Thursday, February 4, 2010

#76: Decoy (Jack Bernhard, 1946)

Released: September 14, 1946

Director: Jack Bernhard; Screenplay: Nedrick Young based on a story by Stanley Rubin; Cinematography: L. William O’Connell; Music: Edward J. Kay; Producers: Jack Bernhard and Bernard Brandt; Studio: Monogram Pictures

Cast: Jean Gillie (Margot Shelby), Edward Norris (Jim Vincent), Herbert Rudley (Dr. Lloyd Craig), Robert Armstrong (Frank Olins), Sheldon Leonard (Sgt. Joseph Portugal), Philip Van Zandt (Tommy), John Shay (Al), Marjorie Woodworth (Nurse)

- "To you who double-crossed me, I leave this dollar for your trouble. The rest of the dough, I leave to the worms."

As I have already mentioned in this series, there are certain plot elements in many noirs, particularly those produced by the so-called Poverty Row of Hollywood, which can be make-or-break points for modern viewers. Either you can stomach the embellished twists or things quickly become too hokey to appreciate. That was the case with in films like Tension and Night Has a Thousand Eyes, but it is even more so in this gem from the B-movie specialists at Monogram Pictures. The key detail – which thankfully I can give away without revealing anything that will ruin the experience – is beyond ridiculous. At the risk of sounding condescending toward previous generations, my guess is that the proposition of using a powerful antidote to revive a recently executed prisoner might not have seemed as outlandish in 1946 as it does today. Regardless of era, it’s preposterous.

But even after making such an admission, I still think that Decoy is an outstanding, little-known noir that comes off much better than one would expect. The film opens with the devious Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie) dying on the couch of her apartment. Police Sgt. Joe Portugal (Sheldon Leonard) enters the apartment, having found her after following the trail of bodies that she recently left behind, and presses Margot one final time for a confession. Realizing that she is very near dying, Margot decides to reveal the details of her intricate plot. She recounts how she convinced the powerful criminal Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) to finance a plan to find the $400,000 that her boyfriend Frank Olins (Robert Armstrong) stashed before being sent to death row. Due to be put to death in just a few days, Olins refuses to reveal the location of the loot, demanding that he be saved from his scheduled execution. Instead, Margot hatches the outrageous plot, in which Olins would be revived after his execution by using a chemical called methelyne blue. In order to carry out the plan, she seduces Dr. Lloyd Craig (Herbert Rudley), the physician responsible for performing autopsies on recently executed prisoners. After quickly falling in love with the vivacious Margot, he agrees to the plan. Rather than performing the scheduled autopsy, Craig instead injects the body with methelyne blue and miraculously brings Olins back to life. Then the true intrigue begins, as each person begins plotting how to emerge with the money on their own.

English-born Jean Gillie’s performance as Margot Shelby is as impressive as anything else I’ve reviewed thus far in the countdown. Margot is a one-woman wrecking machine, as vicious as any character, let alone femme fatales, of the era. What makes the performance all the more startling is the complete lack of remorse or redemption. She admits that she used anyone necessary to achieve her goals, destroying the lives of many men along the way. In Vincent and Olins, she outwitted seasoned underworld figures. With Dr. Craig, she shattered the life of an honest doctor and never felt any compunction along the way. There are scenes of surprising brutality, such as the fleeing Margot running over an accomplice in the getaway, which she performs with a complete lack of emotion. Gillie would make only one more film after Decoy, as she died three years later at only 33 years of age.

Thanks to the wonderful Film Noir Collection series from Warner Brothers, this movie is not as obscure as it once was. Until Vol. 4 of that series (which is how I saw it), it apparently was quite the rarity, with only copies of subpar quality circulating. Even so, I would wager that not many people outside of noir fanatics made a point to see it even after its release on DVD. Hopefully this entry will spur some to do so, and some seasoned cineastes will begin to understand why Jean-Luc Godard dedicated his seminal film Breathless to Monogram Pictures. Decoy is Poverty Row at its finest.


