Saturday, September 29, 2012

The King of Cool Begins His Reign: "The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery" (1959)

Fresh-faced Steve McQueen gets his feet wet in this surprisingly entertaining little heist film.

McQueen is former college football star George, brought to St. Louis by older lifelong friend Gino (David Clarke). George is to drive the getaway car during a bank robbery led by Egan (Crahan Denton) and his partner Willie (James Dukas). The four men begin the mechanics of setting up the job, but Gino and George are broke, and George goes to former girlfriend (and Gino's little sister) Ann (Molly McCarthy) for spending money.

George pretends to be an encyclopedia salesman, picking up some cash for Gino, who is supposed to be on trial in Chicago. The problem is Ann sees Gino while the gang is observing the bank, and George and Gino try to cover for her to the unsympathetic Egan and Willie. Things really begin to unravel as Ann gets drunk and scrawls a warning on the bank window, which is seen by Willie. The gang finds it hard to trust each other, a problem when this score could net about $20,000 for each participant for two minutes work.

"The St. Louis Bank Robbery" is a genuine treat. McQueen is excellent as George, whose young life is already full of so much regret. Denton's Egan is an older man who hopes this will be his last heist. He is a latent homosexual (Willie used to be his golden boy), and takes an instant liking to George. I have only seen Denton in the completely different, original "The Parent Trap," but he has a memorably menacing presence here. Dukas is fantastic as Willie. He does not like George on first sight, sees Egan begin to take him in, and does whatever he can to put the two men at odds. Gino has problems of his own. He cannot bear the thought of going back to jail, arbitrarily freaking out when confined in everyday places like a bathroom, or telling people not to sit too close to him. Molly McCarthy, who I am not familiar with, does a good job as Ann. She seems overly naive, but really wants to believe the best about everyone.

The film is a gritty exercise in characterization, not Danny Ocean and the boys winking at the camera. The actual crime the film is based on took place in 1953, and the film uses the real life locations, as well as some of the people involved in the robbery. Charles Guggenheim and John Stix's direction is spot-on. You can really tell the difference between an overly dressed set, and actual location shooting. The one or two flaws I found concern some overly melodramatic scenes from Richard Heffron's screenplay, although those are overshadowed by memorable scenes like woman-hating Egan's story about his abusive mother.

Better known as "The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery," this public domain film is the reason I go into libraries and video stores, grab a few movies I have never heard of, and watch them. Really good stuff! (* * * *) out of five stars.