(Open Thread) Noir Side Street — “Decoy”

Nouvelle Vague (the residues of alphaville). Photo by Emiliano Grusovin.

Today’s film is 1946’s “Decoy,” starring Jean Gillie (Margot Shelby), Robert Armstrong (Frank Olins), Herbert Rudley (Dr. Lloyd Craig), Edward Norris (Jim Vincent), Sheldon Leonard (Sgt. Joseph “Jo Jo” Portugal), Philip Van Zandt (Tommy), and Marjorie Woodworth (Dr. Craig’s Nurse). Directed by Jack Bernhard; cinematography by L. William O’Connell. Produced by Jack Bernhard and Bernhard Brandt for Bernhard-Brandt Productions and Pathe Pictures. Distributed by Monogram Pictures. Screenplay by Nedrick Young; story by Stanley Rubin.

“Decoy” languished in obscurity for decades, until it was rediscovered in a Warner Brothers vault and shown to an appreciative audience. It soon found cult status through word of mouth. It features the most compelling femme fatale in all of noir; there’s nothing at all redeeming in Margot, not even a little glimmer of goodness.

You’re going to need your willing suspension of disbelief turned up to high to accept the plot on this one, but if you can get past the creative use of methylene blue here, you’ve got it made. As I’ve said before, though, you don’t watch noir for plots that hang together; you watch it for the character study of people taking a wrong turn down Noir’s grimy side streets and alleyways.

The story begins with the lock on a wooden box being shot off as the credits roll. Then a man who’s clearly struggling just to stand manages to hitch 75 miles to San Francisco to mete out his vengeance on the dame who left him for dead. (Don’t expect any breathtaking shots of San Francisco in this low budget flick; you’re not going to get them!)

Margot asks Jo Jo (Sgt. Portugal) to hand her the box. She asks him what mixes thing up; he replies “Simple arithmetic.” Then she launches into her story of what led to her impending demise. (Yeah, sorry, Tiff. This is yet another tale told in flashback!)

Frankie Olins is in prison awaiting execution for killing a guard during a bank robbery. He’s looking to get out on appeal, but Margot knows it’s futile. Instead, she comes up with the most outrageous scheme imaginable to bust him out, employing methylene blue as an antidote for the cyanide gas used to execute death row inmates. Is she doing this because she loves Frankie? Nope. She just loves the $400,000 he squirreled away before the cops caught up to him; and if Frankie is put to death, that money is lost.

So Margot goes to work on the prison’s Dr. Craig to get him to help her spring Frankie after he’s executed. (Yeah, you read that right.) If they’d had more time for this tale, they might’ve invested some of it on Margot’s seduction of Dr. Craig; but with only 76 minutes of story, they couldn’t spend much time on that. She’s a temptress, he’s a man with a pulse; it’s just presumed he can be easily corrupted.

And thus the story leads to its inevitable conclusion, with plentiful mayhem and double-crosses along the way.

I actually enjoyed this film; watching Jean Gillie as Margot was like watching Juliet or Haley Mills playing pure evil. And, sadly, Gillie returned to her native England in 1948, dying of pneumonia the following year at 33. What a tragedy for us all.

Besides Gillie, Herbert Rudley and Sheldon Leonard turn in inspired performances. The story is definitely noir, though much of the visuals of the genre are missing from this movie; and atmosphere is as important to a noir picture as the suffering of the tortured souls whose lives inhabit the screen. So I give this one 4.25 out of 5 unfiltered cigarette puffs.

Next week’s film is “Walk Softly Stranger.”

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