This has to be the worst Steve McQueen movie ever, maybe after The Blob, which was his first starring role. This came out in 1959, probably a good reason I missed it until it came up on Amazon Prime Video. It’s The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery from Charles Guggenheim & Associates and distributed by United Artists. Details are from Wikipedia and IMDb.
If you think the title gives the plot away, your’re right. It’s about an actual bank robbery that occurred in St. Louis, Missouri six years earlier. In fact, opening credits announce, “This story is based on a true incident. Men in the St. Louis Police Department play the same parts they did in the actual crime.” The Southwest Bank in the movie appears to be the same bank involved in the original crime.
Opening scenes show three cars trailing in-line across the bridge from Illinois. Nothing like three cars moving in concert to arouse suspicion, but none is aroused. The three park across from the bank and scope it out.
Later they gangsters drive to a park to discuss the plan. McQueen is George Fowler, scheduled to be the designated driver. He has no criminal record, but he does need the cash. The others are Crahan Denton as John Egan, the boss; David Clarke as Gino; James Dukas as Willie, a gangster upshot who vies to be the driver; and Larry Gerst as Eddie.
Here’s a problem. These hot shot gangsters are mostly broke, further evidence crime does not pay. Egan has some money, and he can bankroll his friend Willie. But George is down to his last two dollars, and Gino, a friend of George’s, is running on fumes. Somehow George and Gino are going to need to get some cash. Gino has an idea. George is an ex-boyfriend of Gino’s sister Ann (Mollie McCarthy). Gino coerces George into hitting Ann up for a loan. George can’t let on that Gino put him up to it.
George gets the money muffs the con. Ann figures it’s Gino who wants the money, and George tells her Gino is in Chicago and needs money for airfare to St. Louis. He will pay her back. That backfires when Ann spots Gino coming out of a diner, where he has been conferring with George. Ann is bound to crack the operation wide open.
Egan gets wise that the plan has been compromised. He figures to silence Ann, but he cant’ let on to George and Gino. He pretends he’s going to take Ann to the airport to get her out of town, but he pushes her down a fire escape to her death, instead.
Yeah, the carefully-timed heist quickly goes sour. Two cops are at a donut shop nearby when the bank alarm comes in. One cop is wounded in an initial exchange. As Egan attempts to skedaddle with a hostage a cop puts one in him.
Gino, figuring to never go back to the slammer, retreats to the bank basement and puts the muzzle of his pistol into his mouth. In the meantime, Willie, who has wormed his way into the job of designated driver, scoots in the getaway car. George makes a go of taking a hostage, but he does not have the ruthless instincts of his cohorts. He gets shot and hauled off by the cops.
Acting is barely par for this production. McQueen is his laconic self, And McCarthy just gets by. This was shot a few months before McQueen started appearing on our TV screens in Wanted, Dead or Alive, which shot him to the big time.
Examining the actual history of the robbery reveals correlation in some details. History does not mention Ann, sister of one of the robbers. The shooting of the robber by a policeman is real, and the actor playing the cop in the screen shot above is Officer Melburn Stein, who died last year. From IMDb:
Policeman Mel Stein, a hero for shooting a bank robber and saving a woman hostage, only just died in 2016 at the age of 102. He retired to St. Louis County near Creve Coeur where he took long walks each morning and enjoyed martinis reminiscing with their neighbors including of his WWII experiences in the Pacific as a Marine, which contributed to his ability to remain cool under fire the day of the bank robbery.
Something about the movie that did not seem true to life was the number of shots fired by the police and the manner of the shooting. With Gino dead in the basement, Egan fatally wounded and carted away, and with Willie absconded with the getaway car, George is flat out of luck on the bank lobby floor. And the cops continue to pour lead through the bank windows. Did cops ever do this? No return fire. Bank crowded with civilians, and no target visible, the cops are shooting up the place. Reports from the actual even have it the police fired 40 rounds in the one-sided exchange.
News reporters of the day were quick to respond, and Jack January, of the Post-Dispatch caught the following of the action:
The getaway driver was captured three days later, and the two surviving robbers received long prison sentences. IMDb notes “The movie American Heist (2014) is based on The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery.”