The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?” Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here. Enjoy!
Actress Evelyn Keyes’ 1977 autobiography is entitled Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister: My Lively Life In and Out of Hollywood; the title alludes to her best-remembered screen role, Suellen O’Hara in the 1939 Oscar winner for Best Picture, Gone with the Wind. Keyes’ lively life included marriages (not all at the same time, of course) to Charles Vidor, John Huston, and Artie Shaw…and affairs with many silver screen personalities, notably Glenn Ford, Dick Powell, and Kirk Douglas. One is almost tempted to say that her activities off-screen overshadowed the work she did onscreen; Evelyn herself acknowledged that she never reached her full potential as an actress despite high-profile parts in classics such as Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and The Jolson Story (1946).
But Keyes also excelled in several movies representing the film style known as film noir, including Johnny O’Clock (1947), 99 River Street (1953), and Hell’s Half Acre (1954). Her best-known work in noir remains The Prowler (1951), a sadly overlooked movie (directed by the blacklisted Joseph Losey) that features her as the target of obsessed cop Van Heflin, who’s so infatuated that he croaks her husband, then marries her. It’s definitely worth seeking out; as is another entry in Keyes dark cinema oeuvre: The Killer That Stalked New York (1950).
Nightclub singer Sheila Bennet (Keyes) returns from a trip to Cuba, the starting point for a cache of diamonds that’s she smuggled out of the country—the stones will then be sold to a fence (Art Smith) and then she and her husband, musician Matt Krane (Charles Korvin), will live a life of ease and plenty. Sheila is unaware, however, that Matt has been canoodling with her sister Francie (Lola Albright) while Sheila’s been on her Cuban vacation.
Mrs. Krane is also unaware that during her sojourn, she’s contracted smallpox; the spread of a highly contagious and communicable disease is the last bit of news that the Health Department wants to receive, particularly in a major metropolitan center like New York City, where there are “eight million stories” waiting around to be exposed. Sheila is already showing signs of the contagion from the moment she steps off a train in Pennsylvania station; a subsequent visit to a doctor (William Bishop) is rather inconsequential until a young girl (Beverly Washburn) with whom Sheila came into contact in the waiting room is diagnosed with the disease. Everyone who crosses paths with “Smallpox Sheila” is at risk unless they’ve been vaccinated; so while city officials in NYC mobilize to administer inoculations to a teeming populace, the hunt to find the elusive carrier is also a race against the clock.
The plot of The Killer That Stalked New York has its roots in a 1946 incident (a smallpox scare that resulted in free vaccinations for NYC inhabitants) that was documented in a 1948 Cosmopolitan article written by Milton Lehman (“Smallpox, the Killer That Stalks New York”). Scripted by Harry Essex and directed by Earl McAvoy, Killer is an undervalued suspenser that at the time of its release had the misfortune to be compared to a similar film from 20th Century-Fox, Panic in the Streets (1950). In Panic, a couple of criminal lowlifes (Jack Palance, Zero Mostel) infected with pneumonic plague hold New Orleans in the grip of terror, and N’awlins residents must depend on the combined efforts of a U.S. Public Health Service official (Richard Widmark) and a police captain (Paul Douglas) to tamp down an epidemic within twenty-four hours.
Panic in the Streets, directed by Elia Kazan, was a critical and commercial success and because Killer was just being completed as Panic was cleaning up at the box office, the decision was made to hold back the movie’s release for six months to allow for less competition. Quite frankly, Columbia shouldn’t have bothered; Killer was received as just another B-programmer and the critical reaction was fairly tepid when it finally sashayed into theaters. Famed New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther, an individual whom you sometimes have to wonder why he even bothered being a film critic since it seemed to pain him so, dismissed Killer as a potentially but not sufficiently intriguing film.
Crowther is right about the two male leads in the movie, Charles Korvin’s turn as the wankerish Krane (described by Bos as “conventional”) is a bit one-note and as the heroic doctor, William Bishop (“blankly youthful”) is far too bland; one wishes that the filmmakers had gone with the original choice in Lew Ayres (who clearly had the experience on his film resume as movie medico James Kildare)—Ayres had been interested in the project when it was under the purview of producer Allen Miner. But Bosley does Evelyn Keyes a disservice; she’s not a melodramatic cipher in a loosely organized “chase'” but very effective as a most tragic figure: a vengeful angel of death whose only real crime was placing her trust in the unlikable Krane. The Killer That Stalked New York has a none-too-subtle moral message—expressed also in Panic in the Streets—in that it equates criminality with disease itself, and Keyes’ Sheila is the ticking time bomb capable of affecting even someone who believes “crime’s really not too high on my list of concerns.”
Killer capitalizes on a slew of familiar faces in its supporting cast: Oscar winner Dorothy Malone (still a brunette) plays a nurse; future Peter Gunn chanteuse Lola Albright is Keyes’ character’s sister; cult favorite Whit Bissell is Keyes’ brother (who hides her out in a flophouse); Richard Egan goes uncredited as one of the Treasury agents trying to track down Keyes’ whereabouts (the other played by familiar movie bad guy Barry Kelley). Carl Benton Reid plays the concerned health commissioner and Roy Roberts is the Big Apple mayor who’s the first to undergo what is referred to as “the scratch” (the smallpox vaccination); setting an example for his constituents or a concern about his own life? (You be the judge.) You’ll also catch glimpses of Jim Backus (who will regret his attempt to get friendly with Keyes), Walter Burke, Ludwig Donath, Connie Gilchrist (as Keyes’ nosy landlady), Father Knows Best’s Billy Gray, and Paul Picerni.
Reed Hadley’s documentary-style narration is a necessary evil but often a little obtrusive; we don’t need to be told that “Sheila dropped a nickel in the slot” when we clearly see her seated in a phone booth. Apart from that debit, Killer is an excellent little sleeper; short enough (seventy-nine minutes) to keep boredom at arms’ length and tautly directed by McAvoy, with the legendary Joseph Biroc (the cinematographer who later worked on classic noirs like Cry Danger and Without Warning!) making movie magic with authentic NYC locations.