Bunco Squad (1950)

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This is a great RKO B-movie starring Ricardo Cortez as a criminal mastermind who gathers a bunch of racketeers working the occult industry. Fortune tellers, mind readers, crystal ball gazers, tarot card arrangers and numerologists–they’re all on the police force’s radar for taking advantage of the gullible and swindling the wealthy. Cortez’s gang is aiming for millions from a rich woman (Elisabeth Risdon) yearning to communicate with her dead son. Cortez plans to lure her with phony seances and messages, get her to change her will to leave everything to their helpful occult charity, the “Rama Society.” Once the new will is ready, they’ll use Cortez’s preferred method of murder, tampering with brakes and letting the steep mountain road from Rama do the rest.

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Meanwhile, Bunco Squad detective Robert Sterling tries to make the public aware of these kinds of scams. As the movie begins, he and partner Douglas Fowley are giving a lecture to demonstrate how such criminals operate and leave their victim “holding the bag.” When their usual suspects suddenly vanish, the detectives suspect a big new con job is underway. As they look for clues, the Rama gang conducts its own investigation into the biography of Risdon’s late son. They get to know her maid, her beautician and other longtime friends, and build up a thick file of personal, intimate details that hook and convince Risdon her son is really talking to her during seances. When Sterling and Fowley finally locate the gang and their new client, they can’t do a thing. Risdon’s only giving them “love” donations, and is so addicted to the readings that she refuses to listen to reason. Still, Cortez won’t risk any interference, so he fixes the brakes on Sterling’s car (he miraculously survives) and the auto belonging to Risdon’s skeptical secretary Marguerite Churchill (she’s not so lucky).

Up until now, Sterling has mocked his girlfriend (Joan Dixon) about her acting, and their different careers and values threaten to break them up, but suddenly he finds the perfect use for her talent. Hoping that another, better psychic can pull Risdon away from Rama, Sterling introduces Dixon to the Great Dante, a magician using his powers for good as a police consultant. Dante gives her a crash course in deception and sets her up as the new medium in town with a very different message for Risdon and her money. This pushes Cortez to hurry up the plan and cut some more brakes.

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It’s a lot of action, humour and crime to fit into 67 minutes of movie but it all clicks and plays out in some nice L.A. locations under Herbert I. Leeds’ efficient direction. The familiar and well cast faces include the Rama Society’s chief medium and tough dame Bernadene Hayes, its main heavy John Kellogg and its supporting swindlers Vivien Oakland and Robert Bice. They spout new age nonsense, play different parts in the con and put on a convincing classy front when they’re not bickering over Cortez’s plan or trying to get rid of the police. Risdon also sees a “consulting psychologist” played by Frank Wilcox, who’s yet another crook, one easily blackmailed to refer her to Rama Society.

We’re introduced to Dixon’s acting career through a clever gag when a realistic shootout unfolds behind her as she’s on the phone with Sterling. Similarly, at the end when you expect the couple’s happy ending, she’s on set again, marrying some other guy. During her dramatic seances, Fowley and Dante wear black bodysuits and masks to act as the “apparitions” she calls forth. That’s picked up in a funny bit where these invisible helpers beat up on Bice and send him fleeing in terror. The same setup and payoff happens with all the brake cutting, as the finale involves one more sabotaged car and a thrilling chase that caps off this very entertaining B ride.

Bunco Squad is available from Warner Archive

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10 thoughts on “Bunco Squad (1950)”

    1. That is a great poster,there were hardly any stills to be found online but that more than makes up for it. Lots of fun with this one 🙂

  1. Interesting to note that the “Dragnet” radio series began the previous year, and one of uber-cop Joe Friday’s varied assignments was bunco. Wonder if this was the inspiration for the film?

    1. Could very well be, they have the nice intro in this movie where the public lecture nicely explains what bunco covers (plus a little bit of voice over).

  2. I enjoyed this one very much too! It’s nice to see Doug Fowley get a chance to play a good-guy (before he went into Gabby Hayes mode), and as you note, everything was very fast-paced and well-executed.

    Of added interest: Dante the magician was playing himself, he was Harry Jenson, a (famous in his day) Danish born magician who used Dante as his stage name (I watched it some years ago with my amatuer magician brother, who was rather interested to see him in the film.)

    1. I did read up on him yesterday, I didn’t know of Dante before that. “Sim Sala bim!” His house was so cool, with that basement packed to the rafters with props, the crystal ball doorstop (ha), and the platform to the upper floor. Fun stuff all through, liked the crew of criminals and Fowley as a detective was a nice switch, you’re right. They just threw all kinds of stuff in the mix. Thanks!

  3. Seems interesting. The whole bunco business was reasonably popular as a plot device throughout the 40s, and even earlier in literature. The fake spiritualist stuff, and the efforts to expose it, seems to have followed on from the publicity caused by high profile adherents like Conan Doyle. Lots of series programmers, like Chan, tackled this, and writers such as Clayton Rawson took it on in his Merlini mysteries.

    1. That’s right, I remember Doyle’s books etc., he even promised to communicate from beyond the grave. Interesting in this movie that they equate the psychologist to the occult practitioners, or better to say the crook uses the psychology angle as it gains popularity. At least the magicians got some good PR with Dante using his powers for good. Thanks.

    1. I aim to serve! Yes that’s a tough one to find other than the rare tcm showing. I love a snappy B, speaking of efficiency, they had to be, and did it well.

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