We open on a filthy bathroom sink. A pair of blood stained hands enter the frame and begin to wash off the blood. Whose blood? As the blood washes off, the camera pans up and shows a broken, slightly askew mirror reflecting a man's face. The man stares into his reflection with haunted eyes, what combat veterans call "the thousand yard stare". The shattered mirror surface is a direct reflection of the man's psychological state. Although he's washed the blood off of his hands, he can never wash the blood off of his soul.
The man staggers out of the dingy bathroom. We see now that the washroom is in a roadside garage. The man walks like a zombie to the side of the road where he mechanically thumbs a ride to the city. He says nothing to the driver that eventually picks him up, just stares ahead with a blank gaze. The driver lets him off at an apartment building in the city. The man goes to an apartment and when the door is opened, draws a gun and shoots a woman. Right behind him, and too late to save either man or woman, is a police detective. He picks up the wounded woman, places her on a sofa and she begins to tell the story of how all of this horror came about.
That's the beginning of DECOY (1946), a low-budget, "poverty row" film noir made at Monogram Pictures by director Jack Bernhard from a screenplay by Nedrick Young. The budget was microscopic and the shooting schedule maybe a week, ten days at best. A bigger studio could have given the material a glossier treatment. Bigger name actors could have been cast and the script could have been expanded, the plot holes patched up and smoothed over.
But then, it wouldn't be the same film and given what the cast and crew had to work with, they turned out a minor masterpiece, a tight (76 minutes running time), taut, effective little thriller that is drenched in doom. There's even a horror/science fiction element thrown in for good measure but you buy it because the film is such a feverish nightmare of horror and evil.
The lovely Jean Gillie stars as Margot Shelby, a black widow who embodies the femme fatale concept. She's consumed with greed and nothing will stop her from getting her hands on $400,000 worth of buried, stolen money. Her lover, Frankie Olins (Robert Armstrong, looking so dissipated that I didn't recognize him until half way through the film), robbed a bank and hid the money. He's about to go to the gas chamber and his corrupt lawyer, Jim Vincent (Edward Norris), can't get him an appeal. Margot hits on a scheme to inject Frankie with a drug that will counteract the effects of cyanide after he's killed. But she needs a doctor to provide and administer the drug.
She sets her sights on Dr. Craig (Herbert Rudley), a decent man with a small practice in a rundown part of the city. She seduces him quite easily and ensnares him in the wild resurrection gambit. It works and the gassed Frankie is revived in a scene that echoes any number of 1940s mad doctor thrillers. Frankie draws a map to the buried loot and then he's killed again, this time for good. Margot, Vincent and Craig head out to recover the money. Along the way, they have a flat tire. After Vincent replaces the tire, Margot runs him over. That's one less person to share the money with. Margot and Craig find the money box and Margot shoots Craig, leaving him for dead. She takes the chest back to her apartment and this is where we came in because it's Craig (who has somehow survived multiple gunshot wounds), that we saw at the beginning of the film.
The detective, Sgt. Portugal (Sheldon Leonard, playing a good guy rather than the hoods he specialized in), hears Margot's confession. She laughs in his face and dies, thinking she at least got the money, no matter how many men she had to kill to get it. But when Portugal opens the box, there's one final surprise.
DECOY is one helluva film noir. The plot doesn't always make sense but it's so damn compelling you don't care. The score, by Edward J. Kay, is a bit overbearing at times but it provides a relentless drive to the narrative. The leads are all solid, with the lovely Gillie a stand out as Margot. This is one hard boiled film, full of violence, cruelty, sadism and a wicked femme fatale.