Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Killer That Stalked New York (Columbia, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I watched last night was The Killer That Stalked New York, a 1950 thriller with definite noir overtones, released five and one-half months after the movie Panic in the Streets and basically the same plot — only instead of New Orleans, it’s New York; and instead of plague, it’s smallpox. According to a Variety report at the time, the two films were sufficiently similar that Columbia, which made The Killer That Stalked New York, deliberately held it back until the run of Fox’s Panic in the Streets was finished. Like Panic in the Streets, The Killer That Stalked New York (originally shot under the title Frightened City) deals with a criminal who unknowingly brings a fatal disease and the germ that causes it into a major metropolitan area — though in this case it’s a woman, nightclub singer Sheila Bennett (Evelyn Keyes), who has just got back to New York from a trip to Cuba, where she’s been given two large, uncut diamonds as part of a criminal plot masterminded by her husband, Matt Krane (Charles Korvin), who’s also her accompanist at the club where she works. Unbeknownst to her, while Sheila was in Cuba she also contracted a case of smallpox, which she’s been unknowingly spreading to just about everyone she comes in contact with — and also unbeknownst to Sheila, her husband Matt is having an affair with her sister, Francie (a nice performance by Lola Albright), and Matt plans to abscond with all the money from the diamond caper and leave both Bennett girls high and dry.

Sheila is being traced by Treasury agents because she’s a smuggler, and also by Dr. Ben Wood (William Bishop) and other staff members of the New York City Health Department because she’s the vector for an impending smallpox epidemic — though they don’t know who the carrier is and neither the Treasury agents nor the health officials are in touch with each other (a premonition of the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks because the various government agencies who each had pieces of the puzzle weren’t communicating). Panic in the Streets is a good deal better known than The Killer That Stalked New York, partly because it had a “name” director, Elia Kazan — the director of Killer, Earl McEvoy, only made two other feature films (more’s the pity, as he’s quite good) — and a “name” star, Richard Widmark as the doctor trying to stop the epidemic. But though it has its overwrought moments, Killer is actually a subtler, more sinister and less action-driven movie. Working from a script by Harry Essex based on a Collier’s magazine article by Milton Lehman — which in turn was based on an actual smallpox scare in New York in 1946, in which (as happens in the movie) the city government massively mobilized to vaccinate millions of people within days — McEvoy constructs a marvelously staged movie with silent scenes showing exactly how much contact people in a large city have with other people they don’t actually know.

One of the movie’s most powerful scene takes place at a park drinking fountain: Sheila Bennett, looking visibly the worse for wear even if Columbia’s makeup department drew back from accurately depicting a person in late-stage smallpox (the only actual pox we see on Evelyn Keyes are a few small lesions under her neck when she pulls down the neck of her shirt in a late scene; had Bette Davis starred in this movie, she would probably have shoved pictures of actual smallpox victims in front of her makeup artist and said, “Hey, make me up to look like that,” but Keyes wasn’t about to do that and didn’t have the clout with the studio to get away with something like that even if she’d wanted to), takes a drink from the fountain and then two kids fight over the opportunity to be the next to drink from it … and of course we in the audience want them both to lose. Though it’s only 79 minutes long, Killer gives the sense of a surprisingly slow film even though it’s about a quickly spreading epidemic, and it helps that (unlike Richard Widmark, whose performance in Panic in the Streets sometimes looked like Tommy Udo, his sinister hit-man in Kiss of Death, had somehow gone to school and got a medical degree) William Bishop actually looks like we expect a public-health doctor, and acts like we expect one to act.

What’s also interesting is how much The Killer That Stalked New York is a Zeitgeist movie, made when most Americans still believed their government could respond to an emergency quickly and believably, and when they wanted you to do something way out of your way (like get an instant vaccination against smallpox), you shouldn’t argue: you should just do it. There is a brief montage that acknowledges the existence of an anti-vaccine movement then (though it was probably a good deal smaller than it is now), but anything they have to say is swept aside not only by the filmmakers but their characters as well: in the movie, New Yorkers readily flock to public clinics, fire stations, police offices, the Salvation Army and wherever else the vaccine was being administered and eagerly get it. What’s more, the private sector is depicted as equally efficient: when the threat begins New York has easy access to 4 million doses of vaccine, and while that’s only enough for half the population, when the city runs out the drug companies work with the government to get new supplies to the city as fast as they can be made, and without holding them up for some insane amount of money the way a drug company would today!

The film is, among other things, a tribute to public health officers, and certainly endorses the idea that doctors should have virtually unlimited power to act in case of a health emergency, and the rest of us should just assume that they know what they’re doing and go along with it, without question. The final sequences are over-the-top melodramatically — the last confrontation occurs on a ledge of a tall building, where for some incomprehensible reason Matt Krane has murdered his jewel cutter, Anthony Moss (Art Smith), and Sheila confronts him there — the doctors in the story explain that something she feels she has to do before she croaks is literally keeping her alive and allowing her to make it through to the final reel while many people she contacted have already died — and threatens him, though he actually takes a tumble off the ledge and the disease finally claims her — but until then, and despite the stentorian tone of the narration (which is a lot more moralistic about disease transmission than the movie itself), The Killer That Stalked New York is a film to be reckoned with and one well worth watching.