Monday, March 02, 2015

DECOY (1946)

What a pleasure to watch a movie that's marketed as film noir and to discover that it really is a film noir—and a good one!—and not just a black & white crime movie. The opening sequence is tantalizing: a nervous man (Herbert Rudley) is washing his hands in a filthy gas-station restroom. When we see his face in the jagged shard of glass that passes for a mirror (pictured at left), we figure he's either sick, scared, or insane. He leaves in almost a trance and hitchhikes to San Francisco where he arrives at the apartment of Jean Gillie; he shoots her, then drops dead. A cop (Sheldon Leonard) walks in and attends to the seriously wounded woman who keeps asking for a large locked box. The rest of the film is a flashback. Gillie is the moll of gangster Robert Armstrong; he got away with a big chunk of money during a robbery and managed to hide it, but eventually was caught and because he killed a guard, he's about to be put to death by gas. Gillie and gang member Edward Norris get Rudley, an idealistic but tortured prison doctor, to administer a drug called Methelyne Blue to Armstrong right after the execution that is an antidote to the gas and will bring him back to life. Sure enough, it works, and that's where all the trouble starts: Armstrong may not want to split the money; Rudley doesn't want to go along with the gang's plans; Gillie proves herself capable of anything to get her hands on the dough.

This is a straightforward B-noir: crime, nighttime shadows, a morally ambiguous antihero, and a vicious femme fatale, all on a low budget. It's not a great movie, but it's good enough to feel like a discovery. The situations and characters are solid, but the B-acting is a little disappointing. Gillie (pictured at right) is a British actress whose career never really got off the ground—she died of pneumonia just three years later, at the age of 33. She's only so-so here, but she's certainly promising, and the character is a juicy one. Her best moment: making a guy who has outlived his usefulness to her get out and change a flat tire, then running him over and checking to make sure he's dead. The character of the doctor is the definition of the noir antihero; he’s a good man, or at least, not a bad man, but he makes bad choices for mostly understandable reasons. But Rudley's acting weakens the impact this character's fate might have had on us. Aside from the powerful and disorienting opening, he mostly just looks anxious and depressed, and we never get any sense of what makes him tick. Edward Norris, who had a strong B-movie career, is very good, as is Sheldon Leonard as the cop. Armstong doesn't have much to do, but he gets a really creepy moment as he tries to kiss Gillie after he's been brought back from the dead—and the addition of the horror/sf element is interesting but not overdone. The musical score is a little bombastic, which perhaps is better than the usual Monogram Pictures lack of a score. Overall, this is one for noir fans to watch for. [Warner Archive streaming]

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

I agree, a fine little noir that is mystifyingly overlooked.