Tuesday, 24 June 2014

"The Killer that Stalked New York"

Today's film is the 1950 film with the Horror B-Movie title of "The Killer That Stalked New York". It's directed by Earl McEvoy, with a screenplay by Harry Essex (who wrote such films as "The Creature from the Black Lagoon) adapting an article by Milton Lehman.  It stars Evelyn Keyes, Charles Korvin, and William Bishop.

A basic summary of the film is in order I suppose.  Evelyn Keyes plays Sheila Bennet, a diamond smuggler with some hot merchandise who is unknowingly carrying a strain of smallpox.  She's doing this for her husband, Charles Korvin as Matt Krane.  Meanwhile, a handsome doctor played by William Bishop works to stop the spread of the deadly plague.

I want to deal with the most obvious interpretation of the film.  If you look at it from a feminist perspective, or a freudian perspective, you can argue that the woman wandering around spreading disease represents either the patriarchal fear/hatred of women or a fear of sexually transmitted disease spread by women.  This is interesting and I don't think it's entirely without merit, however it is undermined by how the main acts of immorality are perpretrated by a male character.  Matt sleeps around and betrays people and seems only motivated by his own self-interest, manifested in a Scrooge McDuckian love of money.  (He even attempts to rape someone and it's not played for anything but serious drama). I think if the people that produced this film truly hated women, they'd have gone with the more obvious femme fatale route.  This isn't to say that she isn't dangerous - she is. But she's not exactly evil, especially compared to some other noir femmes. Whether those femmes represent a fear of the female presence is up for debate.

Mostly, I let the femme fatale role slide because it's a cliche.  I know that's a dumb reason to let something go.  But cliches are powerful; if used enough, they become archetypes and resonate with the human consciousness, and the human experience.  In this way I see the femme fatale role not as a malevolent force, but maybe as an open window into the human psyche.  Sure, the room may be ugly, but would it be better if we ignored it, or should we maybe tidy up a little?  So I basically respect the femme role for two reasons: you have to respect archetypes, and they clue us in to some stuff that's going on in the cultural consciousness.

This film has a beautiful score. During calm scenes it is eerie, with carefully placed arrangements of piano and other instruments, spooky, as if this movie were actually about a scary slasher and not a subversion of the usual horror routine.  Then when things start to get exciting, the music rises with excitement, like many other film scores I suppose, but with a distinctive horror bent.

This film offers us a window into societal mores of the time.  In one scene, the main character is approached by a small girl.  I winced as I saw her pick the girl up and place her on her lap before continuing the conversation.  Not to state the obvious but you couldn't do that sort of thing nowadays.  Heck, the narrator even takes the time to establish new york as a city where millions of people cheerfully work together to solve problems.  I've heard differing descriptions from some of my friends.

The film plays with cheerful patriotic Americana imagery.  When the crisis starts to become, well, a crisis, the mayor is pulled from umpire duty of several rambunctious scamps playing baseball. This is, the film is saying, what is at stake as the disease spreads throughout the city.  Our children, playing baseball.

This film also seems to anticipate the vaccine argument that is happening today.  I'll be honest; I'm not sure what the arguments against vaccines are today.  They seem like a pretty good deal to me.  But you still get stuff on social media about how vaccines are evil, etcetera.  In the film, the argument against the vaccine for the disease that is killing people by the truckload is that even a small amount of the disease is bad, even if it protects against future infection.  The movie doesn't spend much time on this viewpoint; eventually, people get the vaccine.  So maybe this film was made by Big Vaccine or whatever.

There's a lot of other stuff to talk about, but I don't want to spoil this film. It's kind of corny, but there's a decent story that leads up to a pretty exciting climax.

Best line: The plague is described as "a killer out of the past, loose among eight million people," vocalized melodramatically by Ludwig Donath.

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