Sunday, July 26, 2009

Movie: Bunco Squad (1950)

It’s been a strange week. Several new projects cropped up, and I ceded control of the television to Rosemarie for five nights so she could watch Torchwood: Children of Earth.

I was able to squeeze in a few short items, like this movie recorded off TCM in the wee hours. How could I resist a title like Bunco Squad? Plus it’s about phony psychics, and you know how I feel about them.

Robert Sterling is the wooden detective in the titular unit. His aspiring actress girlfriend is played by Howard Hughes discovery Joan Dixon. Hughes certainly had a type: skittish brunettes who couldn’t convey fear if their hair was on fire. Sterling, at the request of a lieutenant who has never missed a meal, engages in some baffling police work to track down a ring of sham spiritualists. They’re led by Ricardo Cortez, more animated here than he was playing the first Sam Spade. Their target is a kindly rich woman mourning her dead son. Sterling’s brilliant plan is to set Dixon up as another fake fortuneteller, preying on the poor grieving mother’s emotions for the greater good. I’m sure the idea made sense to Lieutenant Are-You-Going-To-Finish-That on paper.

Bunco Squad is crap, but it’s fast-moving crap. Director Herbert Leeds churned out entries in the Cisco Kid, Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto and Mike Shayne series, so he knew how to move things along. There are some interesting tidbits explaining how mendacious mediums work. Dante, once known as “king of magicians,” appears as himself, aiding the police in their inquiries. You also get a ridiculous fight scene a la Mummenschanz. And Cortez and his cronies can only kill people by tampering with their brake lines. It happens not once, not twice, but three times in 67 minutes. Not that that establishes a pattern or anything.

DVD: The Paul Lynde Halloween Special

Why did I watch this now? Good luck trying to rent it in October. You can’t get near the thing. The Lynde special aired exactly once in 1976, and was then thought lost. They haven’t found the full eight-hour cut of von Stroheim’s Greed, but they did dig this one up.

It features every All Hallows’ Eve staple: witches, CB radio, and sketches spoofing Valentino. There’s also Kiss making their TV debut, but none of their numbers is anywhere near as scary as Florence Henderson’s rendition of “That Old Black Magic.”

Also on the show is Roz (Pinky Tuscadero) Kelly. Pinky is the character she played on three episodes of Happy Days. That’s how she’s billed. Lynde even announces her name that way in the wrap-up. It’s like putting an expiration date on her fame. “You’ll get fifteen minutes if you’re lucky, sweetheart.”

Here, for your viewing pleasure, is the closing disco number. Don’t let the three-minutes-plus running time fool you. It seems much longer.