Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)

We know right off the bat that the blonde woman getting off the train in Grand Central Station is a bad dame. We know it because the voiceover tells us so. Repeatedly. A solemn voice tells us that she is "deathand her arrival will bring panic and chaos to the fair city, which is described like a living entity: "I know the muscles of it. I watched it fight for its life." We watch her progress through the station, and we wonder what sort of murderous rampage this blonde woman is going to unleash. The credit sequence beforehand is stylized, like something out of a nightmare: New York City's skyline seen in black silhouette, with a giant woman towering over the landscape, taller than the Empire State Building, pointing a gun down on the miniscule buildings. As we listen to the ominous seemingly overblown description of her, we watch her walk through Grand Central. She seems agitated. A large man in a fedora is following her. She is aware of his presence. She makes a phone call. She has a quick conversation with her husband. We learn she has just come back from Cuba. The two of them are up to no good. He tells her to go to Hotel America and wait for him there. The voiceover has set us up. Set us up to fear her every move. What we soon learn is that the voiceover has set us up in more ways than one. It's not telling us the whole story.

Part film noir, and part Public Service Announcement, The Killer That Stalked New York tells the story of Sheila Bennet (Evelyn Keyes), a singer who, with her husband (Charles Korvin), runs a jewel smuggling operation. She has just been to Cuba, and has acquired $50,000 worth of diamonds, and the main tailing her through Grand Central is with U.S. Customs, who knows she is up to no good. Sheila's husband is the mastermind, and it is clear, from the one or two times we see him that he is also carrying on an affair with Sheila's younger sister, so from the getgo we know that he is not to be trusted. Sheila, struggling with a bad headache, face bathed in sweat, rushes to the Hotel America, trying to dodge the man following her. The bellboy notices that she does not look well, and gives her the address of a nearby doctor (William Bishop).

Here is where the film reveals its true nature. The voiceover has fooled us into thinking Sheila is going to set out to kill her husband, her sister, anyone who gets in her way. But we soon realize that Sheila Bennet has not just carried diamonds into the United States. She has also carried smallpox. The doctor misdiagnoses her with the flu and sends her on her way. It is 1947, after all, as the voiceover informs us. Smallpox was eradicated, right? There's a little sick girl in the clinic, and Sheila has a conversation with her before seeing the doctor. The little girl admires Sheila's pin and Sheila gives it to her, pinning it to the little girl's sweater.

And so a plague has been unleashed. The doctors don't know what they are dealing with at first, but when it is discovered that the little girl in that office has smallpox, a vast investigation ensues, to try to find everyone who has had contact with her. One of the doctors intones, "As far as that child is concerned, we might as well be back in the days when medicine was groping blindly." Another doctor exclaims, "We're beyond such plagues now. It couldn't happen in New York City!" To make sure we get the point, another doctor says, gloomily, "A killer out of the past. Loose, among 8 million people."

The Killer That Stalked New York then becomes a two-pronged chase: The Customs officials chase Sheila Bennet to try to retrieve the diamonds and arrest her, while the Department of Health mobilizes its forces to try to find the "carrier". The film moves back and forth between these so-far unconnected investigations, and nobody realizes that they are chasing the same person. The film also follows Sheila, who is unaware that she has smallpox, although she continues to get sicker and sicker. She learns that her husband has double-crossed her, not only with the jewels but with her sister. She becomes hellbent on revenge. Meanwhile, the cops track down her associates, and the health officials struggle to get ahead of the medieval plague.

Based on true events (there was a smallpox outbreak in 1946), The Killer That Stalked New York has a tangible sense of anxiety in every frame. It captures the panic from knowing that with all of our modern technology, we are still vulnerable to viruses, and an outbreak could be catastrophic. The Department of Health has a giant map of New York City in its office, and people put pins on the map indicating smallpox diagnoses, and over the course of the film the map becomes clogged with pins. They run an enormous vaccination drive, and when they run out of vaccines, panic erupts. Director Earl McEvoy gives the film a newsreel look and feel, with montage sequences of clogged health clinics and lines for vaccines that stretch around the block. Filmed on location in New York, McEvoy and his cinematographer, Joseph Biroc, follow through on the voiceover's promise in the beginning and film New York City as though it is a living, breathing organism. The anxiety about human vulnerability is made manifest here in anxiety about foreign influences: Sheila brought the virus back from Cuba, and she has a Cuban husband. There are no quarantine restrictions between the United States and Cuba. The Cold War was heating up (or going into a deep freeze), and America must protect itself. Smallpox, in that sense, is a metaphor for all that America feared from outside lands.

Evelyn Keyes is terrific in her role as a wronged woman, being slowly felled by an unknown plague. By the end of the film, her face is bright red, bathed in sweat, and you can sense she is burning up from within. William Bishop, as the doctor who organizes the smallpox investigation, is great, and I loved to see Dorothy Malone in a small role as the nurse who works with him. She has a way of adding import and significance to every scene she is in. You never catch her sleeping on the job. She has a thankless role, but watch how she fills it up, watch how she makes moments out of thin air (a significant glance to the doctor when Sheila first enters the office; it suggests an entire history and backstory).

With a standoff between Sheila and her husband at the end straight out of the film noir playbook (a blonde holding a gleaming gun with the shadows of the Venetian blinds on the walls), the movie really wants to be a warning against viruses, and a celebration of the hard work of public health officials to keep us all safe. It's a strange combination, making for an odd cocktail of story elements, yet much of the panic about epidemics rang very true in today's world. How would we stand up, a modern society, against a plague? How would we mobilize? How would we eradicate the Middle Ages once again? And could we? How vulnerable are we, exactly?

Written by Sheila O'Malley

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1 comment:

  1. I love the sensational noir trailers with the large block type set askew and the documentarian announcers inviting and daring us to watch the evil people doing what they do well.

    I also love The Sheila Variations. Who couldn't?

    David Detroit


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