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The Killer That Stalked New York
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The Killer That Stalked New York

Think of the teeming hub of humanity that is New York City and then imagine a person with a highly contagious and deadly disease wandering among the masses, spreading death and panic. Based on an actual case in 1946 - a smallpox scare in which millions of New Yorkers received free vaccinations - The Killer That Stalked New York (1950) is a fictionalized dramatization of that incident that stars Evelyn Keyes as Sheila Bennet, a modern day "Typhoid Mary" who contracts smallpox in Cuba while serving as a courier for Matt (Charles Korvin), her no-good musician boyfriend, in a stolen diamond smuggling scheme.

The film develops a steady, escalating sense of tension from the very first scene as Sheila arrives in New York City's crowded Pennsylvania station, aware she is being followed by a Treasury agent. Already feverish and weak from the disease, she manages to elude her pursuer and slip incognito into Matt's apartment where she holes up and tries to get well. In the meantime, her contagious condition has already infected numerous people and when Dr. Ben Wood (William Bishop) discovers that smallpox is the cause, he tries to prevent a major epidemic by involving city officials and the Health Department. As they frantically race against time to quarantine victims and vaccinate local residents without creating a widespread panic, Sheila once again takes to the streets, this time in search of Matt who has taken the diamonds and run off with her sister Francie (Lola Albright). As Sheila, armed with a gun, closes in on her two-timing lover, the police and city officials follow in close pursuit, hoping to stop her before she can further infect anyone.

The Killer That Stalked New York was completed just after the general release of Panic in the Streets (1950), a major 20th-Century-Fox production from director Elia Kazan that featured a similar plot; a criminal (Jack Palance) infected with the deadly bubonic plague is running loose in the streets of New Orleans and the police have 48 hours to catch him before an epidemic breaks out. Due to the critical and box office success of the latter film, Columbia Pictures decided to shelve The Killer That Stalked New York for six months so that it wouldn't suffer in comparison. They needn't have bothered since most critics and moviegoers at the time considered The Killer That Stalked New York little more than a typical B-movie. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times dismissed it, writing "...unfortunately, the script of Harry Essex, based on a factual magazine piece ["Smallpox, the Killer That Stalks New York" by Milton Lehman in Hearst's International-Cosmopolitan Magazine], has a bad tendency to ramble...And the performances of the principal characters, while adequate, have little punch...a potentially but not sufficiently intriguing film."

Clearly undervalued during its original release, The Killer That Stalked New York, directed by Earl McEvoy, is a highly atmospheric and taut little film noir that benefits greatly from the documentary-like approach that cinematographer Joseph Biroc brings to the film, utilizing real New York City locations. Originally Lew Ayres was slated to play Dr. Wood after producer Allen Miner first bought the film rights but the casting changed when the project was sold to Columbia and producer Robert Cohn took over.

As the vengeful angel of death, Evelyn Keyes makes a compelling and tragic heroine and had already established herself in the film noir genre with The Face Behind the Mask (1941) and Johnny O'Clock (1947). Her greatest achievements in the genre lay ahead, however, with her unforgettable performance in Joseph Losey's The Prowler (1951) and Phil Karlson's 99 River Street (1953). At the time she made The Killer That Stalked New York, Keyes was involved in an affair with actor Kirk Douglas, a situation that created tension between her and studio mogul Harry Cohn. Because of his personal dislike of Douglas, Cohn forbade Keyes to invite him to the set and it resulted in the actress buying out her Columbia contract and going independent after completing the film.

Among the other cast members you'll recognize in The Killer That Stalked New York are Dorothy Malone as the nurse who first treats the smallpox carrier, Carl Benton Reid as a city commissioner, Connie Gilchrist as a nosy landlady, Richard Egan as a cop, character actor Whit Bissell as a flophouse manager, and Jim Backus (the voice of cartoon character Mr. Magoo) in the uncharacteristic role of a predatory bar owner who tries to force himself on Sheila - with fatal results.

Producer: Robert Cohn
Director: Earl McEvoy
Screenplay: Harry Essex (screenplay and adaptation); Milton Lehman (Colliers Magazine article)
Cinematography: Joseph Biroc
Art Direction: Walter Holscher
Music: Hans Salter
Film Editing: Jerome Thoms
Cast: Evelyn Keyes (Sheila Bennet), Charles Korvin (Matt Krane), William Bishop (Dr. Ben Wood), Dorothy Malone (Alice Lorie), Lola Albright (Francie Bennet), Barry Kelley (Treasury Agent Johnson), Carl Benton Reid (Health Commissioner Ellis), Ludwig Donath (Dr. Cooper), Art Smith (Anthony Moss), Whit Bissell (Sid Bennet), Roy Roberts (Mayor of New York), Connie Gilchrist (Belle, the landlady), Dan Riss (Skrip), Harry Shannon (police officer Houlihan).

by Jeff Stafford

Scarlett O'Hara's Younger Sister by Evelyn Keyes

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