Man in the Vault/Ring of Fear (1954)

“Both a fine title and a reputable circus have been wasted in Ring of Fear. The slow, contrived and often absurd incidents of the plot elbow the authenticity aside and stir up only a modicum of suspense.” Back in 1954, the New York Times hated Ring of Fear. No doubt, it is bad, as is Man in the Vault, released on DVD at the same time, back in June 2006. But half a century later, both films are also filled with the sort of juicy absurdities that make for cheesy entertainment.

At the start of Ring, cops show up at Clyde Beatty’s (he plays himself) Big Top to investigate the case of the missing mental patient, who happens to be obsessed with the trapeze artist. At the same time, a new guy shows up to work at the circus. Mysterious accidents occur, and a clown winds up dead. It might not take a genius to fit the pieces together, but investigator Frank Wallace (Pat O’Brien) calls one in anyway, and that’s how Mickey Spillane (also playing himself) finds himself interrogating sword swallowers and lion tamers. Though he’s best known as the man who created Mike Hammer, Spillane misses clues as until the final reel of the film, when that new worker, Dublin O’Malley (Sean McClory), is the only violent and crazy suspect left. Well, it has to be him!

Mostly endearing and enterprising, O’Malley can become a vicious criminal in a flash. And yet, he asserts, “I’m not a lunatic. A lunatic acts without a motive.” Still, Spillane is distracted by the sparkly circus showgirls scattered about the Big Top, so he misses the many obvious clues pointing right at O’Malley. It’s almost as if the movie is an excuse for Spillane to hang around the circus for as long as possible rather than a murder mystery. During a lengthy lion-taming sequence that has no connection to the “plot,” Beatty spends about 15 minutes whipping 15 roaring beasts into kitty cats. Another scene features a parade of showgirls riding elephants. Did Beatty’s promotional team really think it a neat idea to promote the show with a vehicle about psychotic murderers, promiscuous acrobats, and dead clowns?

What Ring of Fear does for the kid-friendly circus, Man in the Vault does for bank security. Oddly, the man spends very little time in the vault. Stranger still is how easily a known local locksmith slips in and out of a bank vault with keys not his own to nab stuff from someone else’s safety deposit box. This, of course, is in the days before video surveillance, but the hilariously named Tommy Dancer (William Castle) — locksmith, lover, bowler — runs in and out like he owns the show. Mobster Willis Trent (Berry Kroeger) only wants a master key man to steal cash from his rich arch rival, and it’s only by chance he gets a slick-as-grease cat burglar at the same time.

As potboilers go, Man in the Vault is so B, it’s almost a C. Everything is average: the mobster hires a nice guy to “do a job, a key job” to steal that cash. Trent wins Tommy’s favor by paying for his lane games, and shadowing him at glitzy parties. When Tommy takes a bit more convincing, Trent threatens his best girl, who has pivotal connections to Trent’s main men. Tommy is forced to do the deed, and winds up in a world of trouble. In the final moments, Tommy is forced to duck and dive in a darkened bowling alley, in a scene that resembles The Lady from Shanghai‘s hall of mirrors. It’s well choreographed, but never achieves a sense of menace.

Still, Man in the Vault is delightfully over the top. The bad guys are caricatures, the good guys are clueless until the script calls for them not to be, and the women are helpless (or tarty, or lounge singers). In one sinister scene, Trent’s rival walks slowly down a steep staircase, with high to low piano keys played to mark his every step. Tommy talks in lingo: “If there’s one thing I hate to see, it’s a woman running her battery down”, and “Don’t leave your fur at my place again or I’ll sell it.” Not quite Dashiell Hammett, but a nice effort.

Neither Man in the Vault nor Ring of Fear is quite noir, and they shouldn’t be judged as such. They’re to Shanghai what James Gunn’s Slither is to The Blob: rip-offs, awful in parts, fabulous in others, trippy fun everywhere else.

RATING 5 / 10