“The Pill Dragnet! Blasting the Blackest Market of all…the girl peddlers of the deadliest thrill for sale!” – one of the taglines for Death in Small Doses (1957).
In the grand tradition of other B-movie crime expose of the fifties such as Kansas City Confidential (1952), The Phenix City Story (1955), and New Orleans Uncensored (1955), this little known 1957 programmer from Allied Artists (formerly known as poverty row studio, Monogram Pictures) has all the earmarks of a routine, low budget exploitation drama aimed at the drive-ins and double bill grindhouses of its era but it also serves up some surprises and memorably wacko moments for those who think they’ve been down this road before.
No relation to the 1995 made-for-TV movie of the same name directed by Sondra Locke and starring Richard Thomas and Tess Harper, Death in Small Doses begins on an ominous note with the distant headlights of a truck emerging out of the dark as it travels along a backroad in the middle of the night. The truck begins swerving and we get a windshield view of the cab with the highly agitated driver inside. He’s sweating profusely and trying to stay awake. Driving with one hand and trying to open a bottle of pills with the other, he soon downs enough bennies to keep him awake for the rest of his life….except that he starts hallucinating. He thinks he sees double headlight beams coming straight at him and swerves violently off the road at high speed, diving over a cliff and down a ravine to a spectacular crash below. Cue the doom-laden opening credit music by Robert Wiley Miller and Emil Newman (uncle of songwriter Randy Newman) and we know we’re in for a cautionary tale about the dangers of amphetamines. [Warning, spoilers on the road ahead.]
Though it strives for the semi-documentary realism of a fifties noir like William Castle’s The Houston Story (1956) or Fred F. Sears’s Chicago Syndicate (1955), the film more often conjures up memories of classroom highway safety films and the delirious excesses of Reefer Madness (aka Tell Your Children, 1936). It also makes sure to justify its more lurid, exploitation aspects by positioning itself as solemn public service message film that posts this disclaimer at the start: “Nothing in this picture is intended to minimize the importance of the drug “amphetamine” when properly used under a doctor’s prescription. However, as with any drug, when taken to excess, the results can be disastrous.”
Death in Small Doses opens in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Frank Ainsley, the chief Inspector of the department (played by Robert Shayne), is briefing an agent (Peter Graves) in his office on his new assignment. He and a handful of other agents will be sent to various locations around the U.S. to pose as truck drivers under new identities in an effort to discover and apprehend the illegal distributors and manufacturers of bennies, the cause of so many truck driver deaths.
Under the name Tom Kaylor, the agent relocates to Los Angeles, complete with furnished references and a backstory, and promptly rents a room in a boarding house for truckers run by Valerie Owens (Mala Powers), whose husband was recently killed in a trucker road accident. One of the boarders is Mink Reynolds (Chuck Connors) and his introduction is preceded by blaring bebop jazz music from his room. As Valerie is showing Tom to his room, she knocks on Mink’s door, saying “Some people are trying to sleep.” At which point, Mink opens his door, totally wired and snapping his fingers like some beatnik hipster. His jive-ass comeback is “Zombies. They spend their crummy lives in the sack. I ask you what’s so great about sleep?”He then turns the music down, saying, “See. Quiet like a library. You can even hear the termites.”
This is Chuck Connors as you’ve never seen him before. At least, I’ve never seen him play a part at such a frenetic high pitch that he really does give off an adrenaline rush in most of his scenes. Sure, he’s played over-the-top characters before, from his title role in The Mad Bomber (1973) to his gleeful clippers-armed assassin in 99 and 44/100% Dead (1974) to his telekinetic weirdo in Tourist Trap (1979).
But he is practically bouncing off the walls in Death in Small Doses and his no-brakes performance occasionally recalls Dave O’Brien’s crazed ravings as Ralph in Reefer Madness (he’s the maniacally laughing pothead, yelling at Lillian Miles (as Blanche) to play the piano “faster….faster…faster.”) More on Chuck later but back to the main story.
Once Tom settles into his new digs, he is assigned to work with Wally (Roy Engel), a long time trucker who shows him the ropes and becomes his confidant on the inner workings of the operation. On his first day of work, Tom witnesses a psychotic incident involving Shug (John Dierkes), an old truck driver now relegated to loading dock worker. During an argument with a co-worker, Shug goes haywire and tries to attack the man with a cargo hook before being overpowered and collapsing in a fatal heart attack. When Tom asks Wally about this later on the road, the topic of bennies is finally out on the table and acknowledged as the reason for Shug’s death.
Wally: Well, as long as you’re gonna be pushin’ a rig, you might as well know about Benny.
Wally: Yeah, the truck driver’s friend, the little pills in that envelope you picked up, the things that killed Shug.
Tom: Stay away pills from what I’ve heard about ’em but I didn’t think they could kill anybody.
