Monday, April 26, 2010

Never Let Go (1960)


“Every time something goes wrong, that bloody salesman crops up.”


Never Let Go, a superb British noir film, is an intense character study in which fate pits two strikingly dissimilar men, a violent criminal and a mousy salesman, against each other in a struggle for survival. The film, from director John Guillerman, falls into the category identified by Andrew Spicer in his book Film Noir as British Late Noir: The New Realism--a period that spanned the years 1957-1964. The film’s very first scenes depict the operation of a London-based car theft network from the bottom up all the way to the mastermind, Leonard Meadows (Peter Sellers). The plot explores how the theft of a 1959 Ford Anglia impacts the lives of the man the car belonged to and the man responsible for organizing its theft.

Timid cosmetics salesman John Cummings (Richard Todd) is subjected to patronizing, competitive banter from a rival coworker, and he’s also under pressure from his new supervisor to show substantial improvement in his sagging sales figures. He’s just bought a car which he hopes will “make all the difference,” but then the car is stolen. Cummings, who didn’t have the money to purchase comprehensive insurance for the car, goes to the police. Here he learns that 80% of stolen cars are found within the first 48 hours, but that some disappear into chop shop networks. Repainted and sold with registration papers and plates from partially demolished cars, the stolen cars vanish and are never recovered. The film subtly introduces the idea that Cummings is outmoded as a salesman and also naïve when it comes to his exposure to organized crime.

When Cummings suffers through a humiliating session with his new boss, he reacts by phoning the police to see if there’s any news about his car. Feeling frustrated and under increasing pressure, Cummings decides to question Alfie (Mervyn Jones), the frail elderly newspaper vendor who witnessed the theft. Alfie, clearly terrified of reprisals, eventually tells Cummings to check out the Victory Café. Here Cummings meets a local gang of motorbike yobos led by Tommy Towers (pop star Adam Faith). Towers is part of Meadows’ criminal network, and to complicate matters, Towers is poaching on Meadows’ girlfriend, curvy remand home runaway Jackie (Carol White). Cummings, although intimidated by Towers, refuses to drop his search for his car, and he also refuses to leave the matter to the police. He reasons that the police want to bag the entire car theft ring and are not that concerned about the fate of just one car.

Never Let Go works so well partly thanks to the intense characterizations of Leonard Meadows and John Cummings. Meadows is an incredibly vicious man, and for those of us used to seeing Peter Sellers in comic roles (Inspector Clouseau for example), it’s disturbing to see him play this role so smoothly. For the first part of the film, Meadows never raises his nasally voice, but his unpredictable violence lurks just beneath the surface of his tense politeness. Sellers delivers a tour-de-force performance as the frighteningly uptight, cruel Meadows--a man who surrounds himself with underlings in his thrall--little people who are unable to stand against their boss’s astonishing violence.

Initially, Meadows, who rules his lurid world with fear and intimidation, has no idea that his criminal network is threatened. In reality his employees are getting sloppy and his bored “young tart” is ready to run off with a penniless delinquent. As the film continues and Meadows realizes that his operation is under assault, he becomes unglued, and he frequently assuages his ego by indulging in violent acts towards various underlings. This indulgence appears to ensure Meadows that he’s still in complete control, but as the police crack down on Meadows, his polite veneer begins to disintegrate. Early in the film, he stresses about the damage a smoldering cigarette leaves on the veneer of his turntable, but as the story continues and Meadows cannot stop Cummings’ relentless quest for his car, Meadows’ life and his flat dissolve into utter chaos. Meadows eventually explodes with venom and hatred.

Cummings, derisively labeled as the “lipstick peddler” by Meadows also begins to lose his temper under increasing pressure and frustration, but the decisive moment for Cummings comes when his wife, the very domestic and seemingly supportive Anne (Elizabeth Sellars) tells Cummings to cease his pursuit of the stolen car. At this crucial moment, Cummings, already diminished by the theft of his car and the loss of his job, is further humiliated when his wife brings up a litany of failures from his past. The film raises an intriguing question--is Cummings fundamentally a pathetic, dumped on, spineless man or have spousal and societal expectations hammered him into this role?

