A brief note at the start: I wrote this little piece a few years ago because I was interested in film noirs about outbreaks. The best known “contagion noir” of the classic era is probably Elia Kazan’s PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950). It’s a superior piece of craftsmanship, and it features a you-got-to-see-it-to-believe-it performance by Jack Palance as a psycho. Having said that, however, THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK (made that same year) is more paranoid and more obsessed with contagion itself. With its all too serious docu-noir feel, it’s actually the more disturbing piece of work, especially watched at this particular moment in time in 2020. Some people reading this will doubtless think, “Well, then, why would I want to watch it?” Others will want to watch it precisely because it is scary, its creepiness acting like an exorcism for a certain anxiety around the spread of the coronavirus. You know who you are.
THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK
One of the constant themes of film noir is anxiety. You find this theme expressed many different ways: anxiety about gender roles, anxiety about the cops, anxiety about Communist infiltration. You find this theme over and over in noir. What makes THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK such an interesting addition to this litany is that it’s about a different kind of anxiety: the fear of contagion.
THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK concerns a diamond smuggler named Shelia Bennett (Evelyn Keyes) who, as the film begins, has just snuck some stones back into the country from Cuba for her no-good husband Matt (Charles Korvin). What she doesn’t know is that she’s also brought back a case of smallpox. In no time at all, she’s spread it around the city and people start dropping like flies. Meanwhile, Shelia’s husband runs out on her—taking the diamonds—and leaves her to deal with the cops and a growing epidemic. The plot runs on different tracks: the cops (led by noir stalwart Barry Kelley) are chasing a jewel smuggler, while the doctors (led by William Bishop, Dorothy Malone and Carl Benton Reid) are chasing the carrier of the plague. It’s fun watching these people run around—the doctors racing against time—until their twin investigations converge on poor Shelia Bennett.
Shelia’s got her own problems, of course. She knows the cops are after her, but she doesn’t yet know she has smallpox. Things only get worse when she finds out her no-good husband has been having an affair with her younger sister. When Shelia confronts her sister (Lola Albright), the confused girl—distraught that Matt has abandoned both of them—kills herself. Once Shelia finds out she’s carrying smallpox, her only goal becomes tracking down her husband so she can extract revenge before she dies.
This is a promising setup for a film, but as a drama it has one serious drawback: a pompous voiceover narration that intrudes over most of the first thirty minutes and then chimes in from time to time, coming in at the end to reassure us that the world didn’t end. Here’s an experiment: watch the first ten minutes of this film and imagine them without the voiceover. They not only would have worked, they would have worked better, with the audience discovering the plot in tandem with the characters.
Still, the film does work. It is directed proficiently by Earl McEvoy who juggles these different narratives without letting us get confused. He should have cut the voiceover—but what can you do? A lot of noirs have this device. It’s done often, if seldom done well. The cinematography by Joseph Biroc is a nice blend of location footage in New York and some atmospheric soundstage work such as Shelia’s final confrontation with her shiftless husband. Keyes is as good as usual as the vengeful Shelia, though because she’s unaware she’s carrying the disease for most of the film, she doesn’t have a whole lot to do.
To make up for this, the script by Harry Essex (KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL) does a particularly good job at building suspense around the emerging smallpox epidemic. These scenes are all business, especially with noir regular Carl Benton Reid barking orders and twisting arms, while doctor William Bishop and nurse Dorothy Malone confront a quickly mounting number of cases. One of the purposes of a movie like this is to function as a public service announcement, and I’ll be damned if this one didn’t work on me. Human beings are nasty creatures, so thank god for the Centers for Disease Control.
It probably worked even better at the time. In 1950, the world wasn’t too far away from the influenza pandemic of 1918 which had killed more people than WWI. Following WWII, where the world saw wartime carnage reach unthinkable proportions, Americans were fed a steady diet of propaganda about Communist infiltration and subversion. Even as we moved into the flattop fifties, with suburbia laid out on grids and a cheerful mother supposedly baking apple pies in every kitchen, it seemed as if contagion were everywhere. (A contagion that was often—as it is in THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK—associated with foreign elements.) The cleaner the surface became, the more we feared the filth inside. People began to fear obliteration, fearful it would arrive in a pestilence that would wipe out everything. By 1957, Ingmar Bergman could make THE SEVENTH SEAL, a film about the Black Plague that many people read as an allegory for the fear of nuclear annihilation.
In 1950, you can see the beginnings of the fear in something THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK, the title itself conjuring the image of a serial-murderer on the loose. The fear of mass death is legitimate of course, and this film captures that dread, that sinking feeling that something could be happening right now that could mean the end of us all.