When a police officer is shot arresting a car thief, Captain Barnaby uses his skills and contacts to track down the culprits and uncovers a bank heist plan in the process. Barnaby has no qualms about bending the law to achieve his ends, including trumped up charges to persuade his only witness to cooperate or detaining some call girls to coerce their madam to help him. In the meantime he deals with everyday police business, juggling seemingly trivial matters with more serious ones. Written by
Ron Kerrigan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
This is one of those excellent programmers that studios used to churn out as fillers (second or third features) when a day at the movies was really a day at the movies. Not 90 minutes to two and a half hours, but five hours, followed by a late dinner with your girl friend, boy friend, spouse, or kids. Robinson knocked this film (and several other excellent ones) he did in the early 1950s because his days of movie stardom seemed over (due to blacklisting, as well as a messy divorce). It was a bitter time, and his memories were colored by that bitterness. Yet in this period he did films with Paulette Goddard, Ginger Rogers, Alan Ladd, John Forsythe, and Barbara Stanwyck (the last a western). He even did a second film with his old film co-star (and nemesis) George Raft. Not bad for a barren period. Considering the number of films he did appear in, and comparing his situation to that of ... John Garfield, Robinson did not do too badly.
This film was made shortly after "Detective Story" with Kirk Douglas, William Bendix, and George Macready. While that was a good film too, it was based on a successful stage play. This is based on a script from Hollywood originally. But it is one of those "day in the work life of a police officer". Robinson is shown trying to find the two goons (Edward Binns and Lee Van Cleef) who killed one of his men in a robbery. He is also handling problems with a fake-Italian fortune hunter, a scared little man (Percy Helton), and even a television news spot he has to give. He handles everything with considerable professionalism and aplomb.
"Detective Story" may have initiated this period of films like this, but in actuality "Detective Story" centered on the emotional problems of "good" cop Kirk Douglas, and how he resolves them by sacrificing himself to catch an armed criminal (Joseph Wiseman). A better film to compare it with is "Gideon's Day", an odd film made a few years later by John Ford. Unlike most of Ford's films it was shot in England, and starred Jack Hawkins. The "Gideon" novels were popular detective stories at the time, and "Gideon's Day" dealt with Chief Inspector Gideon tracking down the thieves who fatally injured a policeman who tried to stop them. Ford's film dealt with other incidents in the officer's day, including meeting a new constable who is something of a stumble-bum, who ends up being re-introduced to him as his daughter's new boy friend. Although minor John Ford, it has some good moments (such as Hawkins talking to the dying police officer in the hospital, which is shown from the point of view of the officer going in and out of consciousness). Except that it takes place in London, not L.A., it is a match for "Vice Squad".
But somehow "Vice Squad" works better. Except for the comedy about Gideon's daughter and her new boy-friend, most of "Gideon's Day" is definitely set in England, and yet Ford can't get his Irish-Americanism totally out of himself. At one point an angry Gideon has to restrain himself from taking a poke at an arrested perpetrator. That would not have been normal in England, where that type of reaction is usually not met with. It would have happened in the 1950s (or even the 2000s) in any American city, but that seems to be expected.
"Vice Squad" has some good performances holding it up. Binns and Van Cleef do their normally professional jobs as the killers. Percy Helton plays a timid rabbit of a man, who has seen Robinson before (the scene humanizes both men, for Robinson knows Helton's fears are based on psychological problems and has been trying to get him to see a doctor). Porter Hall plays possibly the funniest schlemiel type he ever had the luck to play, as a man who was out on a private toot but is paying for it again and again because he was at the scene of the crime, so he is possibly a witness. Ironically Hall never saw anything, but Robinson still manages to use him effectively against somebody who can unlock the mystery. Even Hall finally realizes that it's to his advantage not to deny anything, but to play along with Robinson's hunch. The two did well together in "Double Indemnity", and it pleasant to see they still well together here. Paulette Goddard's performance is smaller than one would have wanted, but she makes the most of the role of the head of the "escort" services. If the rule twisting here seems out of date, please remember this is from 1953. The Warren Court had not started changing the open door policy for police investigations yet.
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