This is the first installment of a new project to write a review each week of the films of Noir Alley, the weekly broadcast of a noir or noir-adjacent film on TCM hosted by Eddie Muller. I’m borrowing an idea from film & TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz and limiting each review to roughly 30 minutes of writing, as much because I’m not up for a long writing stretch at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night as for any real discipline.
This movie folds a noirish plot about a jewel thief and her cheating husband into a documentary-style narrative inspired by the 1947 smallpox outbreak in New York City. The two are tied together by having the jewel thief be the smallpox carrier who infects the city. It’s a…novel way to frame a story, to be sure.
Evelyn Keyes is Sheila Bennet, who returns from Cuba with a packet of smuggled diamonds and a nasty headache. She’s being tailed by a fed who suspects her, so she puts the diamonds in the mail, calls her husband, and then heads to a flophouse hotel to lose the cop. But she starts to feel really sick, so a smarmy bellboy sends her off to a nearby clinic. The clinic staff, with no reason to suspect something as dire as smallpox, gives her some medicine to prop her up. And Sheila heads out into the streets for a nightmare of infectious contacts before going home, where her husband has spent her time away canoodling with her sister. Meanwhile a little girl Sheila interacted with at the clinic comes down with a horrible headache, high fever, and rash, sending the clinic staff on a hunt for the cause.
This is a really odd film. The noir plot is serviceable enough, with the husband (played by Charles Korvin) becoming progressively more despicable and leaving double-crosses, suicide, and possible murder in his wake. And the scenes of Sheila wandering around the city unknowingly infecting people are extremely tense, with excellent framing and pacing. The film was shot on location and the real-life New York settings bring a sense of realness and place that anchor the story.
The other part of the film is about issues that are painfully valid right now: diagnosing the mystery illness, contact tracing, mass vaccination campaigns (complete with anti-vaxxers), vaccine shortages and supply-chain issues. It’s framed in documentary style with montages that include footage from 1947 and public-health campaign signs, exposition via long imperious voiceover, and ponderous speeches from actors playing various public health officials. The noir plot disappears for long stretches of time and feels odd and out of place when it comes back. Nothing about the film ever entirely comes together.
Of course it was rough to watch this after nearly a year of being stranded in the middle of a raging pandemic. Many people on the Saturday #NoirAlley hashtag on Twitter tapped out early, saying it was causing them too much anxiety. I did all right with the scenes of infection spread and contact tracing, but started to falter when the vaccine campaigns began, because it’s so painful to know that we had the capacity for this once upon a time and people in power made decisions to prevent us doing this for COVID-19. It also felt like a precursor to Contagion, with similarity in the ordinariness of how the infection spreads, and how the people in public health wrestle with the realization of what they’re dealing with and how to stop it. I have to wonder whether Steven Soderbergh is familiar with this film.
Evelyn Keyes is great in a hard role that requires her to be both a noir femme fatale and a public health menace, balancing the two aspects well enough to remain sympathetic, though the makeup decisions do her no favors. Other standouts are Whit Bissell as her estranged brother, with an amazing scene that has them spitting bile at each other and yet still maintaining a sibling bond, which feels more real than much of the film; and Dorothy Malone, in a small role as a nurse, somehow managing to be sex on heels even in a nurse’s uniform, though she has very little to do after her first scene in the clinic with Sheila. But all the men playing various public officials and health professionals are largely stiff bores, stuck with long speeches and self-righteous anger. Every moment of believable emotion in this movie comes from the female characters, and that, too, feels very relevant right now.
I appreciated the opportunity to see this unusual hybrid and to get a look at how this country handled a dangerous outbreak of a virus 70-plus years ago. But it was a bit of a slog and I’m not sure I’d watch it again.
I’ve been running a project this past week to dress up and describe my outfits; and while the project is set only for weekdays, I decided that Noir Alley is a good opportunity to go for a kinda-fancy, vintage-inspired outfit each week, since it’s been my only regular Saturday date for the past 11 months and will continue to be for at least the next several months. (I am in the next to last tier for vaccination and don’t expect I’ll get the jab until summer.) And if I’m going to do that, I might as well include it with the weekly recap.
Dress: Unique Vintage
Camisole: Victorian Trading Company
Stockings: GNW tights for Fred Meyer
Shoes: Fluevog Mini Gorgeous
Jewelry: Fred Meyer
Hair flower: bought at Joann, don’t recall the brand
Makeup: Face and eyes Aromaleigh, CoverGirl mascara, LA Splash Golden Gatsby lipstick in Audrey
I decided on this dress not just because of the roughly 1940s silhouette, but because the houndstooth pattern is in line with a theme of checks, plaids, and menswear patterns I did for the weekly project. The cami is because the dress is cut for someone with a much longer shoulder-to-bust ratio than I have and it’s so low-cut that it doesn’t fit correctly on me. (I’m not ashamed of my cleavage, I just think showing off my underpinnings isn’t period correct.) I didn’t do full period-style hair because, honestly, I can’t be bothered to spend that kind of time. When I got to noir city, I take an entire afternoon to do my hair. Saturday night at home in front of the TV, not quite as compelling.