A Walking Plague Called Sheila

The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)Think of the teeming hub of humanity that is New York City and then imagine a person with a highly contagious and deadly disease wandering among the masses, spreading death and panic. Based on an actual case in 1946 – a smallpox scare in which millions of New Yorkers received free vaccinations – The Killer That Stalked New York (1950) is a fictionalized dramatization of that incident. It stars Evelyn Keyes as Sheila Bennet, a modern day “Typhoid Mary” who contracts smallpox in Cuba while serving as a courier for Matt (Charles Korvin), her no-good musician boyfriend, in a stolen diamond smuggling scheme.

Smallpox vaccine is administered to citizens of New York City in 1947 during an outbreak of the disease

Smallpox vaccine is administered to citizens of New York City in 1947 during an outbreak of the disease

The film develops a steady, escalating sense of tension from the very first scene as Sheila arrives in New York City’s crowded Penn Station, aware that she is being shadowed by a U.S. Treasury agent. Already feverish and weak from the disease (Sheila has no idea of her lethal condition), she manages to elude her pursuer and slip incognito into Matt’s apartment where she holes up and tries to get well. In the meantime, her contagious condition has already infected numerous people. When Dr. Ben Wood (William Bishop) discovers that smallpox is the cause, he tries to prevent a major epidemic by involving city officials and the Health Department.

Evelyn Keyes as Sheila Bennet, a woman infected with smallpox in The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)

Evelyn Keyes as Sheila Bennet, a woman infected with smallpox in The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)

As they frantically race against time to quarantine victims and vaccinate local residents without creating widespread panic, Sheila once again takes to the streets, this time in search of Matt who has taken the diamonds and run off with her sister Francie (Lola Albright). Armed with a gun, Sheila closes in on her two-timing lover while the police and city officials follow in close pursuit, hoping to stop her before she can further infect anyone.   The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)The Killer That Stalked New York, directed by Earl McEvoy, was completed just after the general release of Panic in the Streets (1950), a major 20th-Century-Fox production from director Elia Kazan that featured a similar plot; a criminal (Jack Palance) infected with a deadly pulmonary variation of the bubonic plague is running loose in the streets of New Orleans while the police have 48 hours to catch him before an epidemic breaks out.

Jack Palance is a criminal infected with the "pneumonic plague" in Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950)

Jack Palance is a criminal infected with the “pneumonic plague” in Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950)

Due to the critical and box office success of the latter film, Columbia Pictures decided to shelve The Killer That Stalked New York for six months so that it wouldn’t suffer in comparison. They needn’t have bothered since most critics and moviegoers at the time considered McEvoy’s film little more than a typical B-movie.  The Killer That Stalked New York (1960)Bosley Crowther in The New York Times dismissed it, writing “…unfortunately, the script of Harry Essex, based on a factual magazine piece [“Smallpox, the Killer That Stalks New York” by Milton Lehman in Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan Magazine], has a bad tendency to ramble…And the performances of the principal characters, while adequate, have little punch…a potentially but not sufficiently intriguing film.”

A manhunt is under way for Evelyn Keyes as The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)

A manhunt is under way for Evelyn Keyes as The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)

Clearly undervalued during its original release, The Killer That Stalked New York is an atmospheric and occasionally taut little thriller that benefits greatly from the documentary-like approach that cinematographer Joseph Biroc brings to the film, utilizing real New York City locations. Although sometimes classified as a film noir, it is a bit of a stretch to pigeonhole the film in that genre as it doesn’t really conform to many noir conventions or trademarks. Other than Evelyn Keyes functioning as a literal femme fatale, the film is closer to a strange hybrid of revenge melodrama and public service health documentary. It even ends with this acknowledgment: “To the men and women of public health–the first line of defense between mankind and disease. We gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of the departments of health and hospitals of New York and Los Angeles.”  The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)As the vengeful angel of death, Evelyn Keyes is rarely sympathetic nor is she intended to be. She’s a walking plague that needs to be neutralized and during the course of the film she quickly dissolves into a sweaty, delirious mess.

Evelyn Keyes as a smallpox victim in The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)

Evelyn Keyes as a smallpox victim in The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)

It’s a long way from her more glamorous roles such as the ethereal beauty of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) or the sassy, red-headed genie from A Thousand and One Nights (1945). Despite this, she makes Sheila a compelling presence that is more than just a clichéd menace that drives the narrative.

Evelyn Keyes in a film noir-like shot from Earl McEvoy's The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)

Evelyn Keyes in a film noir-like shot from Earl McEvoy’s The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)

At this point in her career, Keyes had already established herself in the film noir genre with The Face Behind the Mask (1941) and Johnny O’Clock (1947). Her greatest achievements in the genre lay ahead, however, with her unforgettable performances in Joseph Losey’s The Prowler (1951) and Phil Karlson’s 99 River Street (1953).

Brad Dexter and Evelyn Keyes set off sparks in 99 River Street (1953)

Brad Dexter and Evelyn Keyes set off sparks in 99 River Street (1953)

During the filming of The Killer That Stalked New York, Keyes was involved in an affair with actor Kirk Douglas, a situation that created tension between her and studio mogul Harry Cohn. Because of his personal dislike of Douglas, Cohn forbade Keyes to invite him to the set and it resulted in the actress buying out her Columbia contract and going independent after completing the film.

Kirk Douglas and Evelyn Keyes circa 1953

Kirk Douglas and Evelyn Keyes circa 1953

Originally Lew Ayres was slated to play Dr. Wood in The Killer That Stalked New York after producer Allen Miner first bought the film rights but that changed when the project was sold to Columbia and producer Robert Cohn took over. That’s when William Bishop, a western and action-adventure film veteran (Coroner Creek, The Tougher They Come), was brought in to replace Ayres.

Among the other cast members you’ll recognize in The Killer That Stalked New York are Dorothy Malone as the nurse who first treats the smallpox carrier, Carl Benton Reid as a city commissioner, Connie Gilchrist as a nosy landlady, Richard Egan as a cop, character actor Whit Bissell as a flophouse manager, and Jim Backus (the voice of cartoon character Mr. Magoo) in the uncharacteristic role of a predatory bar owner who tries to force himself on Sheila…with fatal results.  The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)While the major studios still attempt to update and improve on unsurpassed classics like 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front (a new version by Roger Donaldson is pending) or boxoffice hits like 1960’s The Magnificent Seven (Antoine Fuqua’s reboot with Denzel Washington is arriving in Fall 2016), they would probably encounter less flak from film buffs for retooling quirky and original B-movie plots from movies which have no resonance with most moviegoers. The disturbing premise of The Killer That Stalked New York is certainly strong enough to warrant a bigger budget, faster-paced remake with an A-list actress who can play tough and sexy like Jennifer Lawrence.  The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)The Killer That Stalked New York was released on DVD in 2010 by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in a 2-disc set entitled Bad Girls of Film Noir Volume 1. It also included Two of a Kind, Bad for Each Other and The Glass Wall. The print quality of Sony’s set is very good and, in the case of The Killer That Stalked New York, the black and white contrast levels are particularly striking. To date, this is still your best option for viewing this once-obscure, hard-to-see B-movie.  Bad Girls of Film Noir Volume 1* This is a revised and expanded version of an article that first appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

Website links of interest:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1624122/pdf/amjphnation01122-0009.pdf

http://www.wnyc.org/story/smallpox-in-new-york-city/

http://www.noiroftheweek.com/2010/04/killer-that-stalked-new-york.html

https://shadowsandsatin.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/remembering-evelyn-keyes/

http://haphazard-stuff.blogspot.com/2015/09/99-river-street-1953-review.html

The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)

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