Wally: Listen Tom, Shug was one of the best drivers who ever pushed a rig down the pike. he got dependent more and more on Benny. First he had a couple of close calls. Then he wrecked a brand new rig. The company blackballed him. He was washed up as a driver.
Tom: That’s why he was working as a handler.
Wally: Yep, still couldn’t shake Benny. Was taking one an hour. Doctor told him sooner or later it would kill’em…..When you’ve been pushing one of these rigs as long as I have, wait till you’ve clocked up 18 years wheeling one of these. 18 years trying to stay awake when everyone, everything is asleep. Maybe you’d be happy to have Benny for company too, kid.
Tom’s undercover investigation of who is behind the illegal amphetamine business eventually fingers Amy (Merry Anders), a truck stop waitress known for her title Miss Diesel of 1958, and various connections along the road such as gas station owner Dunc Clayton (Robert B. Williams) and the mysterious Mr. Brown (Harry Lauter), who has direct ties to a prominent pharmaceutical company. Unfortunately, there are more victims along the way – and a last minute twist revealing a previously unsuspected drug trafficker – before justice can be served.
While Death in Small Doses, directed by Joseph M. Newman (711 Ocean Drive, This Island Earth), is fairly conventional in execution for the crime expose genre, it is the involvement of a better than average cast, some hardboiled dialogue mixed with hepcat lingo and an authentic ambiance that captures the trucker’s world (greasy spoon diners, dingy gas stations, deserted backroads) that lends it some distinction. Peter Graves (younger brother of James Arness) makes a solid if unexciting protagonist but the actor graced many a B movie during the fifties; he made this between the infamous drive-in classic Bayou (which was later reissued as Poor White Trash) and Wolf Larsen (both 1958).
Most sci-fi/horror fans fondly remember him for Red Planet Mars (1952), Killers from Space (1954), Beginning of the End (1957) and The Clonus Horror (1979). Prior to his re-emergence as a major TV star in the sixties (he played James Phelps in Mission: Impossible) and a cult actor in the eighties (Airplane!), his most famous work is probably as a supporting actor in two iconic films, Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), as the Nazi plant in the compound, and The Night of the Hunter (1955) as the prison cellmate of Robert Mitchum (By the way, Mitchum’s younger brother, John, has a tiny role in Death in Small Doses).
In contrast to Grave’s buttoned-up, low key undercover agent are two alluring femme fatales and fellow B-movie queens of the fifties and sixties – Merry Anders (Calypso Heat Wave, The Hypnotic Eye, House of the Damned) and Mala Powers (The Colossus of New York, Flight of the Lost Balloon). Anders is the standout here as a hopped-up truck stop waitress who starts to crack under the effects of her addiction as well as the strain of her involvement in a drug ring.
When she finally confesses to Tom, she says, “Ever time I hear about a wreck, I wonder if it happened because of me?”Regarding her own addiction, she offers, “It’s like taking aspirin when you have a headache.” Except she seems to have a constant headache. Usually a blonde in her movies, Anders goes brunette in Death in Small Doses but she’s a welcome addition to the plot and makes the most of her limited role.
Mala Powers stars as the atypical love interest here and she brings a sultry, seductive quality to her boarding house proprietress. She’s also hard to read on an emotional level which adds a bit of mystery to her character. Note the disembodied manner in which she explains her philosophy of life: “The way it seems to me, everything that happens to us in life is part of a bargain. To get certain things, we lose others. There’s no use in crying over our losses. We just play along and try to come out ahead.”
Powers started out with high hopes, earning a Most Promising Newcomer nomination from the Golden Globes for her 1951 film, Cyrano de Bergerac. It was only her fourth feature and second leading role but instead of moving into A pictures she became typecast all too quickly in B movies such as Rose of Cimarron (1952), City That Never Sleeps (1953), The Unknown Terror (1957) and television series appearances.
Still, nothing succeeds like excess and the hulking 6′ 5 1/2″ actor Chuck Connors wins the prize for the most commanding actor in the cast of Death in Small Doses. Whether he is strutting around in a Hawaiian shirt with a dame on each arm or leaping into the driver’s seat of a flashy convertible (instead of just opening the door and getting in), he’s a force to be reckoned with. My favorite scene might be when he’s had too many uppers and goes into overdrive on the dance floor as the jukebox blares some raucous R&B swing number. “Hey, I’m in a dancing mood. I say, c’mon Mabel,” he yells at a frightened waitress trying to resist his strongarm tactics. It all leads to violence, of course, and a big crackup but until then Connor’s Mink is a Jim Carrey-like cartoon creation that embodies all of the dangers of speed pill addiction. Who knew it was this much fun?
Death in Small Doses was ignored and forgotten for years except for the occasional TV showing in the middle of the night but in January 2013 Warner Archives came to the rescue and released the film on DVD as part of their Film Noir line.
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