Not long ago, TCM devoted a big chunk of time to Mamie Van Doren, showing about a half-dozen of her movies. This is probably the first time in history that such a tribute was undertaken by a television network. In any case, I DVRed all of them and they were something to see.
I remember seeing a couple of these as a kid in the theaters, and later one or two more on TV a few years later, but that’s it. The one movie I wish they’d shown was what I consider one of Mamie’s best, High School Confidential (1958), which opened with Jerry Lee Lewis pounding out the title song on the back of a flatbed truck.
Still in all, the movies were enjoyable. They included, among others, Vice Raid (1960), The Beat Generation (1959), Untamed Youth (1957), and the subject of this review, Guns, Girls, and Gangsters (1959).
Mamie’s a nightclub singer drawn into a plot to hijack an armored truck carrying the receipts of a Las Vegas casino. Her husband, portrayed with gusto by Lee Van Cleef, hatched the plan while doing time in prison. His cellmate, played by Gerald Mohr, is released a few months before Van Cleef and spends his time rounding up the crew, setting up the score, and hitting on Mamie.
Armored truck heists have been shown endlessly in movies and on TV, but this one is well-thought out and ranks right up there with the most original I’ve seen. The storyline is surprisingly tense, with a lot of urgency built into it, so that by the time the actual heist occurs, suspense is everywhere.
Every time I see Gerald Mohr, I’m reminded of what an outstanding actor he was. His charisma is undeniable, and he cuts a commanding figure on the silver screen. In the days of radio, he was the voice of Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye, and no greater voice existed for the part. I could never understand why better film scripts never came his way.
And speaking of scripts, as in all Mamie Van Doren movies, that is where the whole thing comes apart. Apparently, the screenwriters felt they had to bring the script “down” to Mamie’s level in order to push it across to the viewer, and veterans like Mohr and Van Cleef found themselves trapped inside it, just working for a paycheck or to build a resumé. In this one, the best line (and I’m periphrasing here) is spoken by Mamie while wearing a tight, tight dress, as she’s about to sing a song in front of a small crowd: “Better stand back, fellas. I take deep breaths.”
Recommendation: A true relic of the 1950s, but in the end, it’s for Mamie fans only.