Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Decoy (1946)

When I first started posting on the Blackboard about a year and a half ago, out of all the B-movies I heard about that were previously unfamiliar to me, one of them quickly became the most intriguing one of all. A femme fatale so cold-blooded that she ran over her victims with a car, played by an elusive actress whose life was tragically cut short just three years later? A movie so hard to see that the only copy in existence had Croatian subtitles? What kind of craziness would await when I could finally see this legendary...thing? Some tantalizing clips from it appeared in the documentary in the Warner's Noir Vol. 3 box set, and when it was announced that it would definitely be included in Vol 4, I knew exactly what would be going into my DVD player the second I could get my hands on that collection. This past Wednesday night, that's exactly what happened, so here are the thoughts of a Decoy newbie, who's still trying to recover from the... experience.

Some spoilers will follow farther down, but to start, here's the plot overview from Glenn Erickson's review:

Police Sergeant 'Jo Jo' Portugal (Sheldon Leonard) follows a trail of dead bodies back to the posh apartment of Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie) and finds her dying on the sofa, shot by Dr. Craig (Herbert Rudley), himself now dead on the floor. As she dies, Shelby confesses how she goaded crook Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) into helping her with a plot to separate her boyfriend, convicted killer Frankie Olins (Robert Armstrong) from the proceeds from a successful bank robbery. Olins is due to be executed and claims he'll take the secret of the location of the loot to the grave unless someone breaks him out of jail. Margot seduces Dr. Craig, who claims Olins' corpse without an autopsy and revives it with a dose of a chemical called Methelyne Blue. Now Margot's problem is how to separate three boyfriends from the money, a task to which she's perfectly suited. She has no compunctions about double-crossing all of them.
This movie certainly comes exactly as advertised: if a more cold-blooded femme fatale ever existed, I'm not sure I could even handle seeing anything she might be a part of.

The denouement of this movie might very well be the most black-hearted 10 minutes in the history of noir. And it's not just the legendary murder via car flattening, which apparently also exists in an even more sadistic version that features multiple passes over the hapless victim. No, folks, that's not even the half of it. I knew about that scene going in, though it still packs a mighty wallop even when you know it's coming. But I still wasn't prepared for the further tsunami of evil that follows, which I'm able to review here only because I somehow managed to retrieve my jaw from the floor after my first viewing a few nights ago:

-- After retrieving the map, the car jack, and the pistol from the dead body on the side of the road, she returns to the car to find the mortified doctor exclaiming, "I'd like to kill you." Whereupon she calmly hands him the pistol, waits for him to lose his nerve, and takes the pistol back with a sly grin on her face. If there was any doubt that she completely owned him before that point, there certainly isn't any left once it happens.

-- When she locates the spot where the money is buried, she calls on him to come over and start digging. He looks like he's about to brain her with the shovel, but again he loses his nerve and starts digging instead. Leaving nothing to ambiguity in the familiar noir intermingling of sex and death, she exhorts him while he digs: "Quickly, Lloyd, quickly! Dig for it! Deeper! Faster! Quickly, Lloyd! They killed for it. They all killed for it. Frankie, Vincent, I killed for it. And you. You too! You killed for it!"

-- Then she pulls out the pistol and pumps him full of lead, just as he holds up the buried strongbox, and she laughs maniacally while yelling, "Get off, get off it! It's mine! It's all mine now!"

Wow. And if that wasn't enough, when the flashback structure comes back to her on the brink of death in her apartment, she sweetly beckons "Jo-Jo" to "come down to my level" (a reference to an earlier exchange between them), and when he leans in for what he presumably anticipates to be one last moment of tenderness, she laughs in his face just before kicking the bucket.

As for everything that comes before the mind-blowing finale, there's no doubt that this was not a big studio A-level effort, but the sets are pretty well constructed, as Erickson points out in the DVD commentary track with original story writer Stanley Rubin. It comes across as a competently made B-movie, with some snappy dialogue and a few amusing supporting characters. The oddball reincarnation plot point plays out like a noir version of Frankenstein, especially in the suspenseful scene where the doctor's machinery completes the revival. Frankie's return to life includes a couple of nicely effective details, as he realizes that he's come back to life via the simple acts of pulling a window shade and lighting a match. Robert Armstrong's performance also adds a surprisingly moving touch to the scene. One thing I probably would have liked better is if the charismatic Armstrong could have lasted longer in the movie than he does, preferably at the expense of the colorless Edward Norris, who shows about as much acting range as the pre-revived corpse of Frankie Olins. And imagine if that most infamous murder scene could have been even more shocking, if it had been the raised-from-the-dead Frankie going back to the graveyard underneath those car wheels...

