Thanks to the Warner Archive division I am reminded once again why I love the “B” units that the major studios had cranking out inexpensive movies destined to be the opening title on double bills. RKO’s Bunco Squad being a perfect example of an entertaining thriller that clocks in at a rapid paced 67 minutes.
To get the plot moving, viewers are brought up to speed in the movie’s opening minutes on what exactly the “Bunco Squad” is exactly patrolling. It’s the racketeers who read palms, offer crystal ball revelations, study numerology and allow the wealthy to speak to the spirits of their dear departed and by extension have those voices from beyond tell them where to place their financial trust.
It’s Robert Sterling and Douglas Fowley who lead the squad and when Ricardo Cortez arrives in L.A. to enlist a trio of scam artists the con is on. Cortez and his associates tag the elderly and quite wealthy Elisabeth Risdon as their mark. Cortez utilizes Bernadene Hayes as Princess Liane and Robert Bice as Drake The Swami to bring back Risdon’s dead son in spirit form. To do so they must gather her late son’s story and set about learning of the young man’s past with John Kellogg heading that part of the operation.
Sterling and Fowley know that the usual suspects are gearing up for a major con but haven’t pegged the unknown Cortez as the ringleader. For his part Cortez is romancing Risdon’s secretary played by Marguerite Churchill to keep track of just how the plan of having the old girl change her will to reflect her money will be left to the bogus Rama Society that is quietly owned by Cortez. The moment she changes her will is to be the equivalent of signing her death warrant. If Miss Churchill’s name grabbed your attention then you’re probably a fan of classic 1930’s horror pictures. She starred opposite Gloria Holden in Dracula’s Daughter and alongside Boris Karloff in The Walking Dead. This outing proved to be her final screen credit.
With Risdon convinced that the Princess Liane holds the power needed to converse with her son and is readily about to sign over her millions, Sterling hits upon the idea of having the old girl steered to a new medium. This one a police plant and conveniently enough, his own girlfriend played by Joan Dixon. Dixon is doubling here for the police. By day she’s a wanna be actress playing bits on the soundstages of presumably RKO. Easy on the budget I suppose. To help her along with her own readings and the appearance of Risdon’s dead son’s spirit, the police have teamed her with the real life Dante the Magician (Harry August Jensen).
Spooky magical tricks for the youngsters via some decent F/X enter into the story as Sterling, Fowley and Dante help Miss Dixon convince the wealthy Risdon that it is she who has the power to communicate with her beloved son. I was actually a bit surprised that murder crept into this enjoyable script. Cortez isn’t to be trusted and will resort to killing when called for in order to land his enormous payday. Not to worry because the irony of his demise is well suited when the fadeout is upon us.
Easy to shoehorn in thanks to it’s short running time, Bunco Squad is a worthwhile endeavor. It also offers trivia hounds a chance to get a look back at some key locations in and around Los Angeles circa 1950. I assume I spotted Union Station in there, maybe a courthouse and a public library. Even Shubert’s Bakery. Appears to be a real San Francisco business at the time and still active today. I even spotted a couple faces that had a date in the future on the Andy Griffith Show as semi-regulars. Yes I’m an Andy nut. Dick Elliott who would play Mayor Pike for a short while and Tol Avery who appeared as Department Store owner Ben Weaver in a memorable episode where Barney Fife (Don Knotts) stands about as a mannequin to catch a shoplifter.
Back to Bunco Squad. Really a wonderful example of what a “B” film can deliver to the viewing audience by way of RKO and director Herbert I. Leeds. Mr. Leeds would primarily stay with the “B” unit and direct films in the Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan series. He’d also helm Manila Calling, a film recently reviewed here that offered plenty of WW2 excitement on a propaganda level.