Saturday, December 6, 2014

DECOY (1946)

Decoy is a good name for a movie that looks like a typical film noir, only to feature a plot twist alien to the genre; stars a couple of unknowns who look like two other, famous actors; and features a third actor playing completely against type.

After Frank Olins is given the hot seat for an unspecified crime -- selling loose cigarettes? -- his two-timing girlfriend Margot Shelby seduces the noble Dr. Lloyd Craig into injecting him with the life-reviving drug Methylene Blue (which I hereby trademark as a new color for Uniqlo). 

It's all for love -- that is, the love she has for the 400-grand Olin's got socked away in the woods. Once Olin hands over a map leading to the money, he's plugged by Jim Vincent, his overpriced mouthpiece who's also Margot's third lover. How does this dame keep these guys straight?

Now in over his stethoscope, Dr. Craig is forced at gunpoint to drive Margot and Jim to the buried loot. Before the night is over, Margot has fatally run over Jim before finding the money and shooting Dr. Craig to death. Or so she thinks.

Mirror mirror on the wall,
who's the damnedest of them all?
Filled with little moments that separate it from other low budget crime pictures, Decoy opens with the ghostly Dr. Craig washing his hands in a bathroom right out of the Beggars Banquet album cover. Gazing at his reflection in a broken mirror, he seems shocked to be alive. After silently hitching his way to San Francisco, he plugs Margot but good before expiring. The oddly-named cop Joe Portugal drops by a moment later to hear Margot's deathbed -- make that death couch -- confession. It's a testament to her strength that she can inaugurate a 65-minute flashback after being shot in the chest. Ambulance? What ambulance?

Margot's nastiness comes wrapped in silk, thanks to her generous boyfriend Frank Olins. But considering that she's keeping two other guys punching the clock in her bedroom, Olins, the toughest of the bunch, is probably the biggest sap of the three. Imagine being electrocuted, then brought back to life an hour later, only to be shot by your sweetie's lover before your body's barely warm again. Hardly seems worth the trip.

He's not the only one
playing with fire.
You can't help feel sorry for him -- after all, he's played by Robert Armstrong, who brought King Kong to New York 13 years earlier. His stunned, disbelieving reaction to just lighting a match after being brought back to life is almost pitiful. "I'm alive!" he shouts, arousing memories of Frankenstein, "I'm alive!" Not for long, bub, not for long.

The original version of Midnight Run.
And for all this meshugga, Dr. Craig gave up his altruistic career as a slum doctor. As with Frank Olins, you feel bad for the doc, a good guy suckered by a pretty face, a sweet line of lies, and a body to revive the dead for. Herbert Rudley, who plays Dr. Craig, juices up the sympathy by being a near-double for Charles Grodin, the ultimate hangdog actor.


A fur hat for a cold mind.
Unlike other tough dames of this genre, Margot is a sophisticated, smooth-talking Brit. That's be due to "Miss Jean Gillie," as she's billed in the credits, being a sophisticated, smooth-talking Brit herself.  And by the looks of her, I'd wager she was being groomed as the next Joan Fontaine. (Aspiring actresses: if you want that kind of special billing in the credits, marry the movie's producer, as Miss Gillie did.)

A kiss to build a laugh on.
One more welcome twist is the great character actor Sheldon Leonard on the right side of the law for a change, as Det. Joe Portugal. Sneering as if his paycheck depended on it, he's all too familiar with Margot's type: the trollop with a heart of ice. Yet not even a misanthrope like Joe can resist her allure. Going in for a kiss requested by the dying Margot, he's unexpectedly spurned by the most contemptuous laugh ever captured on celluloid.

Supposedly a "lost" film until recently, Decoy is a welcome surprise to noir fans who thought they had seen them all. There was more than a little thought put into all aspects of its production, from the bizarre script to the atmospheric cinematography, and is the kind of Monogram production that rightfully drove the French cinema buffs into throes of extase. This Decoy, without doubt, is the real thing.

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