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For good or ill, ‘Decoy’ is not a typical noir

For good or ill, ‘Decoy’ is not a typical noir


Directed by Jack Bernhard

Written by Nedrick Young (screenplay) and Stanley Rubin (story)

U.S.A., 1946

Film noir is film noir because of a variety of recognized qualities which concern both visuals cues as well as some specific narrative aspects, including stereotypical character traits. It stands to reason that that is how the genre, or any other genre for that matter, is recognized. However, there are some examples of films that, by the very fact that they follow the standards of the genre, somehow manage to create their own special uniqueness. It might be because said movie exemplifies those characteristics particularly well. Other examples prove to be more challenging to evaluate as to what makes them special. The reasons may be more difficult to flesh out simply because one is uncertain as to whether or not the picture is actually good. Watching Jack Berhard’s Decoy in preparation for the current Friday Noir entry was one such instance. One can only guess what it was the people involved had in mind at the time, but their legacy, regardless of however one believes its quality to be, is worth discussing.

Dr. Craig (Herbert Rudley) looks at his tired and drained face in the mirror. The audience does not know this man nor what plagues him, but follows him along from that bathroom in a restaurant located in the country all the way to the big city, where he proceeds to a a hotel where Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie) is staying, Before Sgt. Joe Portugal (Sheldon Leonard) can intervene, Dr. Craig shoots Margot just prior to dropping dead himself. It is during her final breaths that the doomed dame reveals to Sgt. Portugal the series of events which led to this hapless conclusion (at the start of the film, no less!). Unsurprisingly, it had to do with a large sum of money a group of unsavoury and easily corruptible characters, Margot among them, was a desperately hunting down. The only man knowledgeable of its whereabouts was one Frank Olins (Robert Armstrong), a real vile oaf of a man whom Margot manages to seduced and twist around her finger, but at that point in time condemned to the gas chamber for some terrible crimes. With time running out, Margot needed a specialist with knowledge in special drugs, which she found in Dr. Craig, and a man with plenty of cash to spend on the go, which she found in an old associate, Jim Vincent (Edward Norris). Believe or not, her plan is to revive Frank from the dead in order to get at his money!

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Goodness, Decoy is one of those films which fancies itself rather provocative and edgy, turns out to be just that, yet not exclusively for the right reasons, at least not on all accounts. Notwithstanding the presence of insanely hard boiled Joe ‘Jo Jo’ Portugal, the movie lives and breathes villainy. Even in the most bitter and gritty of noirs there is often a lure of light reminding the audience the some good might still shine by the story’s conclusion. Decoy evidently enough chooses to throw that lifeline to the wind. Were it not for the fact that the opening sequence features the demise of the chief antagonist, Decoy would make a case for being a film which literally champions bad over good. The cast of individuals is a ‘who’s who’ of familiar faces which exude vice in some instances, while in others too much weakness to know what to stop giving in to vice. Margot, played unquestionably to the hilt by the very little known Jean Gillie (she died at a very young age after appearing in only a select few movies), is apparently evil’s representative on this planet. In the early stages of the picture the viewer gets the sense that this bird has a twisted mind, although by the end one is hard pressed not to argue that she is borderline insane. Her objective, through and through, is to get her dirty hands on Frank’s money, and absolutely nothing will stand in her way. Shooting to kill and rolling people over with cars are all but small, necessary acts which propel closer to the bounty. She even whores herself to two men, but that does not matter given that the payment, provided she ever gets to it, will have been more than worth the effort.

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The representation of her villainy extends beyond merely what the script has in store for her. Jean Gillie makes this character happen, much more so then whatever the writers could have given her to work with. The performance has a degree of flamboyancy that is near uncanny. Her British accent helps make the character all the more memorable and odd, if only because noir is such a quintessentially American genre, that to suddenly be faced with a deranged British woman sucking the life out of men through the most dastardly means is at first unsettling. Gillie takes the notion of ‘femme fatale’ to a degree only the rarest of actresses ever could have. The real kicker about the entire ordeal is that the acting is so over the top. This is not Out of the Past Jane Greer or Tension Audrey Totter nasty. This is another ferocious beast altogether, which just might be the most accurate description. Gillie is a wild animal, she is not normal. She is a weirdo and ruthlessly dangerous one at that.

The rest of the cast follows suite, bringing either terribly wooden (yet terribly fitting) or outlandish performances to the foray. Sheldon Leonard acts as the most hard boiled cop that ever existed, Edward Norris is the slimiest of con men, Robert Armstrong overacts with ferocity and Hebert Rudley is as stiff as a tree trunk as Dr. Craig. The acting is rough, make no mistake about it. It lacks polish, it lacks refinement, but for the purposes for this twisted tale, it does work. It is not everybody’s cup of tea, and certainly those less familiar with noir (and therefore cannot contrast and compare with genre standards) who stumble on Decoy risk believing the performances to be pure garbage, and maybe some of them are, but turning one’s eye away from the film proves to be quite difficult nonetheless.

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Then arrives the most bizarre scene imaginable, one that would feel better suited in a science-fiction or horror film than a noir. Once Margot convinces her business associate Jim to fund her little operation of reviving Frank, and has seduced Dr. Craig to the point where he will do just about anything for her, including egregiously unethical crimes, an operation of sorts is executed with the help drugs and sophisticated machinery to inject life back into the currently deceased Frank. Coupled with the notion that Frank was a convicted criminal and a terrible human being, with the dramatic music, with the looks of shock and awe from the onlooking trio, the scene plays out like a Frankenstein remake. The entire sequence is so unabashedly loopy one cannot help but sit down and watch. What follows shall not be revealed in this review so as to not spoil the film, but suffice to mention that director Jack Berhard pulls a fast one on the audience, making the latter question what the point of the sequence was originally. In a few precise ways, despite adhering to many of the genre’s tropes, Decoy is very much playing by its own set of odd rules.

Describing Decoy is a tall order. Evaluating whether it is good or not is not any easier either. For lack of a better term, it simply is what it is. It is noir on steroids, made by lesser artists. With that in mind, it is now up to the willing viewer to make up his or her own mind as to its overall worth.

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-Edgar Chaput