Her: “You’ll have to be better than this, Gerry. I’ve seen bigger rings on a peppermint stick”.
Him (lying): “That was my mother’s ring”.
Her: “Your mother’s? I didn’t know that”.
Him: “There’s a lot of things you don’t know, baby.”
Blessed with arrogant good looks and a rogue charm, Gerard Graham Dennis was meant to live brazenly. Though born into poverty, his tastes would later run only to the finer things: swank automobiles, bespoke apparel, French champagne, and beautiful women with models’ cheekbones. Beneath it all, however, lay little more than a shameless talent for deceit and a reckless willingness to defy the law.
When still a young teenager in Southern Ontario in the 1930’s, Dennis was arrested for petty thievery and sent to reform school. Upon release, he headed for Montreal. It was there he found out it was just as easy to steal a fortune in valuables as it was kitchen change from coffee cans. One evening, after robbing an aging gold-mining heiress of $75,000 worth of jewels, he headed to the US with an American girlfriend, Eleanor Harris. Ending up in Westchester County, a leafy and well-to-do enclave just outside New York City, he took to plundering some of the precinct’s poshest properties. One night, however, he was caught in the act by a wealthy New Rochelle boat-builder. Dennis shot him and got away, pockets stuffed with cash and jewelry.
During this period, Dennis also had been teaching himself how to break up precious stones and remake jewelry so as to avoid the underworld markdown on stolen goods. He began posing as a legitimate trade rep, unafraid to ask list prices for his merchandise. Then, in the summer of 1947, he made his first big mistake. He picked up an attractive young socialite, Gloria Horowitz, in a Manhattan nightclub and, not long after, sent her out to sell a few of the diamonds to a jeweler in Philadelphia. A suspicious clerk called the police and Horowitz was busted while Dennis, out of harm’s way, watched from across the street. The terrified debutante would spill everything and, for the first time, the cops had a line on him.
Knowing he’d been fingered, Dennis left New York for Los Angeles, where he lost no time in setting up shop. Touring around in a Cadillac convertible or, as the occasion demanded, a plush Lincoln sedan, he began to woo well-heeled Hollywood celebrities and bigwigs, representing himself as a prosperous jewelry dealer and aspiring actor. He was becoming a fixture at parties held in some of the tonier areas of L.A. like Beverly Hills, Brentwood, and Bel Air. There, he was able to case homes at his leisure, then later return to rob them, tracking the owners’ movements by following the society pages, travel news, and gossip columns. Among his victims were movie stars Errol Flynn, Alexis Smith, Joan Crawford, Dennis Morgan, and Loretta Young.
Along the way, he acquired a new girlfriend, a former school teacher from Toronto, Betty Richie, and in early 1949 told her he was going to divorce his wife back East. He kissed Richie goodbye and flew to Cleveland to unload a cache of diamonds. As he sat talking to the jewelry dealer, the man’s nephew walked in, recognized Dennis from a wanted poster, and ‘phoned the cops. Within minutes they showed up and arrested him without incident, his only response being, “Well, looks like you fellows have got me, doesn’t it?” In his pocket was a hand-written list of others whom he'd planned to rob next, including Charlie Chaplin, Ronald Coleman, Alice Faye, Hedy Lamarr, Jack Benny, Mary Pickford, Dorothy Lamour, and Louis B. Mayer. A name crossed was that of Bing Crosby because, as Dennis explained, he was a big fan of the crooner.
Authorities estimated that Dennis had stolen over a million dollars worth of valuables since arriving in Los Angeles. Beverly Hills Police Chief Clinton Anderson expressed grudging admiration for the robber, saying, “He’s one of the greatest burglars whoever operated.” Dennis undoubtedly was one of the greatest jewel thieves up until then. But the party was over. ‘The Raffles of Beverly Hills’ was convicted, sentenced to 18 years-to-life, and sent to Auburn State Prison in Upstate New York to serve his time, much of it at hard labor.
