The plot of the movie goes something like this. A gang of desperate characters hoping for a big payoff team up to plan one of the most ambitious heists in history; over two million dollars in cash from a racetrack. Each member of the gang has their own role to play, and I'll try to avoid spoilers as I run through the cast of characters. This film is amazing for me because of how it juggles so many characters while having them all be memorable.
Johnny Clay comes closest to being "the main character." He's played by Sterling Hayden, who would go on to have many memorable roles, but it's worth pointing out that he would go on to play Roger Wade in the 1973 adaptation of "The Long Goodbye" (which is worth checking out, even though it makes some "interesting" decisions and is technically neo-noir). Johnny Clay is fresh off a five year stint in the big house and decides this time he's going to aim really high before settling down with his girlfriend Fay, played by Collen Gray. He is the gang member whose job is to commit the actual robbery.
His mentor figure is Marvin Unger, nicknamed "Marv" who is played by Jay C. Flippen. Jay does a good job of communicating tenderness and affection to Johnny Clay, becoming something of a father figure. His job is to provide the money necessary for various expenses in the plan.
George Peatty, played by Elisha Cook Jr., is a window teller whose job it is to let Johnny into the back room. His wife, Sherry, played by Marie Windsor, is a cold, calculating capitalist, who sees an opportunity to take advantage of her browbeaten husband, with the help of her lover, Val Cannon, played by Vince Edwards. The contrast between timid George and confident Val is as severe as the contrast between night and day.
Ted de Corsia plays Randy Kennan, a corrupt policeman, and I can't really go into much detail on his role without spoiling the film. But it should be noted that he's shrewd, with a knack for figuring out angles.
Joe Sawyer plays Mike O'Reilly, who ultimately is the most sympathetic character. He's a bartender at the racetrack, and needs the money to help care for his dying wife, played by Dorothy Adams. He uses his inside position to help the robbery go more smoothly.
Finally we have the two hired guns, who are actually some of the more interesting characters of the story. One is a russian wrestler named Maurice Oboukhoff, played by Kolaw Kwariani. He's extremely intelligent, as all he does in his spare time is beat people at chess. He takes the job of starting a bar fight to distract racetrack security because he lacks purpose and direction in his life. The other goon is Nikki Arrane, played by Timothy Carey, whose job is to distract everyone by shooting prizewinning horse Red Lightning. He has a really cool accent and calls anyone older than him "Pops".
There are two important themes in this film. One, of course, is capitalism. The gangsters run the gamut of desire, some simply wanting a quick payoff while others need it to help loved ones. The other theme is time; the story is told somewhat non-linearly as it runs through the various actions of the gangsters. The exact time each scene takes place is narrated for us, and the characters carefully measure out time in order to make sure that the plan goes without a hitch.
I like this film a lot, so much that I wish I hadn't given such enthusiastic recommendations to some of the other films I covered. It's basically a noir "Reservoir Dogs", so if you liked that you'll like this. I think the only difference really is that it tries to characterize everyone and largely succeeds. There are a lot of characters in this one to keep track of, but it's worth it.
Best line: "You have a dollar sign where your heart should be," delivered coldly by Johnny Clay to Sherry Peatty. Capitalism, y'all.