Friday, March 13, 2020

Contagion Noir: THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK (1950)




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.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

A Note on SUSPICION (1941)


I'm continuing my big Cary Grant rewatch, and tonight I caught up with SUSPICION. Something occurred to me as I watched it that I wanted to make note of.

Before I get to that, it's important to say that one of the reasons that Grant has come to pretty much embody the idea of Movie Star for a lot of people is that he managed to play a range of roles while always staying Cary Grant.

For instance: look at him in THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937), HOLIDAY (1938), and BRINGING UP BABY (1938). Three romantic comedies released within the space of two years, and yet Grant is playing very different characters--a blithe ladies man in the first, a guileless idealist in the second, and a befuddled professor in the third--and yet two things are true. 1) He plays each role differently, and 2) Each performance fits within the persona we understand to be "Cary Grant." He could play many different variations on that persona.

Which brings us back to SUSPICION. This film is famous for being a 'nearly great' movie that was sabotaged when the studio made Hitchcock change the ending. The film concerns a shy young woman (played by everyone's shy young woman Joan Fontaine) who meets and marries a handsome rake, played, of course, by Cary Grant. As the film progresses, Fontaine and the audience start to suspect that Grant is more than just irresponsible and loose with money. We start to worry that he might be dangerous. We start to worry that he might even want to murder his wife. 1941 Spoiler Alert: in the original conception of the film, Grant was indeed the killer, and Hitchcock devised a wickedly smart finale in which the lovesick Fontaine lets Grant murder her but tricks him into mailing a letter to the police in which she fingers him for the killing. (You can see this idea being set up in the movie's opening moments when there is much ado about Grant borrowing some stamps from Fontaine.) In the revised ending, however, Grant turns out NOT to be the dangerous man that the rest of the film has painstakiningly prepared us for him to be. 

Opinions differ as to how much the new ending was the result of studio interference and how much was Hitchcock. Either way, Hitch would openly lament the revised ending, and just about everyone who sees the movie agrees. Grant should have been the bad guy. My feeling is that if Hitchcock had gone ahead and kept the original ending (it was never filmed), SUSPICION would certainly rank as one of Cary Grant's finest performances, and might even be considered his pinnacle. 

He's charming but cold, smooth but scary. He's a villain, but he's still somehow Cary Grant. What's interesting is that the ending was rewritten because, the thinking went, "Cary Grant can't be the bad guy." In other words, Cary Grant can be dashing, heroic, comic, goofy, innocent, or sophisticated, but he can't be evil. The great loss of SUSPICION is that the movie itself shows the opposite. His performance here is sheer Cary Grant. You see what she sees in him. Of course you can. After all, he's Cary Grant. And yet as the film goes on, you start to dread him, first because he's such a liar and a sneak, and then as the film progresses, because he seems like he's hiding even darker secrets.

In the fifties, stars like Wayne, Bogart, Stewart, and Cooper all played darker variations on their basic screen personas. Grant really didn't. And, tellingly, he was a marquee romantic leading man longer than anyone else. People just seemed to want him to keep being Cary Grant. So he did. It was good business and a legendary career.

But SUSPICION shows that, if he'd wanted, he could have played a much darker variation on that same persona. This a flawed film, but it contains fascinating hints of what might have been.