Never Let Go establishes that Meadows and Cummings, two seemingly disparate men are locked in a battle for survival. Meadows, sniffing that the heat is on to find the stolen car, could have simply dumped it thus allowing Cummings to have his car back. If Cummings were a different man, he wouldn’t pursue the whereabouts of his stolen car with complete disregard for personal safety. For both men, not giving up and not letting go is a matter of ego. Crushed and emasculated, Cummings determines that this time will be different. He has to prove to both himself and his wife that he’s not the loser she thinks he is, and Meadows, who’s used to squashing men like Cummings, simply isn’t going to surrender to a man he despises.

While the violence of Meadows and the timidity of Cummings suggest the outward appearance of two entirely different men, these men also share some characteristics. Both are amazingly stubborn, both have their backs up to the wall, and both men show a certain slimy obsequiousness to customers and clients. Meadows harps on about the fact that he owns a “legitimate business,” and he’s determined to hold onto the status he thinks his middle class position guarantees. Cummings, on the other hand, sees car ownership as an entry to middle class life, and since this is a British noir, class considerations weigh into the plot even though they are subtle. At one point, for example, Meadows rather sneeringly suggests offering Cummings a job pushing a broom around, and this comment is made right after an insult about his adversary’s modest home. Again this is a declaration that Meadows as a ‘legitimate businessman’ has more clout in society--a point that Meadows reiterates repeatedly with the police.

As Meadows loses control and declines physically and mentally, Cummings appears to grow in strength and determination. He drops his mousiness and his fake glasses and instead begins to make moral choices based on what he should do rather than what others expect of him. Scenes cleverly juxtapose Meadows’ violent power trips against various humiliations endured by Cummings. Meadows’ furious attempts to safeguard his criminal enterprise result in sowing clues for Cummings, and each time Cummings is squeezed by his boss, put in his place by his clients, lectured by the police or nagged by his wife, he reacts by taking matters into his own hands and ignoring them all. Cummings eventually emerges from his loser role, tempered by his resolve that he’s not what people think he is, and he is going to get that car back--whatever it takes.

This leads, ultimately, to a grand showdown. Cummings has ascended and Meadows has descended into an isolated hell of his own making in a modest Brian-de-Palma-Scarface style. A well-staged western type showdown occurs with Cummings walking a lonely street to meet his fate, and his fate is to fight a gladiatorial-style battle with his mortal enemy. In an American noir film, Cummings and Meadows would enact a showdown which includes a few guns, but since this is British noir, and censors frowned on the so-called American influence of violence in film, the weapons of choice (whatever is at hand in this case) include: a crowbar, a piece of wood, a hydraulic car lift, a car, a car door and a spanner.

Never Let Go depicts the police as honest and incorruptible, a standard which met the censorship of the times. According to Spicer, the British Board of Film Censors “had no written code,” but “the police, the clergy, the monarchy, and the armed forces were to be shown as free from any corruption.” In an American noir, surely Meadows would be slipping weekly graft to the local greedy, sloppy cops, but here the police are incorruptible--stiff and patriarchal--but hardly on Meadows’ payroll.

Never Let Go was released in 1960--a pivotal year in British history. This was the year Penguin Books went on trial under the Obscene Publications Act for publishing an unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Hitchcock’s Psycho suffered cuts to its notorious shower scene. The X rating was introduced in 1952 by the British Board of Film Classification, and Never Let Go was cut by the censors but slipped through rated as an X-rated film.

Also in 1960, Reggie Kray, one of the notorious Kray twins began an 18 month sentence. This year heralded a shift in the fortunes of the Krays as they expanded and unleashed an unprecedented crime wave--and its violent fallout--in London before their world came crashing down in 1968. Never Let Go is a valuable film for its depiction of organized crime shielded by “legitimate business,” a modus operandi of the Krays. The Krays were into clubs, protection rackets and various business scams, and Ronnie Kray’s weapons of choice were swords and knives. Never Let Go shows a London in transition--a harsh world for those like Cummings, and while Meadows seems a lightweight compared to the Krays, nonetheless, he represents the face of the future of crime. Never Let Go appeared on DVD for a North American release in 2005--45 years after the film was made.

"Don't give me that love stuff."






Written by Guy Savage

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

An unseen heavy machine pounds rhythmically, hypnotically, eerily… it pounds like a heavy heartbeat…it pounds the foundations of a storage room - shaking tables, bottles, and wooden boxes, rattling order and stability. Unlike the machines in Metropolis (1927-Lang), we don’t see this machine. We don’t know what it is or why it pounds. As it pounds, we track through the trembling room to a frightened man trying to hide.

