Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949) “He was a gangster and a hoodlum and he hated every cop that ever breathed.”

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JOHNNY STOOL PIGEON 1949

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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.

Duff and Duryea Johnny Stool Pigeon

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.

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Dan Duryea and Shelley Winters in Winchester 73 photo courtesy of all things Duryea @ http://danduryeacentral.blogspot.com/
Shelley Winters and Dan Duryea Johnny Stool Pigeon
Shelley Winters and Dan Duryea in William Castle’s Johnny Stool Pigeon 1949 promo courtesy of Dan Duryea Central blog spot

It’s an entertaining programmer lensed with a semi-documentary style utilizing the usual noir voice over to aide in the story telling as Howard Duff’s character narrates the action as he goes undercover as Mike Doyle.

Scripted by Robert L. Richards  (Act of Violence 1948)based on a story by Henry Jordan. Using stock music by an uncredited Miklós Rózsa.

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.

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beautiful exterior shots of the Tucson sky

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A young sailor gets off a ship carrying a sack. He’s meeting up with a hood named Carter. They’re trafficking heroine from the Orient.
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Federal Agents Morton and Harrison are in pursuit.

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“get your hands up and stay where you are”

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The young man is shot by his accomplice. Agent Morton looks at his wallet to id him.
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Morton (Howard Duff) goes on to narrate from here-“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.”
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it certainly wasn’t an ordinary can of tobacco

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.

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photo courtesy of Dan Duryea Central Blog Spot

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.

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Dan Duryea as Johnny Evans photo courtesy of Dan Duryea Central Blog Spot
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photo courtesy of Dan Duryea Central Blog Spot

Howard Duff  plays it straight as George Morton a federal narcotics agent who goes undercover to infiltrate a syndicate of criminal heroine 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.

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photo courtesy of Dan Duryea Central Blog Spot

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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’s  in Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross ’49, That little spark of sexy flare made Universal realize that they had a star on their hands.

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doing the rumba with Yvonne DeCarlo’s in Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross ’49

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.

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Criminal Carter gets away
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Federal agents Morton and Harrison with the security guard after Carter escapes

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 signally 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 boys 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 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 bosses office T.H.Benson (Wally Maher)

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Lt. Benson-“Guy like Carter doesn’t play for peanuts… I tell you this guy’s big time, he’s latched onto something… Bring him in with a murder rap hanging over him, he might sing like a canary.”

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 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.

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one of the informants tips them off to where Carter is hiding
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Morton hears gunshots. Classic noir camera work through the iconic staircase
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Joey Hyatt mute hit man flees the scene after he’s sent to off Carter so he doesn’t squeal to the cops
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Finding Carter’s dead body
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Joey notices the two agents

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An informer phones Morton that Carter is at the Zelda apartment house room 303. Joey Hyatt hired hit man (billed as Anthony Curtis) shoots 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 Carters apartment. The Arctic World Trading Company a Vancouver outfit shows up in Carter’s little black book. That could lead to something.

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the two agents head back to headquarters
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“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?”

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 everyday.” 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.

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“Maybe I was crazy, it was a long chance to take… I was the one who sent Johnny Evans up to Alcatraz. I’d know him since we both were kids. He never was a narcotics operator but he was a gangster and a hoodlum and he hated every cop that ever breathed and me most of all.”

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“I want to talk to you. I’ve got a job to do. There’s a big push opening up. We think it begins in Vancouver. A guy named McCandles but we don’t know. We don’t know where it goes from there. We only know there’s a big mob somewhere, a big operation. I want you to get me in. I can’t make any promises but you might do yourself some good.”

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 your’e 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.

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“Sure, you think you get me on the outside and I get a taste of it and I go crazy. Well let me tell you something. I’ll rot in this place forever before I”ll be a stool pigeon for a copper.”
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Morton-“How long you been in here?” Johnny“You know how long” Morton tells him-“Yeah the town’s changed a lot in three years Johnny. New faces new places. All the girls got the new look. What’d you got to lose? Twenty four hours”

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Morton brings Johnny to the morgue and show him his wife who was died from a heroine overdose. Johnny clenches his jaw, Morton tells the coroner to show him the report, which states Narcotics Addiction.

