Guilty Pleasures: 5 Reasons to Love The Unsuspected (1947)

frenchWhen we first see Victor Grandison’s face, it’s upside-down—a reflection in the desk of the woman he’s just strangled. The arresting shot flashes across the screen for a fleeting second in one of film noir’s best and eeriest opening sequences.

Like almost everything else in The Unsuspected, that shot, reprised several times throughout the film, suggests a world of frightening inversions.

Goodness bores and badness intrigues. Wrongdoers insinuate themselves into circles of normal people without tripping alarms. As Grandison intones for his rapt radio audiences “The guilty must go on and on… hiding his evil behind a mask, the calm and smiling mask of the unsuspected.”

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Plagued by a tight budget and abetted by an elastic conscience, beloved mystery raconteur Grandison kills his niece for her money then disposes of his secretary to silence her. Soon after, a shady stranger shows up at Grandison’s palatial estate and vows to uncover the truth behind the deaths. How high of a body count will Grandison rack up to protect his inheritance and his secrets?

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A forbidding, dreamlike majesty infuses this undeservedly overlooked noir. Although it lacks the raw, hardboiled impact of Warner Brothers’ finest forays into the genre, The Unsuspected compensates with a haunting cynicism and an ambiance of hypnotic dread. The characters, like chess pieces moved by the design of a remorseless grandmaster, wander through a manor of glittering black-and-white contrasts. A chain of guilt and betrayal binds everybody together, leaving no life unblemished by the consequences of lust and greed.

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Fair warning: don’t watch this movie expecting originality, at least not story-wise. I mean, if you don’t see the plot similarities to Preminger’s Laura, released three years before, you’re simply not trying hard enough. According to magazines of the time, Dana Andrews was even the first choice to play the romantic good guy in The Unsuspected.

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I mourn for that missed opportunity, because the replacement, Michael North, displays all the eye shadow of a 1930s Cagney role and none of the charisma. Well, what do you know? The Unsuspected was North’s final film.

The frozen North aside, this oddly little-known thriller serves up enough noirish guilty pleasures to satisfy any classic movie lover. Here are a few…

1. Claude Rains stars as one of noir’s most deliciously destructive tyrant figures.

Should the devil ever show up in hopes of persuading me to sell my soul, he’d be well advised to assume the form (and voice) of Claude Rains. I mean, who could resist?

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He doesn’t get enough screen time, but Rains is at the height of his suave, Mephistophelean powers in this movie. In one of the film’s most amusing exchanges, Grandison chides a gun-wielding killer as though he were talking to a toddler, “Give me that ridiculous weapon. Give it to me, I say, before I lose my temper.” Lesser demons and myrmidons step aside. Because Grandison commands in that sonorous baritone that cannot be wrong, the thug has no choice but to comply. Guns, poisons, nooses, none of Grandison’s weapons are quite as dangerous or disarming as his voice.

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Radio personalities—preferably with pompous surnames like Lydecker and Hunsecker—are invariably evil in film noir, a tendency no doubt fueled by the way radio could threaten moviedom’s popularity. And you don’t need to be Maigret to realize that the radio tyrants of Laura and The Sweet Smell of Success are up to no good.

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Rains’s Grandison, on the other hand, lives up to the movie’s title; affable, witty, and outwardly kind, he doesn’t arouse suspicion. Most creepily, he shares his home with his niece for years all the while plotting her demise (and, quite possibly, obsessing about her in an unhealthy way, judging by the huge portrait he hangs in a place of honor). He executes his wicked schemes with such élan that I find it difficult to condemn him. Even at the end, he stages his own unmasking as a self-glorifying coup-de-theatre. At the risk of spoilers, I won’t disclose any more, but the conclusion has joined the ranks of my favorite Claude Rains scenes.

2. Woody Bredell delivers some of the most beautiful black-and-white cinematography I’ve ever seen, period.

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The director of photography largely responsible for the look and feel of Christmas Holiday and Phantom Lady, Bredell imparted an otherworldly glow to the noirs he worked on. Instead of evoking matter-of-fact grittiness or stark tension, this master opted for something more luminous and mysterious. He coaxed light and shadow into singing a ghostly duet.

