Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: DECOY (1946)

Directed by Jack Bernhard, Decoy (1946) is one of those film noir gems that lacks the glitter of a big budget and A-list stars but nonetheless shines with its own devilish light. Jean Gillie makes her penultimate screen appearance as a femme fatale so fixated on claiming a stolen fortune that she'll literally bring a man back from the dead to get it, with Robert Armstrong, Edward Norris, and Herbert Rudley as the men who will kill and die in service to her schemes. Those who love a twisted tale of murder and greed will relish this dark delight, which begins at the finale and then rewinds to unfold its sordid story. We know from the start that this is going to end badly.

Gillie plays the beautiful but deadly Margot, the girlfriend of death row inmate Frankie Olins (Robert Armstrong). Margot knows that Frankie is sitting on a pile of stolen cash, but she doesn't know where it is, so she arranges for Frankie to be resurrected after his date with the gas chamber. Gangster Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) helps her because he wants to recoup the costs he incurred paying for Frankie's defense, while Dr. Lloyd Craig (Herbert Rudley) is seduced into the plot by Margot's charms. Once Lloyd resuscitates Frankie, avarice drives both Margot and Vincent to extremes, while Lloyd is drawn ever deeper into their crimes.

There's no budget or time for fancy flourishes, but Decoy works with the materials at hand, especially Gillie's mesmerizing performance as one of the coldest, most ruthless dames to grace the noir genre. She doesn't love any of the men she uses; she will happily see every one of them dead twice over if it means the bag of cash belongs to her alone. Plotting to resurrect Frankie just to betray him is mean even for a femme fatale, but Gillie does it with a grim determination that never veers into hysteria or camp. She approaches the elimination of the equally faithless Vincent the same way, running him over with their car and then coolly collecting the tools he had been using to fix a flat tire. Lloyd, horrified into a frozen stupor, can only hiss, "I'd like to kill you," as Margot carries on with her single-minded quest. She finally cracks up when she thinks she has the cash at last, laughing maniacally while Lloyd digs up the box in Frankie's hiding spot. Frankie, however, will have the last laugh, and the ending is a gut punch of irony that knocks the viewer flat.

The film is a pitch black study in the ways a man can be ruined by a woman like Margot, a siren so powerful and deadly that she lures even men who don't trust her to a horrible fate. Frankie is a criminal but not a monster; he adores Margot and wants money only to lavish gifts on his girl, but he's smart enough to take steps against an inevitable betrayal. Vincent is a cold-blooded snake; he clearly means to get the upper hand, but he doesn't realize that Margot is a python in comparison until it's too late. Tragic Lloyd is a good man undone by this serpentine beauty; he loses everything because of Margot until all that's left is a dying wish to take her out with him, which is where the picture begins. The only man who survives contact with Margot is Sgt. Joe Portugal (Sheldon Leonard), a cop with a gangster's face who feels an attraction to Margot even though he knows what she is. "People who use pretty faces like you use yours," he tells her, "don't live very long anyway." The film opens and closes with the fulfillment of his prediction.

Jean Gillie made only one additional film, The Macomber Affair (1947), before her premature death in 1949, but she can be found in earlier pictures like The Gentle Sex (1943) and Flight from Folly (1945). She was married to director Jack Bernhard when Decoy was made, but they divorced in 1947, and Bernhard went on to direct Blonde Ice (1948) and Appointment with Murder (1948). Robert Armstrong is best remembered today for King Kong (1933), and you can also see him in The Most Dangerous Game (1932), Son of Kong (1933), and Mighty Joe Young (1949). Herbert Rudley found success primarily in television, but he makes appearances in Brewster's Millions (1945) and Rhapsody in Blue (1945), while Sheldon Leonard earned numerous Emmy nominations and two wins for his work behind the camera on Make Room for Daddy (1953-1964). You might also recognize Leonard as Nick the bartender in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Harry the Horse in Guys and Dolls (1955).