The opening scene foreshadows the rest of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (a.k.a. Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse). The film is a suspense-thriller about criminal insanity, anarchy, and terror.

It’s Fritz Lang’s second sound film after M (1931), and the last he made in Germany before WWII. It contains outstanding examples of cinematic German Expressionism by one of its leading proponents.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse vibrates with bizarre energy and visual pyrotechnics. Pacing strikes like lighting; abrupt cuts startle and tell multiple stories. Sound arcs from one scene into the next scene. Despite a pulpy plot, the film’s brooding atmosphere menaces.

The Plot - The Mastery of Crime

The man in the opening scene is Hofmeister (Karl Meixner), a disgraced cop kicked off the force for taking a bribe. Seeking redemption, he tracks down a secret gang of criminals and their mysterious mastermind. He calls his former boss, the cigar smoking Homicide Police Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) of M fame. But before Hofmeister can tell Lohmann about his discovery, shots ring in the dark and render Hofmeister incoherent.

Hofmeister’s failed call and disappearance sets irritable Inspector Lohmann in motion.

Clues eventually lead to Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). He is an insane criminal genius with hypnotic powers, who has been locked up in an asylum for a decade, under the care of the psychologist Professor Baum (Oscar Bergei).

Unable to speak, Mabuse writes criminal plans in cryptic detail. From the confines of his asylum cell, Mabuse directs terror, mayhem and chaos. He plots bank robberies, currency forgery, jewelry heists, and the destruction of industrial plants, water systems, crops and the economy. A secret gang carries out Mabuse’s anarchy. Organized into terror cells, gang members include currency counter-fitters, arsonists, blackmailers, jewelry thieves, and hit men. Fearing their unseen master, the gang members blindly obey him.

On the day Lohmann figures out Mabuse is the mastermind, Mabuse dies of natural causes in the asylum. Lohmann witnesses the body. When Lohmann questions Professor Baum about Mabuse, Baum lapses into a second personality. An enraged Baum defends Mabuse as a genius. During his rant, Baum’s facial expressions and hand gestures mimic Hitler’s.

Despite Mabuse’s death, the plot to destroy society’s infrastructure marches forward.

Meanwhile a police raid nets lower rung gang members, who yield little intelligence. They don’t know the identity of their real master.

Then, the cops get a break. Kent (Gustav Diessl), an unwilling gang member condemned to die for trying to leave the gang, escapes his time bomb trap, meets Lohmann, and fingers Dr. Mabuse as the evildoer.

Lohmann is perplexed, but says, “All the clues lead to the asylum.”

Lohmann and Kent rush to the asylum, into Baum’s office, and discover criminal plots, including plans to blow up a chemical factory. But Baum is not in his office.

Baum is the executor of Mabuse’s testament - his maniacal will.

In an earlier eerie scene, Mabuse’s spirit infected Baum and said, “When humankind becomes ruled by terror…then is the hour for the Mastery of Crime.” Hypnotized and possessed by the psychopathic Mabuse, Baum transformed from respected university professor and asylum director, to schizophrenic, and eventually into Mabuse’s automaton.

The chemical plant blows up. Lohmann and Kent see Baum at the scene of the crime.

They chase Baum, cars streaking through the expressionist night, but Baum escapes. Guided by the spirit of Mabuse, Baum checks himself into his own asylum as a patient. Entering the asylum cell containing Hofmeister, a deranged Baum introduces himself as Dr. Mabuse.

Eventually, Lohmann arrives at the asylum. Seeing the delirious Baum sitting in an asylum cell tearing up the testament into tiny shreds, Lohmann says, “…this is no longer a police job.”


Cinematic Expressionism and Lang’s World

The film displays several examples of German Expressionism.

Lang’s opening scene of the unseen pounding machine shaking the room unsettles, rousing base emotions. Our reptilian cortex reacts alert.

We witness Hofmeister’s paranoia. In his delirium, he babbles in an office surrounded by delicate glass objects, mimicking phone calls or singing meaningless songs, although in reality he is trapped in an asylum cell. When Lohmann enters Hofmeister’s asylum cell, through Hofmeister we see assassins, geometric distortions, and acute slanting angles similar to those in the expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

We watch Baum’s mind twist and sink into madness. In Baum’s office, primitive masks, skulls and a painting of distorted faces hover and haunt. We see Baum’s view of Mabuse’s warped face, in extreme close up.

Many more scenes and sequences of expressionism lace the film. It’s a visual thrill.