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For instance, consider Grandison’s entrance to his surprise birthday party. As he opens the door, the guests stand in the hall of his home as still silhouettes, like revenants come to accuse Grandison of his hidden crimes. In that beat, you can sense the horror that the killer feels, as though his guilt were confronting him. It could’ve been an uninspired shot, a continuity bridge, but through Bredell’s artistry the moment acquires a spooky significance and strengthens the movie’s primary theme of festering guilt.

3. Audrey Totter perfects her tongue-in-cheek femme fatale image.

“The bad girls were so much fun to play,” the late great Totter confided to the New York Times in 1999. You can certainly tell that Totter is having a ball as the decadent Althea, Grandison’s penniless ward who keeps herself tricked out in couture gowns on the strength of her personality. And what a personality it is!

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Althea summarizes her life goals when she tosses a cocktail glass into a fireplace and giggles, “I like to break things.” Glasses, hearts, schemes: Althea delights in wrecking anything she gets in her funeral-lily-white clutches.

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Milking her wide eyes and perpetual pout, Totter plays the juicy role with a childish naughtiness that diverges from the deadpan demeanor of many femmes fatales. Totter handles her drinks and her cigarettes with a theatrical self-indulgence that even Bette Davis might’ve envied. As Grandison says, “You were always my favorite… so charmingly unscrupulous.”

vlcsnap-2014-11-01-12h16m48s1014. Michael Curtiz does double duty as director and producer.

For my money, Curtiz was the greatest director who’ll probably never be celebrated as an auteur. With this irate Hungarian at the helm, material didn’t matter: bring on swashbuckling adventures, films noirs, cult horror flicks, melodramas, musicals (and some empty horses for good measure, to borrow a famous Curtiz malapropism). His Warner movies practically all turned out to be at least entertaining and at their best downright sublime.

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By 1947 for about two decades Curtiz had been contributing to Warner Brothers’ reputation for movies that wasted nary a frame of precious celluloid. With The Unsuspected, Curtiz formed his own production company and shouldered a new role. He would go on to produce a handful of other films, among them another terrific sleeper noir Flamingo Road and the Doris Day musical My Dream Is Yours.

The Unsuspected has some major soft spots, like a zigzagging plot (despite experienced screenwriter Bess Meredyth, Curtiz’s wife and all-around secret weapon, working on the script) and a bland juvenile lead. Still, it took guts for Curtiz to exercise more autonomy—and produce a commercially successful film to back it up. vlcsnap-2014-11-01-11h54m28s15

The director peppered The Unsuspected with some of his specialties, like shadowy compositions to spice up dialogue scenes and a tautly-paced action sequence, as the heroine races to save the good guy at the end.

Curtiz laced my favorite sequence with his characteristic expressionism as the camera roams to discover three characters we haven’t yet met. As one of Grandison’s grim broadcasts fills the soundtrack, a dissolve transports us to a train passing in night where the vengeful good guy sits smoking in his compartment.

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The camera then glides from the moving train to a grimy city street, probing into a seedy hotel room where a thug lies on his bed listening to the radio. As the unknown hatchet-faced man takes a drag on his cigarette, a portion of the flashing hotel sign outside winks in at him: “KILL”.

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From there, Grandison’s sepulchral voice bridges a cut to a series of letters on a desk, being sorted by a dagger-like opener. The camera tracks out slightly to reveal an upside-down face in the desk. Grandison? Why, no it’s actually one of the good guys, a police detective, presented the same way as the lethal radio host. I admire the conviction that it took to fashion such a surreal, disorienting, counterintuitive introduction to three key characters, linking the good and the bad together, practically equating them, through the restless wanderings of the camera.

5. You can bask in the assembled star power of the impressive supporting cast.

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Constance Bennett does her best Eve Arden impression as a sassy career woman. Hurd Hatfield bitterly philosophizes as a drunken painter. And Joan Caulfield radiates delicate goodness and Gish-esque femininity as… well, I’d better not say. Any one of them would give me grounds for checking out The Unsuspected, but all three of them together? Why, thank you, studio system.

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In his 1947 review, the ever-cranky critic Bosley Crowther dissed the supporting cast as “patly artificial as the plot.” If this be artifice, I’ll make the most of it.

The Unsuspected is available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Don’t Kill a Dead Man: Decoy (1946)

DecoyDecoy is a movie of the dead.

