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.