It’s interesting to watch movies that might be described as halfway house efforts, they have an air about them of remote outposts on clinging on at the frontier of genres, one eye fixed on a particular set of circumstances and the other looking in a different direction like a sort of cinematic Janus. Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949) has a touch of that, casting ahead to the rapidly approaching decade where the focus would shift firmly to tales of a society under threat from shadowy but large scale criminal organizations while still retaining a concern for the battered and bruised individuals who represent the life blood of the genre.
A federal sting aimed a netting a drugs courier just off a boat in San Francisco leads to the suspect taking a bullet during a chase through a dockside warehouse. The agent who had been hoping to make an arrest is Morton (Howard Duff) and he’s the insistent type. Running down the man who did the shooting is easy enough, but picking him up in order to apply a bit of pressure proves trickier. Organized crime is dependent on tip offs and betrayals, and so it is that word filters through of what the authorities have in mind. The result? Another mouth silenced and another link cut out of the chain leading back to the narcotics suppliers. This is all routine stuff so far, but the apparent brick wall confronting Morton calls for some creative thinking, and enlivens the story as a consequence. His reasoning is that if the organization can’t be broken from the outside, then it will have to be done from the inside. The problem of course is how to get in. The key to unlocking that particular door rests in the hands of Johnny Evans (Dan Duryea), a hood and gangster serving time in Alcatraz thanks to the efforts of Morton, and nursing the kind of deeply felt grudge one might expect. Conveniently, from Morton’s standpoint at any rate, Evans’ wife has recently died from the effects of drug addiction so there’s plenty of emotional leverage on hand. Forming an uneasy alliance, Morton (now going under the name of Doyle) and Evans head first to Vancouver in Canada and then back down south to Arizona on the trail of the head of the syndicate. While all this is taking place, there is an added complication provided by Terry (Shelley Winters), a girl keen to escape the clutches of the mob.
Frankly, the gangbusters element of the story is by the numbers stuff, well enough executed but hardly riveting. Any plot that makes use of the lawman going undercover trope naturally generates suspense and tension, and that is certainly true here. I guess the involvement of a potentially hostile figure such as that portrayed by Duryea adds a touch of uncertainty, although there aren’t really any jaw-dropping twists in store. For all that, the movie is entertaining in the way so many Universal-International crime pictures are. It displays a brisk lack of pretension, a utilitarian stylishness that is alluring. William Castle is best known these days for those horror and thriller movies he concentrated on from the late 1950s onward. However, his credits in the preceding years show the breadth of his body of work. He worked in many genres and deserves more recognition for the frequently tight and fast-moving westerns, adventures and crime movies he cut his teeth on. When Johnny Stool Pigeon was made he had just moved to Universal-International after spending years working on a number of series for Columbia, such as Crime Doctor (somebody please release a set of these enjoyable B pictures!) and The Whistler. The economical shooting and storytelling style of these low budget movies would stay with him and inform much of his subsequent work.
I have seen and enjoyed so many Dan Duryea performances over the years. Broadly speaking, he tended toward two characteristic types. On the one hand, there was the sly, wheedling good-for-nothing, slouching from one cheap subterfuge to another. On the other hand, he could be a loud, booming braggart, a strutting peacock daring all to challenge his brashness. His role in Johnny Stool Pigeon is something of a hybrid, with a couple of real firecracker scenes that have him cutting loose and barking at Barry Kelley and Howard Duff respectively, as well as more subtle, yet paradoxically more powerful and affecting, moments such as his visit to the morgue to identify the body of his wife. Threaded trough the whole performance though is that air of tough melancholy he always wore. He had about him the aura of a man assailed by wry bitterness and relentlessly pursued by some nameless regret.
Howard Duff enjoyed a fairly successful run from the late 1940s till the middle of the next decade as a lead of the square -jawed variety. I wouldn’t say he had great range but he was an agreeable screen presence. He is rather aloof in Johnny Stool Pigeon, distant and frankly stiff in many scenes. In his defense, the role he was playing was that of a man in an especially precarious position, one who would have needed to maintain a cool and icy grip on himself at all times. Still, the contrast with Duryea’s full-blooded performance is marked. Shelley Winters weighs in with a credible mixture of street-smart and vulnerable, and her character’s influence on both her co-stars and the eventual resolution of the story is noteworthy. In support, John McIntire is typically impressive, his back-slapping bonhomie masking a dry, cold core. Tony Curtis, in one of his earliest appearances, has the role of a mute assassin. He may not have had any dialogue but he gets plenty of screen time to glower and brood.
Johnny Stool Pigeon was another movie that was impossible to view in anything other than the crummiest condition until Kino released it recently. It’s not going to make anyone’s list of the best films noir, and just about everyone involved would make stronger movies. Nevertheless, it is very watchable and enjoyable, brief and pacy and possessed of that appealing Universal-International vibe this viewer generally finds irresistible.