Nobody is safe in this briskly-paced, undervalued noir programmer set in November of 1947 in New York City. Back from a trip to Cuba, Sheila Bennet (Evelyn Keyes) makes her way into the city by train, with a US Customs Service official named Johnson (Barry Kelley) not far behind her. Sheila suffers from debilitating headaches while she carries out her role in a diamond smuggling operation, but remains fiercely determined to reunite with her husband Matt Krane (Charles Korvin). In Sheila's absence her younger sister Francie Bennet (Lola Albright) has been in close company with Matt. That is an unenviable setup for a homecoming, but Sheila's much greater problem is her headaches are symptomatic of an illness thought long out of fashion.
|A somewhat misleading opening image|
|Sheila Bennet (the very talented Evelyn Keyes)|
|A nasty take on surrogate motherhood|
THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK is a social conflict drama in the vein of PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), released by Twentieth Century Fox earlier the same year. Anyone familiar with the Fox film will recognize the similar structure of the effort from Columbia, especially once Dr. Ben Wood (William Bishop) and Dr. Cooper (Ludwig Donath) make an agonizing discovery at the District Health Center: "a killer out of the past loose amongst 8 million people." A young patient named Walda (Beverly Washburn) is diagnosed with smallpox, later described as, "1,000 ugly sores breaking through and a fever that burns its victims to death," by the somewhat sanctimonious Health Commissioner Ellis (Carl Benton Reid). Faced with the possibility of a massive city with empty streets, Ellis shifts into a high gear and visits the Mayor of New York (Roy Roberts) on a Sunday afternoon (nobody gets a day off under these circumstances). Once made aware that smallpox could wipe out his city, the Mayor orchestrates the necessary cooperation from all levels of the public sector and private industry to combat the dreaded disease and fight for the health of the citizens on every stratum of society. Not one to take no for an answer, he instinctively demonstrates he is willing to break medical regulations in the time-sensitive fight against smallpox. Such an adulatory view of tireless public servants is a tough sell these days, when it seems all levels of government are riddled with corruption, excessive bureaucracy and financial distress. Nonetheless, the filmmaking formula offered in THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK still makes for compelling viewing, and reminds us what people are capable of when we strive for the greater good. A fatalistic noir force provides a different sort of reminder, even when there is a clear collective initiative to help each other. The following message is delivered via narration:
"...here were two agencies seeking the same thing, yet fate continued its grim joke and somehow kept the federal men and the health detectives from pooling their efforts."
The unmistakable cinematic phrasing of the noir film accents the story as it unfolds. The source of the horrific smallpox crisis that drives the narrative is a family in a state of decay, ripped apart by selfishness and greed. Sheila is betrayed not only by her husband, but by her own sister. The traditional family in self-destruct mode, or absent entirely, is one of the recurring themes associated with the noir form. Then there is Sheila herself, who presents something of a categorical problem in terms of film noir’s female archetypes. The proper noir femme fatale knows precisely what she is doing when she leads men to their doom. In this particular noir variation, the most dangerous female specimen has no idea of the danger she poses to every single person she comes near (a hotel porter, a young girl in a hospital, a boy playing in a park, a former employer, and most frighteningly, any number of people among a large urban crowd). Despite the threat to society she embodies, she raises no eyebrows from common people. Interestingly, the G-Man who knows who she is seeks her for reasons far less important than what motivates public figures to locate her. It is not unusual for other people to be unaware of the noir woman's deadly nature, but it is very unusual for that character to be completely unaware of her own destructive nature. What is not in doubt is that Sheila is an attractive woman of mystery who leaves a trail of destruction in her wake. Though she cannot be considered a femme fatale without serious question, the attractive blonde ("a pretty face with a frame to match") as a menace to others remains a looming subtext. She also has a pockmarked past with Matt. As dangerous noir dames go, Sheila's wrecking power is eclipsed only by the KISS ME DEADLY (1955) character Gabrielle (Gaby Rodgers), whose curiosity unknowingly leads to a doomsday box.
In terms of masculine archetypes, THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK takes a stand against male lechery when Willie Dennis (Jim Backus) attempts to force himself on Sheila, which results in the expected decline in his health. Similarly, Matt pays for his shabby treatment of his wife quite dramatically. When it comes to the men in her life, the filmmakers side with Sheila. The vile immigrant Matt Krane as an agent of evil and double-crossing scoundrel of a husband is in harmony with noir schematics, as well as the presumable origins of the smallpox outbreak in a foreign land, where Sheila traveled to acquire hot diamonds. The same xenophobic undertones inform PANIC IN THE STREETS.
Often credited as second unit director or assistant director, THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK is one of only three films directed by Earl McEvoy, who admirably helms the action of this film. Where he is particularly strong is in the staging of Sheila's escalating threat to mankind. As she makes her way around New York City, the horrifying potential of the smallpox epidemic becomes increasingly evident. It appears the dreaded disease indeed could spread like wildfire. Each day she is on the streets, she may be infecting countless people. Screenwriter Harry Essex worked from a COSMOPOLITAN magazine article by Milton Lehman ("Smallpox, the Killer That Stalks New York," April, 1948). Other noir titles written or co-written for the screen by Essex include DESPERATE (1947), BODYGUARD (1948) and the always re-watchable KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952). Film noir fans will appreciate the presence of Dorothy Malone, Art Smith and Whit Bissell in supporting roles. Filming locations include a host of Manhattan highlights such as the Third Avenue El, City Hall, Pennsylvania Station, Gracie Mansion and Willard Parker Hospital. The transitions from location work to studio footage are not abrupt but apparent. Reed Hadley's narration badly dates the film; the subject matter would be much stronger without the intrusive voiceover treatment.
Part of a nine-film collection entitled NOIR ARCHIVE VOLUME 1: 1944-1954, THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK has been made available on dual-layered Blu-ray from Kit Parker Films in association with Millcreek Entertainment. The packaging falls well short of what classic movie collectors might expect. The 3-disc set ships housed in a 2-hub Blu-ray case, and the discs themselves are mislabeled in terms of film content. Oops! Fortunately the viewing experience, which of course is what really counts, puts a better foot forward. The transfer boasts very good source material, and the level of contrast and film grain is more than satisfactory. At this time I have not had an opportunity to sample the other selections, but I am pleased to have THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK among the film noir options within by personal Blu-ray library.