Closely following the news of Dennis’s exploits was Warner Brothers producer Bryan Foy, head of the studio’s B unit. Foy’s career as a creative producer would span 200-plus films, including B noir classics Canon City (1948), Hollow Triumph (1948), Trapped (1949), Highway 301 (1950), Women’s Prison (1955), and Blueprint for Murder (1961). Foy also happened to be a friend of Stanley Church, the beleaguered mayor of New Rochelle, who had initiated the nationwide search for Dennis. Church had kept in touch with Foy, providing him updates on the less-than-gentlemanly bandit whose boldness had profoundly rattled the good burghers of Westchester County. With Dennis’s arrest getting play in the national media, Foy was primed to produce a movie about the affair (one in which Church would get to appear as himself, in an engagingly bouncy performance). Foy then went looking for a screenwriter who would do credit to Dennis’s fierce criminal adventuring. His pick was Borden Chase, whose scripts were valued for their straightforward dialog, clearly-outlined action, and powerful emotion as evidenced by films such as Howard Hawk’s Red River (1948) and Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950).
Chase had grown up on the mean streets of New York in the 20’s and had lived a turbulent life prior to becoming a writer. He had been gangster Frankie Yale’s chauffeur—at least until Al Capone had Yale killed. Chase had a native affinity, if not affection, for wayward rogues such as Gerard Graham Dennis. In The Great Jewel Robber, he renders Dennis (played by David Brian) an engaging, living-and-breathing character, despite his sins, which come fast and furious. By the film’s thirty-minute mark, the master-thief has been busted for robbery, escaped from prison (where, but for a sadistic warden, there had been some hope for his reform), acquired forged documents, crossed the border to the US, planned and pulled off a job, and been beaten up and hospitalized. Along the way, he’d also enticed a landlord’s daughter, consorted with countless shady ladies, and seduced a hospital nurse, Martha Rollins (Marjorie Reynolds) who would become his lover, wife, and, later, accomplice.
David Brian, a fearless Viking of an actor, bolts through The Great Jewel Robber with great style, always one move ahead of the authorities and always with a different woman on his arm. The film’s females are a glamorous bunch: Perdita Chandler as the cross-border girlfriend who’s as just crooked as he is; Alix Talton, as a hard-nosed department store buyer whom he picks up in a hotel lobby in New York; and Jacqueline deWit, playing a haughty Beverly Hill socialite whom he cultivates and turns into his dupe. Like most of the women who cross Dennis’s path, each will pay a price, especially Nurse Rollins, who tends to him while he recovers from a beating and then runs away with him. Because of her caring nature and the fact she loves him, Rollins is vulnerable and it isn’t long before he begins to abuse her. Forever suspicious and jealous, he says, “You haven’t been doing anything you weren’t supposed to, have you, you dirty little slut?” and strikes her. Later, as she watches him attempt to pick up a dishy blonde (Cleo Moore), Rollins can only look on with a combination of dismay and resignation. By this time, Dennis’s maverick appeal has worn out its welcome, and, like Rollins, we’re hoping to see him get what he deserves.
The Great Jewel Robber, its story ‘ripped from the headlines', is unflinching and intense, with director Peter Godfrey wringing all the drama and suspense he can out of Borden Chase’s charged script. Three times Dennis is approached by the authorities just at the moment he thinks he’s in the clear. On one occasion, police are called to a party at a Beverly Hills residence after a priceless necklace goes missing. Dennis has stashed the piece of jewelry in a plant pot but has stayed close by. A dour-looking cop who’s been sniffing around approaches him and says, “That’s a funny place to put a thing like that”. A started Dennis starts to move for his gun, just as the cop says, “I mean, that flower, there”, pointing past him to a towering orchid.
Godfrey had walked on the dark side of the street before, directing a number of fraught melo-noirs including Hotel Berlin (1945), The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), Cry Wolf (1947), and The Woman in White (1948). He would follow a few years later with one of his tidiest film noirs, Please Murder Me (1956), starring Raymond Burr and Angela Lansbury. Godfrey had begun his career in live anthology television (Lux Video Theater, The Star and the Story, The Ford Television Theater) and was a skilled craftsman who handled even lesser material with conviction. Though a B project by budget and billing, The Great Jewel Robber often thinks and looks more like an A feature, thanks to Chase’s robust screenplay and Godfrey’s correspondingly forceful point of view. Occupying similar territory as other great A/B crime titles such as Pushover (1954), Rogue Cop (1954), or Private Hell 36 (1954), The Great Jewel Robber is a classic noir crime procedural that still begs to live large once more.
(A longer version of this article appeared in NOIR CITY e-magazine)