At times, we observe clinically detached, as though analyzing patients, and then suddenly Lang throws us into the minds of the patients; we join in their derangement. Inspector Lohmann, Professor Baum, and Dr. Mabuse speak directly to us. They pull us into their obsessions.

Typical Lang motifs and symbols emerge throughout. Glass windows represent dreams and desire, and mirrors symbolize narcissism and introspection. Clocks, machines, and traps dramatize suspense and suggest fate.

Themes of terror, madness, and helplessness whip through the film. Lohmann, Hofmeister, Kent, and Baum struggle against these forces of fate. The film’s theme of terrorism is as relevant today as it was in 1933 Germany.

In Lang’s world, the police and government are impotent or corrupted. He questions governments’ ability to serve and protect, and hand out justice.

In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, the police always lag a few steps behind. Despite the best efforts of the police, Mabuse directs mayhem at will, even from the grave. In the car chase sequence while pursuing Baum, Lohmann’s car bursts a tire. Because of a flat tire, the police inspector fails to physically capture Baum, who checks himself into his asylum. The police are punctured.

In M (1931), Inspector Lohmann falls short of arresting Hans Beckert, the child killer. Rather, the criminal underworld captures and tries Beckert in a sinister kangaroo court, before the police can arrest him.

In Fury (1936), government fails to control the hysterical lynch mob, and the court dispenses wrongful murder convictions to several of hick-town’s misguided citizens.

In The Woman in Window (1944), despite professor Wanley’s giving away several obvious clues about himself to the district attorney and head of homicide, they ignore him. The professor is the killer (forget about the twisted ending for the moment).

In Scarlet Street (1945), the docile cashier, Chris Cross, gets his wires crossed and murders. The police wave him off, even though he wants to give up. The justice system executes an innocent man.

In The Big Heat (1953), the corrupted police department steers clear of arresting Vince Stone and big boss Lagana. Bannion, the ex-cop, a solo vengeance machine, turns up the heat and brings the thugs to truth, justice, and the 1950s American way, with the help of a couple of floozies, who get knocked-off rather than knocked-up. Cops hide behind desks, sharpen pencils, and serve coffee.

Lang’s cynicism of authority kicked up trouble.

Banned - From Auteur to Automaton


Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, banned the public release of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. The idea that criminal anarchists could terrorize the state was unacceptable. Goebbels saw the film in March 1933, the month when the Nazis neutered the Reichstag, collapsed the emasculated Weimar Republic, and seized control of Germany.

Shortly afterwards, Lang fled Germany. His mother, a converted Catholic, was formerly Jewish. In addition, Lang divorced Thea von Harbou, the screenwriter of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), Metropolis (1927), M (1931), and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, among others. She had joined the Nazi party in 1932. His film banned, divorced from a Nazi, and politically vulnerable, the Austrian born Lang headed for Paris again and anchored in Hollywood.

Before World War One, Lang had run away from home in Vienna and scraped out a living as an artist in Paris. On the outbreak of WWI, Lang fled Paris. Plagued by fate, his nationality made him an enemy of France. He was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army in WWI. As an officer serving on the Russian and Balkan fronts, he was wounded and decorated. Writing about post WWI Lang said, “In Europe, an entire generation of intellectuals embraced despair…young people made a fetish of tragedy.”

Starting in 1919 in Germany, he wrote screenplays and directed more than a dozen silent films at Decla-Bioscope and UFA studios, advancing cinematic expressionism and nearly bankrupting UFA with his grandiose Metropolis. With Seymour Nebezal as producer, Lang directed M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse at Nero-Film studios. A leading director in Europe, Lang practiced his craft as an auteur.

Under contract to MGM, Lang arrived in America, where he naturalized as a citizen. He made 24 films in America, starting with Fury in 1936. By 1956, fed up with Hollywood’s restrictions, Lang, an autocratic perfectionist, fled its system. “I don’t want to have anything to do with you or the American motion picture industry,” he said in an argument with his producer (Bert Friedlob) about the ending of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), another film in which Lang jabs the judicial system. He never made a film in the U.S. again.

Playing himself in Contempt (Le Mépris 1963- Jean-Luc Godard), Lang says, “Producers are something I can easily do without.” In an interview with Godard, Lang concedes to becoming a Hollywood “automaton.”

Norbert Jacques, the German author and screenwriter, originally wrote Dr. Mabuse as a pulp series. Lang directed three Mabuse films. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a sequel to the financially successful Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922), a silent four-hour, two-part film. At the end of his film-making odyssey, Lang’s last directed film was The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), which he directed in West Germany.

