Barney assures Carol's anxious parents that he has every available policeman on the case. Bob, meanwhile, is tracking down Vicki, and although Hartrampf is again released from jail, he is re-arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct as soon as he leaves the station. During a conversation with Jenner, who believes television pictures are haunting him, Barney contacts Mona by telephone and arranges for his officers to bring her in because she says she has information, despite her protests that she is with a client. Barney then urges Jenner to consult a physician, and brings an Italian professor with whom he frequently works to meet di Montova and determine the count's authenticity. When Mona arrives she reveals that one of her girls, Dolores, was seeing Marty, who had been making extravagant promises, and is currently at Dolores' apartment. Frankie, who is listening in with Bob and Lacey, confirms that Marty knew Barkis in jail. Pete, meanwhile, has dropped off Barkis and Carol at the warehouse and managed to pass through a police roadblock and proceed to the harbor, where he obtains a motorboat for his escape with Barkis. While Bob and Lt. Lacey arrest Marty, the Professor informs Barney that the count is a fraud, and Barney makes a deal with di Nova to leave town or face criminal charges. When Marty is brought in for questioning, he claims innocence and offers his taxicab ride as proof. After a forensics expert determines that the same gun killed Kellogg and Chisholm, Barney arranges for Marty, Hartrampf and Vicki to be brought to another police station. There, Hartrampf, who fears his wife will soon return, is stunned to see Vicki. Under Barney's guidance, Hartrampf identifies Marty as the killer. Hartrampf is finally released and, pressured by Barney's tactics, Marty admits that Barkis murdered Kellogg and reveals the location of their hideout. Carol, meanwhile, attempts to escape from Barkis, but is unable to get too far because she dropped her eyeglasses and cannot see. Barney finds her and protects her as Barkis, who refuses to surrender, is shot and killed by Lacey. Pete arrives by boat shortly afterward and is arrested. Using a patrol car telephone, Carol later reassures her mother that she is safe, and Barney drives away.
Edward G. Robinson
K. T. Stevens
Mary Ellen Kay
Lee Van Cleef
Joseph F. Biroc
Raymond Boltz Jr.
Herschel Burke Gilbert
Jules V. Levy
Arthur H. Nadel
Gustaf M. Norin
Vice Squad (1953)
Robinson was starring in Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) when he first ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the congressional committee dedicated to exposing Fascists and Communists in labor unions, New Deal agencies, and most famously Hollywood. The liberal Robinson objected to HUAC's treatment of the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters, directors, and producers who openly criticized the Committee's existence and tactics. Robinson, along with Humphrey Bogart, John Huston, Danny Kaye, Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, and others, formed the Committee for the First Amendment to protest in Washington during the Hollywood Ten's 1947 appearances before HUAC. Shortly thereafter, tabloid journalist Howard Rushmore, who was making a career of testifying for HUAC about alleged Communist plots and figures, fingered Robinson as a Communist, testifying, "Ten years ago or more, he started joining one Communist front after another."
Over the next two years, Robinson was hounded by HUAC and haunted by insinuations and accusations of Communist affiliations, which were untrue. He was reportedly called to testify before HUAC four times, appearing for the last time on April 30, 1951. He brought along stacks of documents to prove his loyalty to America and to disprove any ties to communism. The Committee cleared the legendary actor, but the damage had already been done to his career. His name had been linked to Communist-front organizations by Red Channels, a 1950 booklet published by the right-wing journal Counterattack to accuse entertainers of Communist affiliations. Consequently, he was graylisted, meaning he was not officially banned by the industry, but word-of-mouth about the accusations resulted in no work from major studios or important producers. As Robinson noted in his autobiography, All My Yesterdays, ". . .I entered the "B" picture phase of my career as a movie star -- or former movie star. . . I was doomed, both by age and former political leanings, to a slow graveyard."
