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Nicholas Ray's lush and challenging melodrama Bigger Than Life (1956) dealt with a topic that was seldom brought up in the 1950s, the abuse of over-the-counter drugs. Ray's film was a big-budget, big-studio (Twentieth Century Fox) affair shot in color and CinemaScope about an upper-middle class suburban family torn apart by the husband/father's misuse of a legal prescription medication, Cortisone. Praised by critics then and now, the film flopped at the box-office. The following year saw another release about the misuse of legal drugs, but it couldn't have been more different in tone and intent. Death in Small Doses (1957) came from Poverty Row studio Allied Artists (formerly Monogram Pictures) and was set in the blue-collar world of long-distance trucking. As one might expect, amphetamine pills are the villains of the piece - the drug of choice to keep awake on long hauls (the truckers call them "co-pilots"). The film, directed by Joseph Newman (This Island Earth ), is executed expos-style and resembles the sort of exploitation-disguised-as-public-service potboilers of earlier decades such as Tell Your Children (1936 aka Reefer Madness). The plotline allows for scenes of murder, madness, and mayhem and the movie poster tagline makes no secret of the exploitation angle, touting Death in Small Doses as "...the picture that crosses the forbidden territory... of THRILL PILLS!"
John McGreevey's screenplay for Death in Small Doses was based on an article of the same name by Arthur L. Davis that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post on January 21st, 1956. The film opens with a pre-credits sequence of a truck driver speeding along a hilltop road at night, popping pills with one hand and steering with the other. He hallucinates a pair of oncoming headlights that are not there in reality, swerves to "avoid" them and plummets into a ravine in a fiery crash. A disclaimer following the credits is apparently geared to appease pharmaceutical companies ("nothing in this picture is intended to minimize the importance of the drug 'Amphetamine' when properly used under a doctor's prescription...")
Synopsis: Stately music accompanies the Washington D.C. office of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, where chief inspector Frank Ainsley (Robert Shayne) is briefing FDA investigator Tom Kaylor (Peter Graves). In the aftermath of several deadly truck crashes, the Interstate Commerce Commission has called on the FDA to curb the proliferation of bootleg "bennies" among the truckers. Ainsley sends Kaylor and five other agents to different locales to uncover the source of the pills, which he explains are "as easy to buy as cigarettes or chewing gum." Tom goes to Los Angeles to pose as a student driver and checks into a rooming house for truckers run by Val Owens (Mala Powers), herself the widow of a dead trucker. A fellow roomer down the hall is Mink Reynolds (Chuck Connors) who is clearly hopped-up on Bennies. Mink shows Tom the ropes, which includes easy access to "co-pilots." During his first day on the job, Kaylor witnesses an old-timer who has been sidelined to the loading dock experience a psychotic episode and collapse dead of a heart attack. Mink, who never seems to sleep, later introduces Tom to truck stop waitress Amy Phillips (Merry Anders), who is also a supplier of pills. Another trucker - Wally Morse (Roy Engel) - is beaten to death by thugs after trying to give information about the drug network to Kaylor. Over time, Tom develops a romance with Val while continuing his risky investigation of Amy and her contacts within the drug ring.
By 1957, actor Peter Graves had been in films for six years and had carved an interesting career for himself, appearing in key supporting roles in a few important, prestigious pictures while at the same time landing leading man roles in low-budget science-fiction films and crime melodramas. Among the actor's early supporting parts is the prickly Sgt. Price in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 (1953) and the prison inmate who gets the plot moving in Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955). While appearing in these key 1950s titles, Graves was also saving the world as the stalwart leading man of such sci-fi pictures as Red Planet Mars (1952), Killers from Space (1954), It Conquered the World (1956) and Beginning of the End (1957); films that are still fondly remembered decades later.
The future leader of the IMF (as in "Impossible Missions Force" of the TV series Mission: Impossible, which aired from 1966 to 1973) may be efficient and entertaining in Death in Small Doses, but it is fellow future TV star Chuck Connors (The Rifleman, 1958-1963) who barrels through the movie in lid-popping, breakneck fashion. The script makes an unusual demand on the actor - Connors' Mink spends the entire film hopped-up on Bennies, and he has a lot of screen time playing this one-note hipster. The casting was clever; one gets the feeling that Mink was devouring enough amphetamine pills to kill a normal man, but Connors was a very imposing 6-and-a-half foot tall athlete (he had played both baseball and basketball as a professional) capable of absorbing the speed. Mink is constantly "turned up to 11" spouting lines like "Zombies! They spend their crummy lives in the sack - I ask you, what's so great about sleep?" He is a terror on the road, parties all night and shows up for work at the trucking company in the morning in a convertible, two girls draped around his stylish Hawaiian shirt. Once seen, Mink is not easily forgotten.
Watching likeable actors like Graves and Connors trade lines and inhabit scenes in otherwise predictable programmers like Death in Small Doses is what film buffs count on when taking a chance with such low-budget fare. It is also often the small moments that provide the greatest joy. For example, in one throwaway shot Graves is following Connors to his convertible; as Connors/Mink exuberantly hops from the curb straight into the front seat, we see Graves/Tom hesitate behind him at the curb, his body language showing that he is pondering for a moment the possibility of throwing out his stiff G-Man persona just long enough to hop in too. Staying true to character, he casually opens the door instead.
Producer: Richard V. Heermance
Director: Joseph M. Newman
Screenplay: Arthur L. Davis (article); John McGreevey
Cinematography: Carl E. Guthrie
Art Direction: Dave Milton
Music: Robert Wiley Miller, Emil Newman
Film Editing: William Austin
Cast: Peter Graves (Agent/Tom Kaylor), Mala Powers (Valerie 'Val' Owens), Chuck Connors (Mink Reynolds), Robert Williams ('Dunc' Clayton), Roy Engel (Wally Morse), Merry Anders (Amy 'Miss Diesel of 1958' Phillips), Harry Lauter (Steve Hummell/Mr. Brown)
by John M. Miller