Writer: Nedrick Young
Based on a story by Stanley Rubin
Director: Jack Bernhard
Cinematographer: L. William O’Connell
Music: Edward J. Kay
Cast: Jean Gillie, Robert Armstrong, Herbert Rudley, Edward Norris, Sheldon Leonard
Release: September 14, 1946
Studio: Monogram Pictures
Percent Noir: 100%
When I was about halfway through “Decoy,” and things were getting really insane, I began to wonder… if this had been the movie that was discovered by French cinephiles and then rediscovered by American cinephiles in the ‘70s, would “Decoy” have dethroned “Detour” as the ideal poverty row film noir? After all, since “Decoy” was “rediscovered,” it’s become a cult classic, rising in stature with every passing year. Both films wear their imperfections and barely-there production on their sleeves, and both represent the very best of what Poverty Row had to offer.
Both also tell the prototypical noir story, though “Decoy” is a little more — let’s use the word “eccentric” — in the telling. But there is one big hang-up that separates this film from most other comparable films noir: it’s told from the point of view of the femme fatale. Of course many films have the wicked woman as the alpha character, but few (“Clash by Night” and “Allotment Wives” come immediately to mind) actually tell the story from her perspective. The noir genre is veritably shitting itself with sad sacks just waiting to be taken advantage of, and that’s why “Detour” will probably never be dethroned as the essential noir. That said, “Decoy” is pretty extraordinary for what it is, with a main femme fatale that ranks right up there with “Leave Her to Heaven” and “Double Indemnity” in terms of memorability.
The fatale in question is Margot, and she’s played by Jean Gillie in an extraordinary performance. If you’ve never heard of Gillie before, it’s because she was primarily an actress in Britain. She came to America, made this film and then a supporting performance in “The Macomber Affair” (unseen by me). She was married to Jack Bernhard, the director of this film, and when the marriage dissolved, she raced home to England… and died of a pneumonia. The entire story is obviously tragic, much more so when you look at her work here, which is calculated in a way so perfect that you cannot look away from her. For most of the film, she speaks in a very straightforward, logical manner, as if this is the only way to think about a given situation, no matter how insane. But then at the film’s climax, Margot shoots a man, collects a box of money and cackles as she almost skips out of the dark woods toward her car. The sudden turn in character is brilliant and Gillie takes it just to the edge of caricature without going over. It’s a truly beautiful moment… in a dark and fucked up way, of course.
Had Gillie been the only great thing about “Decoy” it still would be a decent film, but screenwriter Nedrick Young (who later wrote “The Defiant Ones” and “Inherit the Wind”) and director Bernhard have a few more tricks up their sleeves. The film begins with a doctor named Craig (Herbert Rudley) seemingly coming back to life and then marching across state on a mission. He hitchhikes hundreds of miles to an apartment building where he shoots Margot point blank. How did this happen? It’s a “gotcha” opening that engages you immediately, and soon we’re flashing back.
Margot is boinking a mobster named, un-shockingly, Frankie (Robert Armstrong, appropriately oily). Frankie’s got almost half a million stored somewhere, but won’t tell Margot. This doubly sucks for Margot since Frankie is in prison and about to head to the gas chamber. She begs him to give her the location, but he says the only way she’ll get it is if she breaks him out.
So Margot comes up with a plan. She’ll break Frankie out… after he’s dead. Yes, you read that part right. She partners/seduces rival mobster Jim (Edward Norris) and the aforementioned Craig in no time flat and tells them her plan. Let Frankie die and then steal his body, inject it with something called methylene blue, and Frankie will come back to life. Again, you read that right. I spent 30 seconds Googling methylene blue, and it counteracts cyanide, which I assume is what they used in the gas chambers back in the day. So there you go, a foolproof method to come back to life – you’re welcome.
It’s nuts. But so was “The Narrow Margin” and a myriad of other films noir, but you still get wrapped up in the storytelling. It works. You can’t take your eyes off Margot, and the three men she’s got wrapped around her little finger all give suitably good performances as they willingly turn around to get stabbed in the back. Yep, none of you will be surprised to learn that she betrays all of them. The most grisly method is reserved for Jim, who she runs over with her car seconds after he changes her tire. Aww…
Also in play is a detective Margot calls JoJo (Sheldon Leonard), who is so hardboiled he eats hardboiled eggs at a bar. I don’t have much more to say about him, I just wanted to make the egg joke above.
The scenes involving Frankie’s body are impressively staged, with Bernhard using long, dark shadows in large, mostly empty rooms. Young has some fun with the scene where two morgue attendants argue hilariously about word pronunciation and how to properly fold a sheet around a body. The moment Frankie is brought back to life, the slight bumps in his heart are echoed perfectly by Edward J. Kay’s score and you get goosebumps. There’s something awesome about Frankie needing to prove it to himself that he’s still alive, and does so by blowing on a match to show he’s breathing again.
Through it all, Margot seems to perfectly calculate every situation, bouncing from man to man depending on what the moment calls for, but in reality only caring about the money. She has this monologue about the streets she grew up on in England being no different than the streets we see here, and Gillie nails Young’s great dialogue. Then, as Craig digs up the box of money, Margot maniacally cackles another string of great dialogue, but Gillie makes it sound like Margot is having great sex, ramping up for an orgasm the moment she gets her mitts on the money.
It all ends with Margot spitting out her final triumph as she bleeds to death. She asks JoJo to kiss her, then laughs in his face as he bends over to give her one. After she dies, it’s revealed that the money isn’t in the box. Of course it wasn’t. But Margot died thinking it was. Thinking she won. And that somehow feels fitting for the final fadeout. “Decoy” is absurd, but you’ll never forget it once you watch it, and how many films can you say that about?