Decoy (1946)
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A few corny scenes inject an occasional unintentional comedy factor, like when the doctor reacts to Margot's cold-blooded explanation of how he's irreversibly involved in their murderous plot by pounding his desk right in the middle of the fatally violated Hippocratic Oath. One earlier scene between Craig and Margot plays out with some pretty ripe dialogue on top of the lushly orchestrated main theme, as she laments how his small clinic's poor surroundings remind her too much of her unhappy childhood: "I can't forget your street. That street runs all over the world. I know, 'cause that's the street I came from." But I agree with Erickson's assessment of Decoy as "a dead-serious thriller that now plays like Camp, and we like it both ways." Scenes like the ones I just mentioned play out to me like the comically awkward attempt at social commentary in one of my favorite action movies, the legendary kung fu classic Enter the Dragon, where African-American martial arts hero Jim Kelly takes one look at the squalor surrounding the Hong Kong harbor and sagely declares: "Ghettoes are the same all over the world. They stink." All you can do is laugh at a line like that, but it has its own way of adding to the overall entertainment factor.

I like how the recurring idea of reincarnation, roughly speaking, plays out in a few different spots of Decoy. Aside from the central event of reviving Frankie, there's also the opening scene. Even though we don't quite realize it during a first viewing, Craig is essentially returning from the dead himself when we first see him, fully realizing what he needs to do only when he seems himself in an ominously broken mirror:

Also, at the very end of the movie, having lost her life at the hands of the left-for-dead Craig, Margot ends up losing the one thing she thought she had achieved, although she dies before realizing it. The vengeful hand of Frankie, reaching from beyond the grave once more in what almost amounts to a final act of reincarnation, reveals her "last laugh" to be a completely hollow triumph. The crooks who cheated each other in life continue swindling each other even in death.

On the commentary track, Rubin and Erickson salute Gillie and director Jack Bernhard for having her play the character as 100% bad (which Rubin appreciates, since he wrote it that way!), as opposed to the more common occurrence where leading ladies of the time would try to bring at least a touch of sympathy to even the most wicked femme fatale. As Erickson says, even Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity still wants the audience to love her, if only just a little bit. Not that there's anything wrong with that: I think the fact that Kathie Moffat, for instance, is a well-rounded character who wants to go straight but just can't seem to help herself adds a poignantly tragic element to Out of the Past. But when Ann and Jeff in that movie have the exchange of, "She can't be all bad. No one is," "Well, she comes the closest," it's obvious that neither of them had ever come across Margot Shelby!

And that's about it. It's tough for anything with the reputation of a "cult classic" to live up to its advance billing, but this lean 76 minutes packed with double-crossing and homicide sure does, thanks to a top-notch femme fatale and an utterly gobsmacking finale.

Written by Haggai


  1. I love this movie (my copy has weird subtitles too), but Jean Gillie just didn't do it for me. She seemed forced and stilted. Still, though, great movie. And it's always great to see the sadly-forgotten Edward Norris.

  2. A berserk cult classic. If Ed Wood had the money
    and a decent script, he could have made this type of film. Jean Gillie's closest rival would have to be Linda Florentino in "The Last Seduction" for sheer black hearted menace.

    It is too bad that her early death halted any
    future potential, because she could have gone to greater glory if any of the major studios had got her. But there again, it may not have happen because she would had to compromise to fit in for a major film.

    A true oddity.

  3. A very surreal cult classic. It is too bad that
    Jean Gillie died at such an hideously early age,but only Linda Florentio has matched her demented performance since the six decades of her premature depature. The final kiss off is superb. Well worth checking out.

  4. What? What? No greater mention of New Yorker-to-the-teeth Sheldon Leonard? He was wonderful in this film! The minute he appears with the world's swoopiest fedora and attitude he dominates every scene he's in!

    Wonderful film... and I learned that the Croatian word for "doctor" is "doktore."