DECOY (1946)


Wow. Decoy has got to be one of the most extreme and meanest film noirs I’ve seen yet. It’s sadistic. Nearly everyone dies. And it’s got the one of the most lethal femme fatales in history: Margot Shelby, portrayed by British actress Jean Gillie, who sadly only made two American films before dying of pneumonia at age 33. It’s easy to see why the film has gained such a cult status since being revived from the dead (much like the character of Frankie) in 2000. The film is a wholly unique mix of hardboiled sensibilities, melodrama, and perverse medical practice ripped straight from the pulps.

The film begins with Margot dying from a gunshot wound in her apartment. Detective Joe Portugal (Sheldon Leonard) arrives seconds too late, to find Dr. Craig Lloyd (Herbert Rudley) also shot. In her last moments, Margot spills her story to Portugal. The film then flashbacks a few weeks, to when Margot’s boyfriend Frankie Olins (Robert Armstrong) was in the pen, awaiting his trip to the gas chamber. He robbed a bank of about $400K and killed a guard in the process. Before getting pinched, he managed to stash the money. Only he knows the loot’s location, but he refuses to tell anyone, even Margot. So she needs to bust him out in order to get paid.

Margot’s enlists the help of con man Jim Vincent to help her bust Frankie out. The plan she comes up with is absolutely insane and only could’ve been spawned in the pulps. She plans on seducing the prison doctor, so that he’ll steal Frankie’s corpse away after he’s executed. Then the doctor can revive him using a chemical called methylene blue, which is an ANTIDOTE to CYANIDE GAS. In reality, large doses of methylene blue can be used as an antidote to potassium cyanide poisoning, but Decoy takes it to extremes. Frankie is dead about an hour before they revive him with the chemical. Everything about this movie is extreme.

What unfurls is a tornado of double-crosses, manipulation, and cold hearted greed. Margot truly is one of the most ruthless femme fatales in the history of cinema. She holds allegiance to no one but the almighty dollar and no one will stop her from stuffing her velvet pockets. Gillie (who was married to director Jack Bernhard at the time) is deliciously wicked in the role. She fondles pistols with the same admiration as a diamond. She doesn’t just shoot people either. She runs a guy over too. But her real talent is in manipulating guys into doing her dirty work.

Another extreme in the film is Portugal, the no-nonsense detective. When we first meet him, he’s in a bar picking fights with a couple of known crooks. Then he threatens the bartender, saying he’s going to come down so hard on the bar, there will be nothing left but toothpicks. I bet he wasn’t even on duty at the time. The bastard just likes picking fights. In Decoy, the cops are just as shitty as the crooks.

The only character to draw any sympathy from the viewer is Dr. Lloyd. He’s a pathetic sap who falls face first into Margot’s web of seduction. There’s a strong moment of pure melodrama after he brings Frankie back from the dead. He looks down at the framed Hippocratic Oath on his desk, then begins weeping and smashing the glass as it sinks in what he’s done. Fantastic stuff.

Bernhard’s direction and filmatism are nicely stylized, without being overly dark or consumed with shadows. He’s able to switch up tone very nicely as well. For example, there’s a terrific scene in a patch of woods near the end of the film where he gives it a gothic horror vibe. It doesn’t feel out of place in the film though – it subtly reflects the fogginess that now exists in the doctor’s soul.

Decoy appears to be only available on a double feature DVD with Crime Wave, which I reviewed yesterday. It must be outta print because the DVD goes for $35 on Amazon. I got mine off of Netflix though, so if you wanna check out these two really great noirs, I suggest adding the set to your queue. Dig!

Patrick Cooper

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