William Castle had success with When Strangers Marry ’44, with (Kim Hunter and Robert Mitchum) and was well regarded for the work he did for RKO with his brilliantly offbeat The Whistler series.
With Johnny Stool Pigeon, Castle directs this uncluttered and obscure little film noir, pairing Shelley Winters and Dan Duryea who made Larceny a year earlier and would then do another picture together, Winchester ’73 in 1950.
It’s an entertaining programmer lensed with a semi-documentary style utilizing the usual noir voice-over to aid in the storytelling as Howard Duff’s character narrates the action as he goes undercover as Mike Doyle.
With cinematography by Maury Gertsman (Blond Alibi ’46, The Brute Man ’46, Ma and Pa Kettle ’49, The Glass Web ’53, The Creature Walks Among Us ’56). The moody visuals are courtesy of filming on location in San Francisco and Tucson. The old-style pier scenes with the opening shoot-out in the warehouse to the customs check with rows of cars at the Mexican border in Tucson give the picture the comfortable feel of added realism of 1949.
With a fantastic cast as follows- Shelley Winters, Howard Duff, Dan Duryea who made 3 other noir classics that year in 1949 (Manhandled, Criss Cross, & Too Late for Tears), and co-stars Tony Curtis, John McIntire, Barry Kelley, and Leif Erickson.
Duryea is marvelous as always, playing the quintessential sneering oily voiced cynic who’s a sympathetic slick, and snickering ‘bad guy’ that you just have to like.
Howard Duff plays it straight as George Morton a federal narcotics agent who goes undercover to infiltrate a syndicate of criminal heroin smugglers. He enlists the help of childhood pal now convict, Johnny Evans (Dan Duryea) a hoodlum he’s sent to Alcatraz for life. Now getting him sprung so Johnny can help him sneak inside the big drug operation and bust it wide open. Naturally, Johnny hates cops but his wife has just died from an overdose which Morton uses to convince Johnny to help him catch these dangerous drug runners.
Of course, there’s conflict between these two men, as Morton’s on a mission and Johnny’s vowed revenge. Johnny Evans helps Morton get a new identity as they infiltrate the powerful gang of drug dealers.
Morton now using the name of Mike Doyle, Johnny go to Vancouver where McCandles the drug lord uses his floozie blonde Terry to keep an eye on the pair. Like any good gritty and sexy charged thriller Johnny Evans falls for Terry who only only seems to have eyes for Morton. Ah, the eternal triangle lives on as they travel to Tuscon where the dangerous drug deal is about to go down at the Mexican border crossing.
Gangly but wily rancher Nick Avery (John McIntire) doesn’t trust these two from the get-go. The team must be loyal to each other if they want to remain above suspicion. It’s great grist for the noir narrative mill as we must wait and see whether Johnny will sell Morton out to this gang of thugs.
Johnny Stool Pigeon also features a first-time role for a young Tony Curtis who plays a mute pretty boy hired killer who can’t seem to place Morton/Mike Doyle’s face but it’s lurking in his memory from the time they chased Carter and Joey spots them in the hallway. He’d just killed Carter, having been sent there to kill their San Francisco connection so he wouldn’t squeal.
Uncredited bit player Tony Curtis’ only spent a few seconds on screen doing the rumba with Yvonne DeCarlo in Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross ’49, That little spark of sexy flare made Universal realize that they had a star on their hands.
Gang moll blonde Terry is played by Universal’s new voluptuous Shelley Winters. Who begins her long career starting out as a whiny, trashy yet outre charismatic sex pot.
I’ve got a special feature waiting at the Last Drive In’s snack bar all about Shelley Winters and her impressive contribution to film.
Duryea’s character keeps us guessing as to whether he’s going to betray Morton and turn into a ‘stool pigeon’. It’s a great little match-up of the likable Duff and Duryea as they play the eternal unwilling partners in conflict as they journey from San Francisco to Vancouver and then to a luxury ranch in Tucson run by the slimy Nick Avery, as amiable as a snake in the grass.
The film opens with the cloudy seaport of San Francisco. Two feds wait on the docks hats and starched overcoats and staunch stares- they must be feds. Suddenly they see a man with a flashlight and knit cap on the upper deck of a ship. Someone below is signalling with a flashlight. The harbor bells ring out. The man starts to move holding a sack. The feds in pursuit follow into a warehouse, guns drawn. They are two shadows outlined by the darkly cluttered interior of the warehouse.
The feds in neatly ironed shirts and ties tucked uniformly into their overcoats tell the two crooks to put their hands up and stay where they are, but they try to fun for it, shooting their way out. The young sailor is shot dead, and the older man gets away.
A security guard comes out, and one of the feds flashes his badge “I’m Harrison Customs” (Gar Moore) “That’s Morton Narcotics Bureau.”
Morton (Howard Duff) looks at the dead boy’s wallet. “John Whalen age twenty years, only a kid, not a bad kid just foolish”. Morton goes on to narrate- “Someone in Shanghai told him a way to make an easy buck and he believed him. All he needed was luck. And so one night on a Shanghai dock they slipped something into his hand that looked like an ordinary can of tobacco. Only it wasn’t and John Whalen wasn’t lucky.”
This starts the tracking down of one of the biggest narcotic rings in the history of the Bureau. They had a tip that something would be on the vessel sailing from the Orient and that a kid sailor walked off into his death. Now they had to identify the man who got away. He turned out to be an old friend listed by the Bureau as Pete Carter (uncredited Edwin Max)
The two walk into their boss’s office T.H.Benson (Wally Maher)
Benson wants to crack the outfit right away. The ballistic report shows that neither Morton nor Harrison’s gun killed the kid. It was Carter who shot him to keep him quiet.
