3.11.2016

The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)


The Killer That Stalked New York (1950) is not your run-of-the-mill film noir. It's commonly referred to as one, and sure it's got a femme fatale, a love triangle, criminals moving slowly and inexorably towards their doom, and an all-pervasive anxiety. But it flips certain elements on their heads. The character who compels the main character to crime or deviation is usually the femme fatale; here it is the female lead Sheila (Evelyn Keyes)'s two-timing husband Matt (Charles Korvin) who so compels. And, like the lead in DOA she is slowly dying, but not from a slow-acting poison, from smallpox, something she is silently spreading across New York City to boot. 

And the noirish-malaise comes not from post-war psychological anxiety but from the understandable panic that a city of eight million people might be wiped out from lack of vaccinations and public awareness.  

Like I say, not your typical film noir fare. Perhaps it should be:


I'll get to the plot in a minute, but two early scenes establish what a smallpox epidemic means in a city like New York City. Smallpox, one of the greatest scourges in history, wasn't eradicated until the late 1960s, but from the late 18th century on, deaths from the disease steadily declined, thanks to vaccinations. Much like you or me in 2016, audiences of 1950 needed to be reminded of the true horror - especially in a city like New York - of this disease.

Dr. Wood (William Bishop) is discussing the puzzling symptoms of a young child with a colleague. They can't figure out what she might have, and Dr. Wood says something like "I feel like we're in the Dark Ages, just groping in the dark for a lucky guess." This prompts the colleague to ask, well, if we were in the Dark Ages, what would we make of the symptoms: fever, backache, headache, and rash? They both realize the answer at the same time: smallpox. The doctor refers to a smallpox epidemic he saw in Europe in the early 20th century. The worst part was trying to comfort all the children at the hospital, "doomed to be fed to a huge bonfire that was kept going for weeks." 

The other scene is when the army scientists confirm that they are dealing with smallpox, the general (who had his back to the camera the whole time) talks of how a smallpox epidemic killed half a million people in China when he was there in a matter of weeks. 1 out of 3 die, and if you live (he turns): 

"you look like this."
"There's a killer out there, loose among eight million people..."

"All Sheila knew was, she had a headache," the narrator tells us at the beginning, as a blonde woman steps off a train in New York City, followed by a T-Man on her trail for diamonds she smuggled out of Cuba. She loses him and calls her husband, who's two-timing her with her own sister.

Played by Lola Albright.

Later, after Matt abandons them both, the sister commits suicide, setting Sheila on her path of vengeance. But let's start at the beginning, as summarized at TCM:

"The film develops a steady, escalating sense of tension from the very first scene (...). Already feverish and weak from the disease, she manages to elude her pursuer and slip incognito into Matt's apartment where she holes up and tries to get well." 


"In the meantime, her contagious condition has already infected numerous people and when Dr. Ben Wood discovers that smallpox is the cause, he tries to prevent a major epidemic by involving city officials and the Health Department." 

The film makes judicious use of montages and narration (not from any of the characters themselves.)
A Soviet-style PSA in film noir clothes! But for Uncle Sam, not Uncle Joe. Screw Uncle Joe. (But not Eisenstein. So say we all, comrade.)

"As they frantically race against time to quarantine victims and vaccinate local residents without creating a widespread panic, Sheila once again takes to the streets." 

The parallel investigations - the Treasury Department trying to find Sheila about the stones and the Health Department trying to find the carrier - eventually converge.

"As Sheila, armed with a gun, closes in on her two-timing lover, the police and city officials follow in close pursuit, hoping to stop her before she can further infect anyone. "


Matt falls to his death running from the cops (and Sheila) and Sheila succumbs to the pox off-camera right before the end credits, but New York - and civilization - survives.


It's a remarkable little film. Dismissed on its release as a B-grade knockoff of Eliza Kazan's Panic in the Streets (about a bubonic plague carrier in New Orleans and the police have only forty-eight hours to catch him; I've never seen it) it languished in obscurity, like so many film noirs, until championed by directors of the 70s and 90s. It's still a little off-radar, which is ironic since the film almost seems like an urgent response to the anti-vaxxers of 2016.

"An aching arm told your neighbor you had good sense."

Some fun cameos. Jim Backus (i.e. Mr. Magoo) -


"in the uncharacteristic role of a predatory bar owner who tries to force himself on Sheila - with fatal results."

And Dorothy Malone as Alice Lorie, the nurse paired with Dr. Wood in the few scenes she's in. She wasn't well-known at the time, but you can tell everyone in frame with her is responding to her as the greater gravitational force. 


When I first started reading up on old Hollywood, Dorothy Malone came up all the time. She's one of those nexus-actresses of yesteryear. I didn't expect to see her in The Killer That Stalked to New York - and didn't even recognize her, to be honest; I'm used to the later platinum-blonde look - but I should have known.

The authentic post-WW2 New York locations add the essential element to the film.

Especially when (in montage voiceover) they imagine the city post-pox:

I haven't mentioned Evelyn Keyes. She's pretty terrific as Sheila. Some say she's the weak point of the movie, but that's hogwash. 

I'm not a very learned man when it comes to fashions and costume designers, but I hope this film is highly regarded in such circles. Most of the film's visuals are anchored by Sheila in a pretty bad-ass coat against a pretty bad-ass NYC backdrop.


I love the idea of a film noir that doubles as vaccination propaganda. I say this as an unabashed pro-vaccine guy. And by extension, I guess, a pro-vaccination-propaganda guy, so long as it's well-done or packaged entertainingly. And this is both. Throw in the usual film noir visuals and hi-jinks, and you've got yourselves a stew.

Viewed another way, this is an anti-beatnik horror film where smallpox is some kind of demon or spectral presence that is accumulating a body count and almost fully materializes in this world, as aided by a not-entirely-unsympathetic Sheila, thwarted only by the determined counter-spells of a nerd cult. (The villains are hip singers and musicians and crooks; the heroes are scientists and squares, man. Real Herberts.)  

A scenario I also love


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2 comments:

  1. I've never taken much time to consider what side I come down on in the great Vaccination Wars of our era, but this review sways me to the pro-vaccination side. I was probably already there, to be honest; just hadn't given it any active thought.

    This really DOESN'T sound like your typical film noir. Fine by me; genre should never be a straitjacket, it should only be a suggestion for storytellers to bounce off of. Unless they want to put the straitjacket on, and that's fine, too, in its own way.

    Is she drinking water by putting her mouth directly on the water fountain in that one shot?!? Ick! Do people actually DO that?!? If so, they deserve whatever they get.

    This is another movie I'd never even heard of. I've added it to the ever-growing roster of stuff I need to check out.

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    Replies
    1. I do apologize for always adding to said roster. Like you don't have enough to do already!

      And yep on the drinking fountain. I remember seeing one of these once, can't remember when but had to be the 70s or 80s. The scene afterwards, two kids come up and fight over who gets to go first, and then one of the kids (later seen at the hospital, all smallpox'd out) practically swallows the damn thing getting a drink. Gross.

      I have a cousin who is always sending me anti-vaxx stuff, or did until we finally had it out and she's stopped. I was mildly pro-vax before that, but that hardened my stance. I do think there are some mandatory-vaccinations that are more or less useless, but that's a different story than being anti-vax altogether.

      Anyway: people forget the horrors of history that civilization has saved them from. it's easy to do, but teachers/ leaders could do a better job of reminding people.

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