The period was not as desolate for Robinson as he painted it, because he not only found work in some solid B-films but also in television and on the stage. In 1951, he made a triumphant return to Broadway in Arthur Koestler's anti-Communist drama Darkness at Noon. Still, compared to his reputation and position as one of Hollywood's premiere stars during the 1940s, his career from 1948 to 1956 was definitely a step down. The trip to the "slow graveyard" ended in 1956 when Hollywood titan Cecil B. DeMille cast him in The Ten Commandments, which reopened the doors to the major studios.
Based on the 1940s novel Harness Bull, Vice Squad was released during the Transition Era of Hollywood history when many independent producers and tiny production companies cropped up to take over low-budget filmmaking from the major studios. During the late 1940s and 1950s, Hollywood experienced a period of tumultuous change after the Supreme Court forced the studios to divest themselves of their theaters in a ruling known as the Paramount Decree. To solve cash flow problems, the studios altered their production strategies by dumping their B-units, let go of their hold over movie stars, and allowed many directors, producers, and actors out of their long-term contracts. Independent producers and small production companies picked up the slack, producing low-budget fare with out-of-contract actors. In 1947, Harness Bull had been purchased by Robinson's company, Thalia Productions, for independent producer Sol Lesser, but the actor's problems with HUAC interfered with his plans to produce his own films. In 1952, the property was sold to the newly formed independent production company Sequoia Pictures, which was owned by Lesser, Jules Levy, Arthur Gardner, and Arnold Laven. Though Robinson considered this period a step down to the B's, his fate might have been far worse had it not been for these changes in the industry.
If Robinson felt despair over his predicament, he did not let it interfere with his work ethic. Producer Arthur Gardner called him "the quintessential pro." The actor used his star image and charisma to add dimension to his character and approached the role of Police Captain Barnaby with energy and authority. Vice Squad represents a day in the life of tough, no-nonsense Captain Barnaby, who is called "Barney" by his associates. The film opens on the murder of a beat cop in the wee hours of the morning, and Barnaby inherits the case when he arrives for work. Throughout the day, Barnaby and his men track leads, interrogate the only witness, seek out informants, and follow up on a tip on a bank robbery, which turns out to be connected to the murder. At the end of the day, he captures the criminals and rescues the innocent victim. The film concludes with Barnaby offering a brisk, "See you in the morning, Lacey" to one of his coworkers, knowing that tomorrow will bring more of the same.
Paulette Goddard received second billing behind Robinson, though her role is a minor one. She plays Mona, the operator of an "escort service," which is clearly a brothel. Mona sometimes provides information to the police on shady underworld characters who frequent her business, and she helps Barnaby with a lead in exchange for money. Though only onscreen for a handful of scenes, Goddard offers a colorful portrayal of a smart woman in a tough business. Like Robinson, Goddard was experiencing a downward spiral in her career but for different reasons. Age and the lack of a studio contract made it difficult for her to secure decent roles. She made four forgettable films in 1953, the year of Vice Squad, and one drama the following year. She did not appear in a movie again until 1963. In between she married German novelist Erich Maria Remarque and relocated to Europe to enjoy a life of luxury.
Vice Squad reflects filmmaking trends of the time because it combines the characteristics of film noir and semi-documentary crime dramas. A noir-like visual style dominates the first half of the film when most of the criminal activity occurs and the underworld characters are introduced. The opening sequence occurs on a lonely, dark street in an unsavory part of town where two hoods are stealing a car. In the meantime, an older, unattractive man is leaving the nearby apartment of a young bleached blonde. Though no one mentions the word "prostitute," it's clear that she is a working girl. The man notices the attempted car theft and hides in the staircase, where deliberate, bar-like shadows suggest this witness is now trapped in a situation beyond his control. He watches as a policeman walks up to investigate the scene, only to be shot from behind by one of the thieves. The entire sequence is depicted in low-key lighting, nicely rendered by cinematographer Joseph Biroc. Captain Barnaby's office is depicted with the Venetian blind effect in which diagonal, slat-shaped shadows fall across the back wall--a common lighting motif in film noir. In a scene in which a snitch offers some information to Barnaby, bar shadows linger behind the jittery informant as he hastily offers a tip on an upcoming bank robbery. Later, when Barnaby discusses the case on the phone, a web-like shadow covers his face. In the garage hide-out of the criminal gang, low-key lighting creates a mysterious, foreboding atmosphere with shadows producing a disturbing, menacing effect. Though director Arnold Laven and Biroc don't seem to have a clear strategy behind their web and bar shadows, placing them behind thief and cop alike, they are clearly mimicking the film noir visual design of the era. Likewise, the depiction of a corrupt underworld of criminals, prostitutes, and informants echoes the situations in film noir, where the city is a cesspool of corruption and vice.