For fans of Fritz Lang, Expressionism, and paranormal pulp, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse hypnotizes. Beware.





Written by Hard-Boiled Rick



Sunday, April 11, 2010

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)


Great Britain's Ealing Studios, best known for their pre- and post-war working class comedies, occasionally went off the reservation to more daring subject matter. One of the most successful examples was It Always Rains on Sunday, from 1947, adapted from a novel by Arthur La Bern (another of his novels would later be adapted as Hitchcock's Frenzy). It was helmed by one of Ealing's up-and-coming directors of the time, Robert Hamer, whose follow-up effort was the blacker-than-black comedy widely recognized as the studio's greatest triumph, Kind Hearts and Coronets. Hamer was also working with another prominent craftsmen on the climb, cinematographer Douglas Slocombe. A recent theatrical re-release in America by Rialto Pictures has brought new attention to It Always Rains on Sunday, and hopefully a US DVD release will eventually follow to further increase its accessibility.

On a dreary weekend in London's East End, the fates of two families and other characters are intertwined by passion, ambition, and ultimately by crime. An obviously desperate housewife (Googie Withers), Rose Sandigate, attends to her dull husband George (Edward Chapman) while doing domestic battle her resentful stepdaughters, Vi (Susan Shaw) and Doris (Patricia Plunkett). Vi is stepping out with a married man, musician and store owner Morrie Hyams (Sydney Tafler), while Morrie's well-connected gangster brother Lou (John Slater) takes an interest in the more innocent Doris. Meanwhile, the police are after escaped convict Tommy Swann (John McCallum), who's also Rose's former lover (Withers and McCallum were husband and wife off-screen). The bogies are also tracking a group of small-time crooks trying to fence some unusual merchandise: over a hundred pairs of roller skates. As Tommy gets Rose to hide him in the backyard tool shed/bomb shelter, the real and potential affairs of her stepdaughters are coming to a head, while the crooks are running out of patience and options...

The modern critical response, sampled here at Rialto's homepage, understandably describes the overlapping storylines as prefiguring Robert Altman. Each of the plotlines has its share of strongly realized scenes, both visually and dramatically. The strongest of them, and certainly the most "noir" part of the story, is the bleak position facing Rose Sandigate. Frustrated with her relatively safe but unfulfilling situation, she takes out her anger on her potentially wayward stepdaughters, until the return of her lost love Tommy (her longing for him having been economically established via flashback) proves to be frightening and enticing at the same time. She scrambles to keep him safe from the law, but is her own circumstance anything but a dead end in its own way? Why fight to preserve that? This classic noir dilemma, brilliantly portrayed by Withers, forms the heart of the film.


The other characters and narrative arcs are not quite as fully realized, although the atmosphere is wonderfully rich in all parts of the story. The ethnically heavy East End of the time is predominantly working-class Jewish, with the movie featuring plenty of related slang and character bits. Morrie Hyams, self-identified on his record covers as "The Man With Sax Appeal," exchanges banter with his brother Lou about Morrie's wife being "meshugga" and "married to a schlemiel." After discovering Morrie's dalliance with Vi Sandigate, his wife reminds him that "I know all about you and your little shiksas." The dim-witted roller skate thieves come to life through their intense suspicion of anyone not immediately associated with their lowly station, including the comparatively big-time Lou Hyams.


Slocombe's visuals are most striking in the final chase sequence, with Tommy on the run at night, fleeing through an ominously dark trainyard. Aside from one clunky model shot, the expressionistic images are as effective as those in Carol Reed's similar man-on-the-run sequences in Odd Man Out and The Third Man, or Richard Widmark fleeing for his life in Jules Dassin's Night and the City. The narrative drive is weakened a bit by the shift in focus to Tommy in the denoument, since he hasn't been the main focus of the audience's identification. That role belongs to Rose, but she's mostly off-screen during the chase.

It Always Rains on Sunday is an excellent film, a post-war British slice of life told through a noir lens. While the narrative is not quite as tightly realized as the other top noirs of the period, it has enough memorable sequences, performances, and details to rank with the best of them.



Written by Haggai




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

Comment on this the Noir of the Week below or at The Back Alley





Comment above or join the discussion at the Back Alley Noir review section. All comments at Noir of the Week are shared at Back Alley Noir.com