Saturday, August 13, 2016

THE GREAT ST. LOUIS BANK ROBBERY (1959)


The mere mention of Steve McQueen makes this movie more well known. Even early in his career he gets top billing which tells you something about the other actors in the film. With the exception of Crahan Denton, they are virtual unknowns. This is a solid docu-drama based on the actual 1953 robbery. Everything is filmed on location and for the historical transportation geek, it is an eyeful.

The opening score has a brief solo piano segment giving the film a macabre aura, befitting the gloomy, chilly autumn period. Not many would choose to meet under a park shelter in this weather so one could assume the meeting is of a serious nature. It looks suspicious. The sound department’s inclusion of a crow’s “caw-caw” adds to the stark scene. McQueen walks into this first scene like his feet hurt. Soft-spoken, nervous and with no criminal record, he is hired as the getaway driver. He just wants to drive. This meant nothing in 1959, but it is telling to McQueen fans today.

Crahan Denton looks the part as the heist’s mastermind, in dark overcoat and fedora hat, who plans on this being his last haul. His facial features and a permanent frown are a dead giveaway of his troubled past, his distrust of women in general and a guy you do not want to cross.



Number two man, David Clarke, is a loose cannon, claustrophobic from a prison term and seems to take the seriousness of the heist rather flippantly. He vouches for McQueen because his sister, Molly McCarthy, dated McQueen in college. She agrees to meet McQueen in a tavern where the most out of tune player piano in St. Louis is plunking away. Despite his denials, she suspects he is going down the wrong path, thanks to her loser brother, and tries to talk him out of it. Her acting is a weak point. None worse than when, later, almost hysterically, between a laugh and a cry, drunk and sober, writes in lipstick on the bank window that it will be robbed. Her male companion thinks she is loony as she keeps repeating, “But it’s funny. Isn’t it funny?! Don’t you think it’s funny?!” He does not. Neither did I. Her acting is very forced, lacking any believability. Her singsong voice is also annoying.

Number four crime partner, James Dukas, is jealous of McQueen because he wanted to drive the escape vehicle. Like a child throwing a tantrum, through his smart-aleck smile and taunting, does everything he can to discredit the young McQueen.


When Denton finds out about the lipstick tip-off at the bank, thanks to Dukas’ spying, he is livid with McQueen, who has been denying he ever saw McCarthy in the first place. But Dukas gets his wish and becomes the driver. Denton threatens to call off the whole thing. Alone in his room, under the pressure and real fear the robbery will fail miserably, he momentarily breaks down emotionally. It is powerful, but brief, scene for Denton.

Clarke suggests his sister go back to Chicago, leaving her in the care of Denton. Along the way, down the outdoor fire escape, Denton goes a bit nuts with mental flashbacks of the women who have ruined his life, including his mother. He becomes mesmerized by the long flight of stairs and they compel him to shove McCarthy down them. In the midst of the failed robbery, McQueen asks Denton what happened to her. In evil disgust, Denton growls, “What do think, punk!” A line which may have given Clint Eastwood a cue for delivery. It is a tough scene illustrating the futility of these criminals. The shootout is relentless by any standard and a cloud of doom covers the robbers. One, in total despair, commits suicide off camera. A scene that probably shocked moviegoers to close out the Fifties. McQueen predicted Dukas would chicken out behind the wheel. True to form, he panics and drives away leaving his “pals” to fend for themselves.

A nice stylistic touch from the director is worth noting. When McQueen makes a call from a phone booth we do not hear his voice, only his actions talking to McCarthy. Her voice is the one we hear, replying to McQueen. And as a testament to how patient people used to be, she asks the customers to hold while she takes his brief call. Not one customer threw a hissy fit.



There is a fine and somewhat humorous early scene for McQueen. As a test, Denton wants him to find an out of state license plate in the supermarket parking lot where they are parked. He does not want to do it but Denton insists. Adding sensory perception to the scene are the sound department’s obligatory horn honks in the distance. McQueen finds a vehicle and bends down quickly behind the car. While crouched down he is startled to see a man walk behind him, between cars, but he continues down the line. McQueen hears an engine roar and wonders where it is. He is immediately surprised when the car he is crouched behind accelerates away from him, leaving McQueen puzzled and Denton nervous watching from a distance.

A McQueen trademark is improvising little details of his character. In the process of unscrewing that license plate, his hand “slips” and he acts like he cut his finger, sucking on the “wound.” Another is when he places his hand briefly on McCarthy’s martini glass just before leaving, in an awkward, “what do I do now” moment. Later, when she discovers him with Clarke, who is supposed to be in Chicago, McQueen’s temperature rises from embarrassment. He wipes “sweat” from his forehead, giving authentication to his character. What is less believable, however, is his apparent mental breakdown after the robbery is foiled. An extreme and sudden emotional turnabout which I found, though possible, not very likely.

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