Decoy: Going big or going home, even on a tight budget
Young, first time filmmakers come in all shapes and sizes, as do their movies. For some, precaution is the strategy of choice. Just make a film, however simple and straightforward, if mostly for the sole accomplishment of having one under one’s belt (which is more difficult than many believe). For others, a sampling of ostentation is opted for, in the hopes that their debut will stand out, modest budget be damned. The critical point in the latter case is the effect the movie will have on its viewership. American director Jack Bernhard never made it big, as the saying goes. His relatively short filmmaking career spanned all but four years, his efforts spent on what are commonly referred to as ‘poverty row’ pictures. Today, few, if any, would recognize the name, even among folk that describe themselves as film buffs, but who could blame them? All that being said, there is an indescribable quality about his feature debut, Decoy, from 1946. It possesses an unapologetic ebullience, a desire to shock and awe, even though its plotting rests on thin ice to put it mildly.
Starring Jean Gillie, one of the most enigmatic femme fatales actors ever witnessed, the movie concerns Margot Shelby (Gillie), a savagely conniving woman, and her mission to keep a stolen bounty of $400,000 for herself. The problem is that only her lover, Frank Olins (Robert Armstrong) knows where the loot is and he is spending time in the slammer. What’s more, having been found guilty of killing a man in the process of stealing the money, Frank will is awaiting his execution in the gas chamber. How will Margot get her way under the circumstances? Well, by seducing every single man she can to help extract the cash’s whereabouts from Frank in the most bizarre fashion imaginable. Fellow gangster Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) will be the one to pay off prison doctors to smuggle Frank’s body after the autopsy, and Dr. Craig (Herbert Rudley) will the one to administer a risky, complicated procedure that will BRING FRANK BACK TO LIFE! All the while, Sgt. Portugal (Sheldon Leonard), suspecting that something might be brewing, keeps a sharp eye on Margot.
Jack Bernhard and Jean Gillie met in England when the former served during WWII. They fell in love, married, and worked together when moving back to the United States. Gillie had a knack for acting and Bernhard had dreams of directing, thus making them an intriguing pair for the filmmaking process, with Bernhard operating behind the camera for the love of his life who would grace the screen. Given that worked with a tight budget, one needn’t be a genius to understand that they would combine forces. Unfortunately, Gillie died of pneumonia at the age of 33, after appearing in 20 British films and only 2 American ones. Her performance in Decoy is regularly hailed by aficionados as one of the most memorable of the classic noir era, embodying the template of the femme fatale with a level of gusto rarely seen before or since. Her Margot is demonic personified, feverishly plotting, biding her time and seducing a trio of men until she lays her dirty mittens on the money Frank has hidden away.
In a sense, Jean Gillie’s efforts embody one of the great aspects of low-budget filmmaking of the 1940s and 1950s, the two decades when film noir was at its peak (even though nobody actually called it by that name back then). The plots of these caper thrillers and dramas can get silly and verge on mind-numbing convolution, but provided their dramatic impact lands perfectly, then a lot can be forgiven. Therein lies Decoy’s charm. Margot is a complete and utter nutter. She laughs maniacally when killing yet another poor sap that hoped to share the prize with her, like a cartoon villain, yet she sells the character in a strangely compelling fashion. Gillie was a great character actor, she sunk her teeth into roles, especially this one, therefore no matter how insane the premise was, or how exaggerated the role was, she gave it her all. Few would contend that Gillie gives a ‘realistic’ performance, but she makes the film much more palatable than it otherwise might have been. Film noir is frequently praised for its exaggerated cinematography and dialogue, so it would only make sense for some of the movies influenced by the movement to apply said heightened quality to the performances.
For that matter, most of the cast gives melodramatic performances. Herbert Rudley, for instance, goes from seemingly level-headed doctor in the early stages to someone who looks comatose during the final third once he realizes that his world is collapsing on him, all because he failed to shield himself against the persuasive ways of a crazed woman that never loved him anyways. Even the way in which director Bernhard develops the romance angle between the doctor and Margot is comically short: he doesn’t. The movie literally cuts from the scene when the two meet for the first time in the doctor’s office to an unspecified period of time later when they’ve moved in together and started building a life of companionship. It’s another example of how the manner in which the plotting develops carrying less weight than how the actual events deliver drama.
The chief example of showmanship for the pure sake of drama is certainly the film’s centerpiece. If there is one thing Decoy is famous for, apart from Jean Gille, it’s that it features a trio of characters bringing back a dead man to life. The idea is fitting for a science-fiction or horror movie, yet it exists squarely in the middle of a simple thriller. Well, perhaps not so simple given the audacity of actually basing the entire story on this singular, lunatic idea. What is the medicine employed by Dr. Craig to revive Frank? It matters not. How much did audiences actually buy into the theory of a corpse coming back to life, even through medical means? It matters not. It is not a little strange that, after experiencing the shock of being born again for a few minutes, Frank reverts back to his old, vile, gangster self without any inclination of changing his ways now that he has been provided a second chance? Of course not. That’s precisely what makes Frank, Frank.
Modern audiences can be easily forgiven for rolling their eyes if they ever decided to sit through Decoy. Good luck to the individual that seeks to produce an academic dissertation on how politically and socially impactful the movie is. In a nutshell, it is a curious diversion that barely runs over an hour, but oh how curious it is. The film is made with the energy of young filmmakers that obviously don’t have a lot at their disposal to work with, yet also don’t shy away from dreaming big. There are moments, such when Frank wakes up from the dead, that feel bigger than the film really is. That’s a special quality that comes when creative people set their minds to a project, irrespective of the limitations that present themselves. It doesn’t entail that the end result will be a brilliant triumph, and Decoy certainly cannot hide all of said limitations, yet it is difficult to not fall under its charm, its ugly, crazy, unorthodox charm.