Honestly, the more I think about it, this movie is a Jacobean revenge tragedy wearing a fedora. It’s Lady Macbeth in a mud-spattered trench coat.

Over the course of this film’s action-packed 76-minute runtime, no less than two men essentially walk out of their graves to get what they want. The whole story is framed by a voice-over slipping into the beyond, but not spoken by a deadman like Joe Gillis, but by an evil woman whose life force is rapidly ebbing away.

That’s right—the femme fatale is… our protagonist.

In this movie, life is cheap and death is nasty, painful, and pointless. Crazy, farfetched conceits—like chemical resurrection and a map to a buried treasure—furrow the unreal story world of Decoy. It’s one bad trip.

Produced for a song at Monogram and directed by the obscure Jack Bernhard, Decoy takes the bizarro, jigsaw plot style of the Poverty Row studio’s often incoherent oeuvre and spins it into something truly extraordinary.

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At once linear and all over the place, at once inevitable and luridly surprising, this film galvanizes everything warped and gorgeous about horror, sci-fi, trashy crime literature, and the legit noir canon into a dark, relentlessly suspenseful parable.

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With a faint pulse of fatalism where a healthy moral might’ve been, this beautiful freak, we recognize, is a kind of pulp fable, a skid-row myth that resonates far beyond the confines of its characters and plot. It makes me think of the Greek word phobos, which refers not so much to ordinary fear (as in phobia) as to a more cosmic species of dread, associated with bloody, harrowing tragedy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. As I mentioned, the wacko story is told in flashback by Margot Shelby, girlfriend of vicious mobster Frankie Olins who robbed an armored car, killed the driver, and made off with $400,000—only to get nabbed by the cops. Before getting caught, however, he managed to stash the loot in a location known only to him.

Sent down the fast track to the gas chamber, Frankie refuses to tell where to find the money as long as he’s going to die. Well, being the resourceful dame she is, Margot happens to know of a chemical, called Methylene Blue, that can revive an executed man. Personally, I’m surprised that the smell of her perfume alone couldn’t do it.

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With the help of her main squeeze, Vincent, another racketeer, Margot seduces a naïve prison physician, Dr. Craig. They hijack the body and bring Frankie back from the edge of that Unknown Country, just long enough to draw out a map to where the loot is buried.

All along the way, a basically decent tough-guy cop, Sergeant Joe “Jojo” Portugal lingers around Margot, drawn in by a mixture of disgust and attraction, and attempts to unravel her scheme.

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How do I begin to count up the ways I love this movie? I won’t try, but for starters, the camerawork impressed me by aligning the spectator with the point-of-view of the dead and dying. The first post-credits shot of the movie has the hemorrhaging, gut-shot Dr. Craig washing his shaking, bloody hands in a gas station sink and looking in a mirror. From the camera’s perspective, we’re looking in the mirror, seeing him as ourselves.

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Likewise, when Frankie Olins succumbs to the cyanide gas in the State of California’s death house, we “die” in his place. We look through the glass at the stony gallery of spectators who’ve come to attend his execution—also a kind of parallel movie theater audience, drawn in by death as a spectacle.

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As tendrils of grey vapor swirl in front of our (and Frankie’s) eyes, the angle of the shot torques and falls into black. When Frankie comes back from the dead, we assume his perspective once again as his blurred vision slowly focuses on Dr. Craig.

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Thanks to these creepy subjective touches, Decoy stands out as a rare film noir that never loses track of the real-life stakes of its plot (the girl, the gun, the money) while taking a dip into the swampy pool of metaphysics. It is both gritty and surreal, corporeal and ethereal.

The dialogue, in particular, suggests this strange tug-of-war between the earthly and the unearthly. When noir has a sense of humor, it’s usually the trench humor of Hamlet’s gravediggers. Decoy doesn’t disappoint with its two bickering prison morgue attendants, situated in a long line of morbidly funny, quirky tertiary noir characters.

Immediately after Frankie Olins departs this life in the gas chambers, a shot tilts down from a clock to reveal one of the attendants cracking himself up by reading the dictionary. He happens to be spelling out (as in, “D-I—‘die’…”) and reading the word “dichotomy.”

