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Movie Critique - The Killer That Stalked New York

Stars: 3 / 5

Recommendation: Interesting mix of drama and film noir, at the same time giving a social public announcement to the viewers; the film brings a dead killer from past to the present creating a chaos and panic in the city.

The Killer That Stalked New York is a 1950 American film noir directed by Earl McEvoy, produced by Robert Cohn, and released by Columbia Pictures. It stars Evelyn Keyes, Charles Korvin and William Bishop in the lead among others. 

A husband-and-wife pair of smugglers - Sheila Bennet (portrayed by Evelyn Keyes), her husband Matt Krane (portrayed by Charles Korvin) - are carrying $50K worth of diamonds that they bring in from Cuba to New York City. They try to shake-off the Treasury agent, and in the process they almost cause an epidemic of small pox in the city.

The film was alternately released with the title Frightened City. The entire filming took place on location and shot in semi-documentary style. The plot was based on a story taken from 1948 Cosmopolitan magazine article titled "Smallpox, the Killer That Stalks New York" by Milton Lehman. It talks about a true case of a smallpox epidemic in the city of New York which had occurred in March of 1947 and ended in April of 1947, a month later. Screenplay for the film was written by Harry Essex. 

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel aired this film last week. How appropriate to show something related to an epidemic when we are living through a pandemic. As much as we are afraid in these trying times, there was a time when Smallpox was also considered life-threatening. That is the central premise of this film.

Check out the theatrical poster that Eddie Muller, host of Noir Alley on TCM, shared before the film. The opening credits are displayed on a silhouette of New York City with a huge shadow of a woman holding a gun looming over the city. The film has background narration by Reed Hadley. His narration shows the panic the city was facing as a result of the epidemic even if the film makers couldn’t bring it out completely. 

Evelyn Keyes played the part of Sheila Bennet. Eddie Muller mentioned that in an interview with Evelyn Keyes a long time ago, she joked that the then studio head Harry Cohn had given this role to her to spite her. Despite her joke, there was some truth in it. She was dating Kirk Douglas at that time and was trying to get out of contract with Columbia Pictures. Harry Cohn might have well taken his revenge on her with this role. 

Despite all drama, Evelyn enjoyed playing this role, which was different from her usual adorable characters she portrayed. Her next film The Prowler, released a year later, also has an off-beat role for Evelyn again, which is considered her best performance.

Charles Korvin plays the two-timing louse of a husband, Matt Krane, to Keyes' Sheila Bennet in the film. The third cog in this weird wheel is Francie Bennet, sister to Sheila, portrayed by Lola Albright. 

Film has several noir fixtures casted in various roles. Dorothy Malone in her final bit part as Alice Lorie, before she became a major star, can be seen. Along with her, check out noir greats such as Whit Bissell in the role of Sid Bennet; Roy Roberts as Mayor of New York; Barry Kelley as the Treasury Agent Johnson; and Art Smith as Anthony Moss. 

The film has more elements of a drama and documentary rather than a noir. Yet it is still considered a film noir because of the elements of smuggling, thievery, betrayal, and murder that are tied neatly in a bow around the backdrop of an epidemic. It is a weird mix of noir and drama film. 

We see not only the crazy virus that is stalking the city, and some dedicated health care and law enforcement professionals fighting it, but also the crazy dynamics of a woman madly in love with a guy on the wrong side of the coin, one who doesn’t want anything else except to get that guy back. A twisted piece of element added to the story-line making it all the more chaotic. 

The mass vaccination attempts shown in the film had in truth happened in New York City three years prior to the release of this film, when the small pox epidemic scare hit the city. Approx 6.5M people were vaccinated in a matter of one month, all of it free, making it the most successful response towards any kind of outbreak to date. Only 12 people were infected with only two casualties in that epidemic scare then. 

Apart from being a noir, the film also promotes a social public announcement - the importance of vaccinating and how vaccines can save lives. It also gave a grim truth on how front-line workers have worked hard to get a city vaccinated in time before being infected. Also the efforts of a Mayor who works tirelessly to protect his city. Imagine that compounded hundreds of thousands of times all over the world, how panic and crazy it would become. 

The film ends with a salutation to the front-line workers from health care. This salutation is so true for the trying times we are living in as well. 

Interesting mix of drama and film noir, at the same time giving a social public announcement to the viewers; the film brings a dead killer from past to the present creating a chaos and panic in the city. An unsung hero among the many film noir that relates to what we are facing today. Decently made movie. 

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. This is film debut of Beverly Washburn. She portrays the role of Walda Kowalski.

b. 20th Century Fox released a film titled Panic in the Streets the same year which had a similar concept. Columbia Pictures shelved their film The Killer That Stalked New York, until Fox's film was released and had it's run.

c. Check out two films that appear as theater marquee in the movie - 1948 Big City can be seen on a theater marquee at Times Square; 1949 musical comedy drama Always Leave Them Laughing can be seen on a theater marquee at the end of the film. 

d. Note the wall of the clinic showing how to get treated for the then prevailing diseases. It's been 70 years since this film released, the key steps to cure Cancer still remain the same, although the medications have changed significantly. 

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. The nurse gives Sheila water to drink before she takes her temperature. That is contrary to the process normally hospitals and clinics follow. Also shouldn’t the nurse have known that Sheila is really sick just looking at her?

b. Dr. Ben Wood describes the suspect Sheila as 5 feet 4 inches. But the all points bulletin that follows next shows her height as 5 feet, 2 inches.


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