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getting off the ferry from Alcatraz heading for the morgue

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Can you identify her… it’s his wife

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Morton shows him the report- it was drug addiction-heroine overdose
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“You’re all cop aren’t ya, right to the heart”
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Morton tells Johnny– “She was murdered, not your way, not with a gun but she was murdered just the same and she was murdered for money. You know what the score is, you know the racket and the kind of guys that are in it. They killed her for the few bucks they could squeeze out of her every week to get the stuff she needed.”
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Johnny-“I knew she was sick but I never knew she was…”-Morton touch as nails, “She wasn’t sick she was murdered. She was murdered, not your way not with a gun but she was murdered.”

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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.

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“And pretty soon every nerve in their body is screaming, and they’re tearing off their clothes and they’re tearing at their skinny bodies with their nails and screaming. That’s how they die Johnny… screaming”

Finally Johnny tells him to shut up. But Morton finishes with, “That’s how she died”

It’s this horrifying recounting of a drug addicts 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.

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“Alright… but I haven’t forgotten a thing. And if you got any idea you’re gonna come back here and brag about how you made a stool pigeon out of Johnny Evans forget it… because my chance’ll come… and when it does I’ll get you copper, and good.”

Johnny starts to give Morton a crash course in how to fit in with the mob. What clothes to wear. His phony criminal identity memorized with his new name, Mike Doyle.

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“Com’on it’s my neck too if you ever come up with the wrong answer”
“Your clothes are wrong. Get a pair of thirty dollar shoes and a couple a suits. Something sharp.”
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Morton sees Johnny holding a gun to his back in the mirror
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“This things no good, it’s got copper written all over it… get another one and put some bullets in it”
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Benton stops by to see how things are going
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Benton –“I don’t like this and I don’t like you. There better not be anything wrong”

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.

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McCandles shows Morton/Mike Doyle his stash of stolen furs
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Johnny-“Who do you think you’re talking to McCandles a couple a saps. I just spent three years on the rock he spent two you wanna check it” McCandles says take it easy.
“I’ll take it the way I see it. I came here to talk a business deal if you don’t wanna hear it say so but don’t try to play games”
McCandles-“Take it easy Johnny just like to make sure who I’m dealing with that’s all”
“Well now you know”

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.

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They see Terry at the table and sit down. She cracks-“What are you a couple of new recruits for the goon squad.”

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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.”

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Terry hands her drink to Mike and tells him to hold it for her so the ice won’t melt, implying he’s cold.

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As Johnny and Terry begin to dance he hesitates holding her. “Don’t be scared. I bruise easy but I won’t break.”
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Johnny- “This is the first time I danced with a girl in three years”
Terry-“What’s a matter you got something against girls?” “Where I’ve been they didn’t have any girls.”
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“Listen sister if you’re thinking of making a fast switch”

She asks about Mike. that he seems nice and kind of different than 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 with 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 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.

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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 siting 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 give somebody a break.

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Morton gives Terry a hard time for showing up on the train. He doesn’t believe that McCandles didn’t send her to spy on them
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“Look Mike, there are some things that it isn’t easy for a girl to say. Even for a girl like me. Maybe now’s a time to say em. I’ve had a pretty rugged life. But I learned one lesson. There’s only one thing in the whole world you can count on. The only thing I ever wanted or have wanted. That’s money, and I don’t care how I get it. You may not think so but I’ll always land on my feet. I’m pretty smart. I know what i got on the ball. If you can’t use it okay…where your going they’ll be somebody who can. I’m not going back to that hash house Mike. Not me, not ever.”
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“Unless she goes, I aint goin”
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Morton watches the love birds walk off
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Morton meets his boss Benton when he gets off the train who tells him
“The only thing you got on this guy, the only thing that’s keeping him in line is a girl, a dead girl, a memory. So he gets a new girl what do you think’s gonna happen.”
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Heading to the ranch, the trio are such a happy bunch
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Johnny buys Terry some new clothes, for her to wear to the ranch.

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Checking into the ranch-reservations for three
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Joey thinks he recognizes Morton but can’t seem to place his face

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The slimy ranch owner Nick introduces himself to Morton and Johnny

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Slimy Nick starts moving in on Terry

When they head to their bungalows Joey the mute hit man 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.