  1. Film Noir is my favorite genre of movies...yet most of the poverty row cheapies don't do much for me. This includes highly lauded films like Detour and D.O.A. I put Decoy in the same category. I guess the ultra low budgets and general bad acting don't allow me to suspend disbelief enough. I know many people that prefer these films over the more polished noirs. I guess I need more studio polish and technical efficiency to watch these films many times. I have this DVD and find the film worth a viewing (as I would most noirs) but wouldn't ever watch it a second time. Some poverty row films like Raw Deal I consider classics...this one falls somewhat short.......M.Roca

  2. A b crime movie with noir pretensions. An overblown plot, average acting, and pedestrian direction add up to another camp oddity like Detour (1945), despite a fair effort by Jean Gillie as the maniacal femme-criminale. Beats me why it has cult status for some.

  3. I don't expect many to agree with this position, particularly considering some of the films ranked below it. But I promised this was not going to be a simple trotting out of the traditional ordering, so I stand by it.

    M. Roca - I don't know what to say if you don't like the Poverty Row films. Some I will agree are just too restricted by budget and other constraints, but some of the films you list here I think are outstanding.

    Tony - "Noir pretensions?" This seems just about as noir to me as many films that you would consider prime examples of the style/genre. I guess we're just going with slightly different definitions.

  4. Dave, I have not seen this film (still have to pick up Vol.4) but you are certainly marching to your own beat. Frankly, I am still reeling from the low placement of ON DANGEROUS GROUND, THIEVES HIGHWAY and a few others (LOL). That is okay. If your list pumped out a typical standard hierarchy it would be less interesting to anticipate, whether one agrees with you or not. Your passion clearly comes through in your writing, as does your individuality, only please don’t’ have DOUBLE INDEMNITY listed a #75 (ha!)

    There is something about bargain basement films that is alluring. Part of it is the thrill of finding a gem like DETOUR or discovering a raw talent who can shine, like Joseph H. Lewis, who never got the chance to do a big dollar production.

  5. I love both Gun Crazy and The Big Combo. Lewis like Mann/Alton made some great low budget films. I don't dislike all p.row films but I do consider Detour grossly overrated. I just find Decoy to be one of those films that doesn't rise above it's limitations........M.Roca

  6. John - No worries on Double Indemnity... you won't be seeing that one for a _long_ while. With On Dangerous Ground and Thieves' Highway... that's the beauty of these lists, I think. It's what makes lists like Allan's at WitD so interesting -- you learn more about the listmaker than "greatest" films type stuff.

  7. Sad to hear that Gillie died at such a young age, especially after reading your fabulous high-esteem of her performance in DECOY, a film I am sorry and remiss to say I have not yet seen. But yes, this is th ebeauty of this countdown-there are some surprises that provide impetus to examine some films that may have been ellusive for one reason or another. I don't agree with M. Roca that DETOUR is "grossly overrated" but again everyone looks at films with different taste and criteria. In any case, it's clear I have some homework here. Again, exceedingly fine work with this essay, Dave!

  8. Dave, Decoy struck me as more pulp than noir with its sci-fi-like plot device but that makes it no less noir than something like R. Siodmak's Son of Dracula. The femme fatale concept definitely tempted people to explore what new extremes of feminine deviance were possible within the confines of Hollywood censorship. This film is an interesting experiment in extreme femme-fatalism, and how one ranks it as a noir probably depends on how much that motif matters in one's definition of the genre.

  9. M. Roca, I think you are right to distinguish a Lewis noir from an Ulmer noir. Granted, Lewis wasn't granted half the budget of a Wyler production, but I suspect Ulmer didn't get half the budget Lewis got for something like Gun Crazy (which might be my #1 on a noir countdown). I guess whether or not something rises above its limitations is just perspective, although I do consider Detour to be a classic and Decoy to be great, great fun. Gillie is unbelievable.

  10. Samuel - Very astute observations there... without a concrete definition, there are always going to be variations. I'm not nearly as strict as some others on what qualifies -- I don't have the time or energy to be too strenuous!

    Doniphon - "...Decoy to be great, great fun. Gillie is unbelievable." This is probably the simplest way to express a fondness for this film. If you embrace the pulp, it really is great, great fun. Gillie really is fantastic.

  11. A deranged cult classic. One can only wonder where her career may have gone if Jean hadn't died so tragically young. Still, this is worth watching even after six decades for her deranged performance.