Morton continues his narration about the manhunt procedure a dull routine that has its shortcuts’ we see several different unsavory characters being questioned, the professional informers who pick up a few precarious dollars selling scraps of information to the authorities.
An informer phones Morton that Carter is at the Zelda apartment house room 303. Joey Hyatt hired hit man (billed as Anthony Curtis) to shoot Carter. While fleeing he sees Morton and Harrison coming up the stairs to question Carter. Hyatt gets away and they find Carter shot dead but not before Joey Hyatt sees Morton’s face.
There goes their lead. It only proves Benson’s hunch that there’s a big outfit behind Carter who are smart and play rough.
They find something in Carter’s apartment. The Arctic World Trading Company a Vancouver outfit shows up in Carter’s little black book. That could lead to something.
They check with Benson. William McCandles (Barry Kelley) runs the company. The Canadian police have no record on him. To do an undercover job you need something to go on, something to get your teeth into. Benson tells them he stays on in this business because of all the debris that drug trafficking leaves behind. He hates the rats associated with that kind of thing. Hates them with every bone in his body.”If people could only see the poor pathetic wrecks that we see every day.” People in jail and at the morgue. Morton starts to look through the reports Benson hands him.
“I think I got a notion. I got I guy who I think can get me into that mob” “Who”
“Johnny Evans” “Are you crazy?”
Morton takes the ferry over to Alcatraz. Johnny comes in and sees Morton who is sitting there stiffly. Johnny coldly stares back. Tells him to sit down but he just stands there. Offers him a cigarette.
Johnny stares at him coldly “Is that all” “That’s all” He asks for an answer Johnny puts his cigarette out on the table rubbing the ashes in hard then flings it at Morton.
“Cut it out, you might be an awful tough man with those hoodlums of yours but to me you’re a dime a dozen”
He offers a deal to take him on the outside for 24 hours. He’ll show him some things and tell him some things after that if he wants to come back, alright no strings.
Morton brings Johnny to the morgue and shows him his wife who died from a heroin overdose. Johnny clenches his jaw, Morton tells the coroner to show him the report, which states Narcotics Addiction.
Morton begins to torment Johnny with the details of how an addict suffers until they eventually die. Johnny begins coiling up from the painful lecture on drug addiction.
Finally, Johnny tells him to shut up. But Morton finishes with, “That’s how she died”
It’s this horrifying recounting of a drug addict’s self-destruction that convinces Johnny to go along with the deal. Johnny is pacing he smashes a glass and tells Morton alright- Duryea is fantastic at playing it tightly wound, in control, and assertive without the hyper-masculine posturing.
Johnny starts to give Morton a crash course on how to fit in with the mob. What clothes to wear? His phony criminal identity was memorized with his new name, Mike Doyle.
They go to Vancouver and meet with William McCandles. He tells him he’s heard of Johnny Evans. asks if he’s been away. He asks if they’d like to trade in the kind of merchandise he handles. He goes to his vault and pulls out a fur stole and gives it to Morton/Mike Doyle to sample.
McCandles starts to question the two and Johnny gets hot and throws the phone at him.
McCandles arranges to have his moll Terry keep close tabs on the two. He sets up a meeting with them at a club that night but is late showing up. The two men dressed like mobsters in wide striped suits and slicked-down hair.
Morton/Mike Doyle asks her about McCandles, “You a friend of his?” she laughs “Yeah I’m a friend” Johnny chimes in, “Lucky fella” – Johnny’s already smitten with Terry.
But Terry Stewart seems more enamored of Mike, she asks him to dance and says he’s kinda cute for a fur merchant. He says no, he’s got business with McCandles but Johnny leads her to the dance floor she says to him, “Ah, the going type.”
Terry hands her drink to Mike and tells him to hold it for her so the ice won’t melt, implying he’s cold.
She asks about Mike. that he seems nice and kind of different from the usual bums who hang around the crummy outfit. “Not that there’s anything wrong with you either.”
Shelley Winters is funny and self-assured in her role as Terry. She doesn’t seem to hesitate at all jumping in as a strong unapologetic female co-star.
She tells him she was brought up in Tucson Arizona wish she’d never left it. Been in that dump for two years. Misses the hot sunny climate. The only time she’d ever been warm was when she went to sleep with a cigarette and set the bed on fire. She asks if Mike is going with him when he leaves.
“Listen sister, if you’re thinking of making a fast switch count him out, I’m telling you for your own good.”
Terry slaps him, he grabs her and then she apologizes and says “I shouldn’t have done that.” She tells him she’s just nervous lately. Johnny tells her to forget it. They go back for drinks and she says “Hello Mac” “Hiya baby”– he tells her to beat it. And they begin working out the details of the job in Tucson.
Terry is waiting for Mike. She begs him to take her with them Back to the States where ever they’re going she can’t stay in Vancouver with Mac any longer and he’d stop her from leaving she can’t do it by herself. Johnny’s listening on the stairs.
When Johnny and Morton board the train for Tucson, they see Terry sitting in one of the cars. He accuses her of MacCandles putting her up to it. “She finally got consent to give that big ape the brush off.” Go back home and work in the hash house.
She admits that but she tells him she’s on the level, she’s been trying to break with McCandles for months. Mike seemed different from the rest of the mugs she’s known like he’s given somebody a break.
When they head to their bungalows Joey the mute hitman spots Morton on the stairs, and it triggers his memory. He stops and thinks about it for a moment. The camera closes in on Curtis’ strikingly swarthy good looks.
Later, Nick holds a gun to Morton/Mike Doyle- while he listens to them beating Johnny up in the other room.
So is he or isn’t he a stool pigeon? I’ll never tell! -MonsterGirl