Sunday, September 05, 2010

Tonight's Movie: The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)

THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK is a very engrossing film noir starring Evelyn Keyes as a diamond smuggler who is unwittingly spreading smallpox throughout New York City.

Sheila Bennet (Keyes), a woman trying to evade the police while fighting a fever and a bad headache, comes into contact with a cute little girl (Beverly Washburn); the child is later hospitalized with a puzzling illness. Suspicious doctors, including Ben Wood (William Bishop), send samples taken from the child to Washington to be tested, and they soon receive the grim confirmation: the little girl has smallpox. The race is on to find whoever infected the child, and after more smallpox cases come in, another race begins, to vaccinate 8 million people in New York and prevent a smallpox epidemic.

The film is somewhat similar to the same year's PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), but it stands on its own as a very interesting mystery, as searches by customs agents (led by Barry Kelley) and health department officials ultimately merge into a hunt for Sheila Bennet. At one point the film also briefly calls to mind FOURTEEN HOURS (1951), which didn't come out till the next year.

Keyes is very effective as a woman tormented by mad love and illness; she looks so sick near the end of the film that it almost makes the viewer feel a bit feverish just looking at her. The film does a particularly good job of subtly emphasizing how Keyes comes into physical contact with random people, spreading smallpox all over the city.

William Bishop is sympathetic as the earnest Dr. Wood, who insists on a vaccination campaign to protect New York's citizens from smallpox. A few months ago I saw Bishop in the Western CRIPPLE CREEK (1952) and was unimpressed with his acting, but he's very good in this film. Bishop had a substantial career, with 70 film and television credits between 1943 and 1959, before passing away due to cancer at the young age of 41 in 1959. Bishop was the first cousin of actor James MacArthur, whose father Charles was Bishop's uncle.

Dorothy Malone has a low-key role as a nurse on the case; she doesn't have much to do but soothe worried patients and look pretty. Malone's Oscar-winning role in Douglas Sirk's WRITTEN ON THE WIND (1956) was still a few years ahead of her.

Lola Albright, who started out as an MGM showgirl in the late '40s, does a good job in her brief scenes as Keyes' backstabbing sister; Charles Korvin is Keyes' two-timing lover. Ludwig Donath and Arthur Space play health department doctors trying to solve the case.

Reed Hadley, the narrator of many films in the docu-noir genre, again provides his unmistakeable deep voice to the narration of THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK. There's a scene early on when Hadley pointedly says "She dropped another nickel in the slot" that's wonderful...a quintessential noir moment.

There are many other familiar faces in the cast, including Carl Benton Reid, Connie Gilchrist, Jim Backus, Roy Roberts, Richard Egan (one of his first roles), Billy Gray, Teddy Infuhr, Tommy Ivo, Pat O'Malley, Whit Bissell, and Paul Picerni. Even if you don't know their names, you probably know their faces from countless other films.

This 76-minute film was directed by Earl McEvoy. It was shot in black and white by Joseph Biroc. The costumes were designed by Jean Louis.

THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK is available on DVD in an excellent print as part of the Bad Girls of Film Noir Volume 1 collection.

It's a Columbia film which has also been shown on Turner Classic Movies. The trailer is available here.

There's more on this film by Sheila O'Malley at Noir of the Week.

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