Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Killer That Stalked New York

On New Year's night, TCM are giving us plagues and pestilences; just what you always wanted for the new year. The night kicks off at 8:00 PM ET with the classic King Kong, and is followed at 10:00 PM ET by the previously-recommended Them!. So, I'd like to point out the night's third movie, airing at midnight ET: The Killer That Stalked New York.

This low-budget B-grade crime drama from Columbia Pictures in 1950 stars Evelyn Keyes (who played Scarlett O'Hara's sister Suellen in Gone With the Wind) and a cast of relative unknowns. Keyes plays Sheila, a woman who's part of a ring smuggling uncut diamonds in from Cuba. Because of this, she's well aware that the police are hot on her tail, and has already mailed the diamonds to another member of the ring. What she doesn't know, however, is that diamonds aren't the only thing she's smuggled into the US: she's smuggled in a pretty bad case of smallpox. The Killer That Stalked New York is part crime drama, and that part is relatively predictable. It's obvious that the plot isn't going to go according to plan, in this case meaning that Sheila's unfaithful boyfriend, the other part of the ring, is trying to skip town with the proceeds, forcing an ever-sicker Sheila to leave her apartment to try to find him.

However, it's also part medical mystery, and that is where the movie gets really interesting. In 1950, smallpox was in a state that polio is today: it had been eradicated in the industrialized countries, but still existed in some Third World countries. Most New York doctors wouldn't have seen a smallpox case in their practising careers, and so are confronted with symptoms that at first seem baffling to them. Eventually, of course, an older doctor realizes, much to his horror, what's going on, leading to the desperate search to find out who's spreading smallpox around New York, at the same time trying not to panic the general population. (The doctors and police don't realize until fairly late that they're after the same person.)

The Killer That Stalked New York is, in many ways, typical of the B-movies that were being released by Hollywood in the 1950s. It's competent, with a cast of fairly little-known actors all giving their best. The subject material (it was based on a real incident), however, helps the movie rise a cut above other B-movies. It's certainly nowhere near as good as the great 1950 movies like Sunset Blvd., but it's more than good enough to hold its own with the standard suspense fare that Hollywood is putting out today. Sadly, it's not available on DVD.

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