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Although he mispronounces this piece of semantic pretension, the fellow still exclaims, “What a beautiful word!” The beauty of a signifier without a signified, of a string of symbols without meaning, is something I can definitely relate to. Perhaps something is always most lovely to us when we don’t understand it. But that’s also when that alluring something is at its most dangerous—hence the lethal charms of the inscrutable femme fatale.

Dichotomies breed contention, division, conflict—I mean, it’s not a particularly positive word. Certain schools of thought strive to eliminate all notions of duality as harbingers of discontent. Yet, this silly morgue attendant considers the word beautiful (and it is indeed) because of its surface qualities only.

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Noir, to a certain extent, revolves around this fatal error. Characters make the assumption that what something looks like, it must be in reality. They jump to the conclusion that a hidden thing, “the great whatsit,” or the chest of money in Decoy, is to be desired and not avoided like a toxic temptation. Interestingly enough, dichotomy can technically refer to that stage in a planet or celestial orb’s waxing or waning when it is half illuminated, half in darkness, half seen, half concealed.

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What is film noir, if not a genre that stretches many dichotomies to their furthest extent while placing them side by side? Darkness and light, death and life, innocence and guilt, good and evil, love and hate, rich and poor—these poles, these binaries structure the genre and remain locked in a tense embrace. A dichotomy (or any duality) brings pain, but, the morgue attendant is right without knowing it. Dichotomy is beautiful. Like our very unconventional protagonist, Margot.

She’s also our narrator—and you know a noir’s bound to be full of doom when the femme fatale is telling the story, for crying out loud! And telling it from her deathbed. In the first five minutes of the movie, she gets shot by a man’s she left for dead. When Sergeant Jojo arrives on the scene and carries her to a nearby sofa, she utters a line of sheer tragic lyricism: “Everything’s mixed up. What mixes things up, Joe?”

Like the flatfoot he is, refusing to grasp the larger implications of her question, Jojo replies, “Simple arithmetic,” echoing something she said to him earlier in the film. From there, she launches into her story—which Jojo mostly knows already. In this case, the act of telling serves as a catharsis, an unburdening between her and Jojo.

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However—and this is key—Margot doesn’t betray a modicum of remorse or apology. The awkward angle above, her point-blank stare, and the feverish beads of sweat on her brow inform us that Margot isn’t ’fessing up. If anything, she’s bragging. “I wanted money. And Frankie Olins had it,” she explains.

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This might be a good place to mention that noir dialogue takes on a whole new life in Margot’s mouth because of actress Jean Gillie’s British accent. She gives every word of hardboiled, slang-rhythmed speech an immediate otherness, a quality that makes the audience more aware of the genre’s off-kilter poetry. Just the way she pronounces “Methylene Blue” makes it sound like a Tennyson heroine rather than an exotic chemical. Although her voice-over dissipates as the story unfolds, her personality prevails. Make no mistake—it’s her story.

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Like many a femme fatale, she comes from grungy poverty, an English mill town where she learned to play for keeps. When the doctor she’s seducing suggests that they call off the plan and live simply and honestly off of his charitable medical practice in the slums, she gives him a reality check:

“Reality? What do you know about reality? You like the clothes I wear, don’t you? You like to smell the perfume I use. You like that, don’t you? That perfume costs seventy-five dollars a bottle! Seventy-five dollars! That’s as much as you earn in a week sopping up runny noses. A bottle of perfume—that’s our reality.”

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Ouch! In one little rant, she demystifies her dewy glamour and yet becomes even more powerful through a crystallized fragment of logic. Perhaps it’s just because I’m a woman with expensive tastes, but I can’t fight back a tremendous feeling of edification when she rips into his moral high ground like that.

We see that only one thing scares Margot and that’s poverty, especially in an interesting scene during which she walks through a shabby part of town to visit Dr. Craig’s office.  In a long take, she walks past a cheap set, a street of restaurants, laundries, sordid little buildings (that I’ve seen in probably half of the Monogram flicks I’ve ever watched).

