“The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery” takes its title from the real life bank robbery gone wrong in April 1953. And while directors Charles Guggenheim and John Stix take a documentarian approach, filming on location in St. Louis and even, as the opening credits indicate, employing the actual police officers involved in the actual robbery in the cast, it is ultimately less interested in the robbery itself, the particulars of which are quickly laid out by ringleader John Egan (Crahan Denton) and then moved aside. In fact, the robbery, naturally placed at the end, plays less like a climax than a denouement. And while the scent of fatalism, as it often is in noir, is strong, it principally focuses not on Egan, the hard-boiled old timer with a longstanding grudge against the world who runs aground on fate’s obligatory cruelty, but on a fresh-faced kid straight out of college who doesn’t so much run afoul of fate as simply make the worst decision of his young life.
The kid is George Fowler, played by a pre-stardom Steve McQueen who in his introduction, repeatedly saying “sir” and sporting a letter jacket, comes across less like the magnetic action star he would become than Anthony Michael Hall in “The Breakfast Club.” He is brought into the mix by Gino (David Clarke), an old family friend, the requisite convict who isn't going back to the slammer, and while Gino does say that, the movie does better showing it in one frightful sequence in a bathroom shot in concurrent close-ups that makes it momentarily feel like a cell. He collapses in a terrible fright. In that moment, you already know how it’s going to end for him.
It’s a great sequence, but not quite as great as the sequence illuminating George as a former college football star still longing for the gridiron’s glory, clichéd to say the least but nevertheless rivetingly conveyed when he wanders his old college football field alone and late at night in the dark shadows of the looming goal posts. Discordant chords on the soundtrack initially emit the vibe of a horror movie, but rather than end with a bang, the moment ends with an elegiac whimper, the fretful score giving way and re-imagining a college fight song as something like a mournful dirge, like this gridiron is George’s burial ground.
His past and his alternate future are evoked in Ann (Mollie McCarthy), his ex-girlfriend and Gino’s sister, a character initially existing on the edge of the film, one that has gone the opposite way of George, opting for the adult life, emblemized in the martinis she drinks and the practical advice she gives George when he asks, whether directly or indirectly, for it. She is not granted much of an off screen life, but that's because the character allows herself to be pulled back into his orbit. For whatever unspeakable sin George may have committed, there is an affection that remains, and McCarthy plays at the sense that Ann can feel him drifting off course and wants to get him back on track.
That marks Ann as apart from the femme fatale, though Egan sees it differently, convinced women are not only not worth the trouble but a corroding force, brought home in a drunken monologue that Denton wrings for maximum effect. If for most of the movie he maintains a straight, hard face, here he lets it crack, coming completely undone, his own resentments boiling over. It is moments like this that suggest their robbery doesn’t have a prayer, and sure enough, for all Egan’s grand planning, he cannot keep the robbery itself on course when it finally comes, though its falling apart is played less as a traditional shoot ‘em up, though shots are fired, than a ferocious evocation of the walls closing in.
They close in on everyone, and in different ways, but most particularly on George, a character that gradually develops a hardened shell the further he plunges into the criminal life, only to see it mercilessly shatter in this conclusion. We are so use to thinking of McQueen as a tough guy, but here, at the end, he is nothing more than a frightened little kid in over his head, tossing away his gun like an infant who demanded a toy to play with and then didn’t want it anymore. And the final shot, looking through metal bars out the back of a paddy wagon, is like looking back on his short life, everything he had, everything he was, anything he could have been, receding from view.