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“Who’s your side kick?” “He signed his name look on the register” “You never worked with him before. What’s the angle?” “He’s banking for me he’s got the doe.” “He’s a fed isn’t he?” – We hear slaps and punches and groans.“Sure- he’s Sherlock Holmes” “Make it easy for yourself sucker we just broke him down he told us he was a fed” “Yeah sure sure he did.”
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Nick says “That’s enough Charlie… Well I guess the boys are on the level.”

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Johnny’s drunk and Nick walks in with Terry on his arm, while Joey watches silently. It’s still bugging him where he’s seen Morton’s face.

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“Only a cop could be that dumb. She wants you, don’t you know that yet. Yes you. do you think I brought her along for myself. I brought her because she’s a decent kid I didn’t want to see her end up on a slab too.” Because I thought when you saw how she felt about you you’d at least give her a break, try to help her. Because I was chump enough to think that you really cared about what happened to people. “
“Well you’re not kidding me anymore. You don’t care about people. To you it’s nothing but a game. Hide and Seek… Cops and Robbers. Anything goes as long as you come in the winner. You’re not a man. You’re what you always have been and always will be… a rotten stinkin… “
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Morton slugs Johnny
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It finally clicks where Joey knows Morton from

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So is he or isn’t he a stool pigeon? I’ll never tell!  -MonsterGirl

12 thoughts on “Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949) “He was a gangster and a hoodlum and he hated every cop that ever breathed.”

    1. I have totally become a fan of Duryea myself and Stool Pigeon is a great vehicle for him. I always found him appealing, but getting deeper into the film and his style really made him grow on me all the more… And well, there’s something about Shelley Winters that fascinates me…

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  1. Not to be a metoobie but I too LOVE Dan Duryea. I have to see this. This blogathon is making me root through my collection for more titles… And Tony Curtis is just impossibly young and cute. Speaking of Duryea’s style (I’ve repeated this factoid so many times I must bore people, but hey, it’s cool) his hairdo was copied by Jerry Lee Lewis

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    1. Really, Lewis copied his hair!!! I love little factoids like this. Duryea’s got something… And Curtis holy cow was he sexy when he was young. He plays a mute in Johnny Stool Pigeon though his bronx woulda fit the role just fine. It’s Sparticus that makes me laugh, though I love the guy too… That’s why I love blogathons too, because you find out even more little nuggets and films you’d never think to watch- so glad you’re enjoying it…. we appreciate you

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  2. Holy cats, Joey! The only thing cooler than Duff, Duryea, and Winters in JOHNNY STOOL PIGEON is having young Tony Curtis as a mute thug! It’s making this native New Yorker-by-way-of-the Bronx do a little happy dance a la Snoopy! :-) I swear, the William Castle Blogathon is a treasure trove of film lore! Excellent post, Jo, as always, and BRAVA again to you and Patti as co-blogger Empresses! :-D

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  3. As a ’60s monsterkid I of course came to know and love Bill Castle through his gimmicky horror-thrillers. It’s only fairly recently that I’ve come to appreciate his pre-Macabre B movie contributions. Wish the availability of some of these more obscure movies was better.

    P.S.: No one wore a pin-stripe suit or a sneer better than Duryea (although the western get-up is egregious). And there was no better noir doll than Shelley Winters. :)

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    1. Oh I love when just a word from a clever friend brings out the belly laugh or spit take in me. This was the latter. Yes Duryea’s bad guy noir was slicker than his western persona, though I loved him in that Twilight Episode with the elixir. It is so hard to find some of these obscure Castle films. I want to see The Hollywood Story and can’t find it. – And of course Brian you and I are in sync about Miss Winters. There’s just something I don’t know how to frame it yet, something about her that fascinates me. I’ve got a draft set to go with a huge feature on her life and her films. And it’s a family tradition every new years now to watch the Poseidon Adventure and scream ‘Not this woman” when Olympic swimmer Winters goes under water to help Gene Hackman. It’s a highlight of the festivities in our house. I like you Monsterkid- let’s play

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