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Children are playing in the street—but whereas children usually signify hope or innocence in films, these little tykes only get in Margot’s way, throwing their stickball in front of her and rushing around in front of the camera. She doesn’t even turn her head to look at the kids, just stops a moment when a little boy rushes in front of her, then coldly goes on her way, wrapped in mink in the midst of bare subsistence. We understand only later that her desire to avoid the children stems from the fact that they remind her of her own childhood. As she blurts out to Craig,

“If I had never seen it, I still could have described it because that street runs all over the world. I know because that’s the street I came from: 6000 miles from here in a little English mill town. But it’s the same rotten street, the same factories, the same people, and the same little gray-faced children!”

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That’s just one brilliant, thematically rich scene in this noir gem. There are too many more to describe, which is probably why this blog post is epically long. Seriously, if you read it all, you should get a drink on the house. You’ll probably need one.

Oh, and please note, beyond this point, major spoilers lurk. Beware. 

I also have to applaud the tension of the reanimation scene that strongly recalls Frankenstein’s “IT’S ALIVE!!!” coup de théâtre. A lot of build-up… dials, respirators, heart monitors and suddenly a cyanide-gassed murderer sees, moves, and walks again, his muscles slack and wobbly as a newborn’s.

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His eyes bulging and unfocused, the dead man opens the blinds, looks out at the nocturnal city, lights a match, stares in horror at the lick of flame on the match, and grunts, “I’m… alive,” before collapsing into tears.

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Watching this big, prune-faced tough guy being medically reborn sends shivers up my spine, especially since no one cares about heinous killer Frankie Olins. All they want is to know where he hid the dough.

The scene isn’t a resurrection; it’s an interrogation. Life and death bend to the service of mercenary pursuits.

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No sooner does Frankie reluctantly draw out a map to the treasure, then he decides he wants some back-from-the-dead sugar from the lovely Margot. Horrified, she backs away from her reanimated squeeze. I can only describe this scene as ultra-noir. It’s so morbid and creepy and wonderful and twisted. With one well-placed shot from Vincent, Frankie dies for the second time in under an hour.

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If I have any advice to you all, it’s this: Don’t kill a dead man. It’s plain bad luck.

A moment later, Jojo shows up at the Doc’s office and Decoy takes the famous hallway scene from Double Indemnity and blows it up to a logical extreme. While Dr. Craig improvises some excuses about Olins’ missing body for Jojo’s benefit, Margot, her lover, AND the dead body cram into a tiny medical supply closet… while Vincent points the gun at Jojo, ready for action. It’s a master class in pulp suspense with the promise of violence hanging thick in the air, like the smell of antiseptic in a doctor’s office.

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Most of the second half of the film takes place in a car, as Vincent, Margot, and Dr. Craig hit the road to find the loot. And, lest I forget, this film contains one scene that, I swear, I have no idea how they got it past the censors. It’s that unrepentantly brutal.

Because Margot runs over Vincent. She asks him to fix a tire. He does so. Just as he’s finishing, we see him stand up. We see Margot’s face glow with diabolic resolve. Then—WHAMMO! A blur and a shriek and he’s dead.

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Okay, so here’s where most films noirs might dissolve to the following scene, the continued search for the treasure. Nope! Instead, we get damn long takes of Margot skipping back and forth between the car in real time, as she puts the tire-jack back in the trunk. The camera pans back and forth to follow her movements while her coat billows around her in the night breeze.

The lack of ellipses and the insistence on showing the logistical aftermath of Margot’s crime with detached observation makes the brutal, sudden murder seem all that more real and shocking. It’s not a just cinematic event, it’s something that happened, and has to be cleaned up afterwards.

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The long takes ensure that we’re sewed up in the moment, we’re there with her, as time elapses in a continuous space. There are a few match-on-action cuts, when she pulls the treasure map out of Vincent’s coat pocket, but even then, the strange high angle and the way Margot’s head bobs in and out of the frame suggest both the sordidness and the matter-of-fact necessity of what she’s doing. And then they’re back on the road, hunting down the treasure.

Just when you thought the movie couldn’t get more nightmarish, it does. When Margot finds the treasure spot, she sinks to the ground and starts clawing, as the camera tilts up to a drunk and delirious Dr. Craig holding a sort of sickle-machete over his head.

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He brings the weapon down—initially we think he’s going to brain Margot!—and proceeds to hack away at the earth where the treasure’s supposed to be. Meanwhile, Margot keeps on cackling, whipping herself up into a frenzy over how many people they killed for the treasure. And then she shoots Craig, grabs the casket, and runs giddily back to the car like a little girl coming home from a candy shop.

