It’s just one cruel joke after another. An executed man is brought back to life, only to be shot dead minutes later. A noble doctor who has devoted his life to serving the poor is seduced and duped by the world’s most avaricious woman, who shrewdly points out, “You like to smell the perfume I use. This perfume costs $75 a bottle.” Her partner in crime enjoys gloating over her victims, only to become one of them when she stomps on the gas pedal while he changes a flat tire. As she lies dying, the woman asks the cop who has hounded but reluctantly admires her to “come down to my level, just once”; then as he finally succumbs and leans in for a kiss, she laughs in his face. For a finale, the box of loot she died for turns out to be filled with worthless scrap-paper. It’s the decoy; so is she; and so is money, the love-substitute, sex-substitute, life-substitute that makes this grubby world go round.
Like Detour, which may actually have cost Monogram about 50 cents more to make than Decoy, this is a movie that benefits from its shoestring budget. Only Poverty Row would produce a Hollywood movie that opens in the filthiest of gas station bathrooms, a place so coated in clinging grime that you’ll want to don surgical gloves to adjust your TV during this scene. The man grotesquely trying to clean his hands in the blackened sink gazes at himself in the greasy shard of a mirror. He shambles like Frankenstein’s monster in his boxy suit, because he’s dying of multiple bullet wounds and paralyzed by the most rudimentary B-movie acting.
He’s the noble doctor, who staffs a clinic in a poor neighborhood with the help of a good-hearted nurse, a wholesome Florence Nightingale with the bosom and the wavy, waist-length blonde hair of a Barbie doll. Not everyone in the film is strictly grade Z, however. The wised-up cop who unravels the case, in between munching hard-boiled eggs and slapping around low-level miscreants, is played by adorable-mug Sheldon Leonard, whose Guys and Dolls accent begs to be served up with mustard and extra garlic pickles. The executed man, who is briefly revived through the administration of something called Methelyne Blue, is played by pre-Code stalwart Robert Armstrong, whose luck with dames is no better here than it ever was. And Margot, the femme fatale at the center of the web, is animated with diabolical phosphorescence by Jean Gillie.
It is a curious fact that while femmes fatales are largely absent from British noir, two of the fiercest were portrayed by British actresses, Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy and the equally white-hot, platinum-haired Gillie here. When English roses go bad, they are the most toxic of blossoms. While American Ann Savage’s Vera (in Detour) still takes the prize for sheer nastiness, no femme fatale is more brazen in her money-lust than Margot. She has a long speech in which she tells the doctor that she came from a crummy neighborhood like the one he serves, and she’ll do anything to avoid going back there. She becomes almost frenzied with excitement as she gets closer to her buried treasure, laughably suggestive as she urges her male slave to dig for it, “Faster! Faster!” But her glee is almost childlike as she cries, “Hurry! I’ve got money singing in my brain!”
Jean Gillie was known as a comedienne in Britain, and Decoy was her only brush with noir. The director, Jack Bernhard, was her husband, and it is perhaps not surprising that their marriage was short-lived. She returned to England, where she tragically died of pneumonia in 1949, aged 33. Perhaps she caught a chill playing one of the coldest women on film.
by Imogen Smith