30 More Days Of Noir #1: Bunco Squad (dir by Herbert I. Leeds)

Welcome to Noirvember!

Yeah, yeah, I know.  That sounds kinda silly, doesn’t it?  However, November is traditionally the month that classic film bloggers tend to concentrate on writing about film noir.  It provides a bit of grit and cynicism in between the horror fun of October and the holiday schmaltz of December.

I have to admit that I’m a little bit torn when it comes to taking part in Noirvember.  On the one hand, I love a good film noir and there’s quite a few obscure and underrated ones available on YouTube right now.  On the other hand, as a natural-born contrarian, I don’t like the idea of hopping on any bandwagons.

In the end, my love of film noir won out.  So, welcome to my first entry in 30 More Days of Noir.

The 1950 film, Bunco Squad, tells the story of Tony Weldon (Ricardo Cortez), a con man who specializes in using a phony psychic routine to swindle rich people out of their money.  He runs a fake enlightenment center and he claims that he can speak to the dead.  His latest target is the wealthy Jessica Royce (Elisabeth Risdon).  After he finds out that her son was killed during the invasion of Normandy, he and his associates go out of their way to trick her into believing that Tony can contact her son and that her son wants her to leave all of her money to Tony’s organization.  It’s actually kind of interesting watching as Tony and his gang manage to track down information about Jessica and her son, asking the most mundane of questions to find out things that Jessica believes only her son would know.  Watching Tony operate, I was reminded of those documentaries and news reports that you see about phony faith healers and other people who claim they can speak to the dead but who actually just go on very vague fishing expeditions.  (“I’m sensing something about the letter L.  Does that mean anything to you?”)

Tony is not just a con artist.  He’s also a murderer, one who specializes in cutting brake lines on cars.  If you try to expose Tony, you’re probably going to end up driving off of a cliff.  I guess you can get away with that when you’re a con artist in California.  Myself, I live in North Texas where the land is totally flat.  Someone could cut my brake lines and I would probably just keep going forward until I eventually ran out of gas.  Once that happened, someone would probably pull over and offer to give me a lift to the nearest gas station.  That’s one reason why someone like Tony Weldon could never pull off any of his crimes in my home state.

Fortunately, the detective of the LAPD’s Bunco Squad know what Tony’s doing.  The only problem is that they have to get some proof that Tony is swindling Ms. Royce and they have to manage to do it before Tony gets a chance to tamper with all of their brakes.  Leading the Bunco Squad is Steve Johnson (Robert Sterling) and you better believe that there’s no way someone named Steve Johnson is going to be anything other than honest and upright.  Working with a real-life magician named Dante, Johnson attempts to expose all of Tony’s tricks.

It’s probably open for debate whether or not Bunco Squad is a true noir.  On the one hand, Tony and his schemes are very noirish.  On the other hand, Steve and the members of the Bunco Squad are so upright that there’s none of the ambiguous morality that you find in the best film noirs.  I guess I would call this a half-noir.

The best thing about Bunco Squad is that it’s only 67 minutes long, which is all the time that it needs to tell a compact and occasionally interesting story.  There’s no excessive padding to try to force the story out to an unwieldy 90 minutes.  Instead, Bunco Squad jumps right into its story and it doesn’t let up until things come to an end.  The other good thing about Bunco Squad is that you’ve got Ricardo Cortez, giving a charmingly evil performance as Tony Weldon.  The film’s heroes are a pretty dull bunch but Cortez brings a nice charge of danger to the proceedings.

Bunco Squad is an obscure film but it moves quickly and the story is interesting enough to hold your attention for an hour.  It can be found on YouTube.

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