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Now for the big spoiler. After Dr. Craig finds his way back into town, shoots Margot, and dies, Jojo opens the treasure chest over Margot’s dead body. There’s one dollar in it and a letter from Frankie Olins bragging that he leaves his loot “to the worms.”

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So, the “decoy” referred to by the movie’s title is the phony treasure, planted by Frankie Olins to keep anyone but him from benefitting from his ill-gotten gains. I must confess, when I first picked up Decoy, my assumption was that it was going to be about an undercover agent or a police sting. In fact, the title was announcing a twist ending all along, right under my nose!

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Usually the first part of a movie we come into contact with is a title, and they’re often not very revealing. Well, this one blows the movie’s whole secret. How’s that for a clever meta-filmic joke, a joke you only get after the whole gruesome spectacle has splattered across the screen? I suspect that you don’t realize what your own life is about until it’s over—if then—and Decoy follows this bitingly ironic path.

I should note, though, if this movie has a weakness, it’s some of the acting. We get convincing performances from old character actor stalwarts Sheldon Leonard (the bartender Nick in It’s a Wonderful Life) as Jojo and Robert Armstrong (who played the Merian C. Cooper surrogate role in King Kong) as Frankie Olins. However, Dr. Craig and Vincent come across awkward and wooden at times.

But, to make up for that, Jean Gillie, who only made a few movies and died at the absurdly young age of 33, inhabits the role of a ruthless gangland mistress so totally that you can practically feel the touch of her powdered, perfumed, silken skin—as she chokes the life out of you. And underneath all that tough, glossy exterior lies… a great big void where her heart should be. She litters her path with broken dreams and gunshot wounds. I’d also point out that she was married to Decoy’s director, John Bernhard, but they were divorced shortly after—rather like a Poverty Row version of those femme fatale-director pairings, Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth and Nick Ray and Gloria Grahame. In all three cases, the unhappy unions produced wildly beautiful films noirs.

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I can’t stress this enough about Gillie’s Margot Shelby: this is one hard dame filling those bejeweled espadrilles, so hard that she doesn’t plan on any man exiting her life intact. I nominate her for the title of Film Noir’s Baddest Chick and we all know that’s real bad. She could make Phyllis Dietrichson look like a Sunday school teacher. At least Phyllis goes soft at the end, which is more than you can say for Gillie’s wholly rotten femme fatale.

In probably my favorite moment in a movie full of great moments, Margot, about to breathe her last, surrounded by policemen, sweetly coos to Jojo, asking him for a dying kiss. Clearly attracted to her since the get-go, Jojo cranes in. You can see his thought process, “Well, she’s dying, huh? It’d be wrong NOT to get some borderline necrophiliac lovin’…” whereupon Margot cackles in his face!

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Right there, in her genuine enjoyment of Jojo’s humiliation, we see the essence of the femme fatale whose ultimate goal in life is to consume and destroy as many others as possible before she herself combusts. In a world where life is unpleasant and imminent death hangs over everyone like a pall, Margot’s drive to dominate makes us admire and respect her, because of the unadulterated wickedness and willpower of her nature. Then she dies. I love film noir, but I must confess that many an example of the genre dissolves into sentimentality at the last minute, so I found such an unflaggingly harsh death scene refreshing.

A film like Decoy means so many things. For one, it’s a testament to what can be done with very little, an inspiration to low-budget filmmakers. It also tells us why Jean-Luc Godard dedicated Breathless to Monogram—because cheap, raw, yet luminescent films noirs like Decoy shaped the vision of the next generation of directors much more than the ruffled, pretentious fare that big Hollywood studios were releasing as prestige problem pictures. However, regardless of its impact, Decoy deserves to be remembered in and of itself as a taut story that entertains, even as it unravels a trail of grim developments that make us squirm in our seats at the prospect of our own mortality.

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Every now and then, I get to the point where I (rather arrogantly) think I’ve seen every movie worth seeing that exists within the confines of my interests. And I despair. And then I find a movie that hits me like a tender blackjack to the base of the skull and forces me to realize all over again what it means to watch a movie and be shocked and stunned by its audacity. Decoy is one of those movies for me. I think it might be for you too.

So dig it up. I dare you.

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