Ambush (1939)

Approved   |    |  Crime, Drama

Ambush (1939) Poster

Four bandits swoop down on a California bank and flee with $98,000, leaving a truck as the only clue to their identity. Jane Hartman, bank secretary, recognizes the truck as one on which ... See full summary »

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25 May 2004 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
| Interesting unusual failure
'Ambush' is a semi-noir with some very interesting credits. The script is by S.J. Perelman and his wife Laura, whose screenwriting careers are entirely associated with comedies, yet they acquit themselves respectably in this thick-ear drama which features an uneasy blend of comedy. Kurt Neumann was an extremely talented director who never acquired the commercial success (nor the critical attention) which he deserved. The leading lady in 'Ambush' is Gladys Swarthout, an opera star who here attempts a straightforward dramatic role in which she never sings a note. (And she does reasonably well.)

'Ambush' is similar in mood to the much better 'Jeopardy' (starring a much better actress, Barbara Stanwyck). Both films play out their stories from the premise of an ordinary person being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mr Gibbs is the mastermind of a gang of bank robbers in need of a getaway vehicle. They kidnap a secretary named Jane (Swarthout), whom they intend to use as a hostage. Then, in this film's least plausible sequence, they force her to hijack a lorry and its driver. The driver - a prole named Tony - is well-played by Lloyd Nolan, clearly pleased to be portraying an honest guy for once. Jane and Tony will be spending some time in forced togetherness, at gunpoint ... so it's obvious how they're going to end up.

The single biggest flaw in 'Ambush' is the casting of Ernest Truex in the key role as Gibbs, the 'brains' of the heist ring. I've never liked Truex in any of his film or television appearances. He always seems indecisive, evasive, often effeminate, with awkward little bits of physical business which I quite find alienating. Bluntly, Truex just doesn't have the chops to play a criminal mastermind ... even one whose plans go awry, as here.

There are some welcome appearances by supporting actors whom I associate with comedy far more than with noir or suspense. Broderick Crawford, William Frawley and Polly Moran are all good here. George Melford, more successful as a director than as an actor, acquits himself well as the president of the bank Truex robs. I recognise Rufe Davis from cheap westerns and 'Petticoat Junction' repeats; this is the first 'normal' film in which I've seen him, and he's quite good here in his bit part. The ending of 'Ambush' is obvious, but this is a creditable attempt to tell a story in an unusual way, with an unusual blend of comedy and suspense. It's not altogether successful, but I'll give it credit for trying. I'll rate 'Ambush' 7 points out of 10.

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