Another type of crime saga that developed during the late 1940s and 1950s was called the semi-documentary crime drama. Like film noir, these dramas painted the modern city as a place of temptation and corruption where contemporary urban life can be alienating and unsettling. However, stylistically, the semi-documentary crime drama was the opposite of film noir: They were generally shot on authentic locations during daylight, using a straightforward visual style and high-key, documentary-like lighting. Instead of featuring marginalized, fatalistic detectives who are taken in by femme fatales, these films focused on hard-working cops or agents who professionally and meticulously solved a case. The semi-documentary begins in the mid-1940s, paralleling film noir, and includes such titles as The House on 92nd Street (1945), Naked City (1948), and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947).
Captain Barnaby fits the mold of the semi-documentary protagonist, while the focus on methodical police procedures, such as questioning witnesses, arranging line-ups, following tips, and shaking down informants, reflects the structure of this type of crime drama. Stylistically, the second half of Vice Squad follows the semi-documentary style, particularly during the attempted bank robbery. The gang members stealthily approach the bank from different Los Angeles street corners, a sequence shot on authentic locations, while the police stake out the bank. The unglamorous, high-key lighting creates a natural, documentary look. Ultimately, the film noir and semi-documentary conventions don't really blend together seamlessly, but the fast-paced, day-in-the-life narrative and solid craftsmanship smoothes over the rough edges.
Though a forgotten crime drama to most, and a bitter note in Edward G. Robinson's career, Vice Squad reflects the Hollywood industry in transition and offers an interesting twist on filmmaking trends of the era.
Producers: Sol Lesser with Jules V. Levy and Arthur Gardner
Director: Arnold Laven
Screenplay: Lawrence Roman based on the novel Harness Bull by Leslie T. White
Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc
Editor: Arthur H. Nadel
Art Director: Carroll Clark
Costume Designer: Norma
Cast: Captain Barnaby (Edward G. Robinson), Mona Ross (Paulette Goddard), Ginny (K.T. Stevens), Jack Hartrampf (Porter Hall), Marty Kusalich (Adam Williams), Al Barkis (Edward Binns), Hartrampf's Lawyer (Barry Kelley), Pete Monty (Lee Van Cleef), Frankie Pierce (Jay Adler), Vickie Webb (Joan Vohs), Lieutenant Imlay (Dan Riss), Carol (May Ellen Kay).
by Susan Doll
Vice Squad (1953)
The working title of this film was Harness Bull. Vice Squad was released in Great Britain under the title The Girl in Room 17. According to a March 27, 1947 Hollywood Reporter news item, the novel Harness Bull was first purchased as a property for Sol Lesser and Edward G. Robinson's production company, Thalia Productions. A later Hollywood Reporter news item dated May 6, 1952 reported that Vice Squad was the first film to be produced by the newly formed Sequoia Productions, which comprised a partnership between producers Sol Lesser, Jules Levy, Arthur Gardner and Arnold Laven. The news item adds that the film was initially set in San Francisco, CA.
As noted in the Hollywood Reporter review and other contemporary sources, Vice Squad was shot on location in downtown Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Pacific Coast Highway and Long Beach, CA. Lux Video Theatre aired a version of the story on January 24, 1957, starring Pat O'Brien and Gloria Jean.
Released in United States 1953
Released in United States 1953