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Film / The Killer That Stalked New York

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The Killer That Stalked New York is a 1950 Film Noir thriller directed by Earl McEvoy.

Sheila Bennet (Evelyn Keyes) is smuggling diamonds from Cuba to New York City on behalf of her husband, Matt Krane (Charles Korvin). Unbeknownst to either of them, Sheila also brought something else into New York: smallpox. Before long, there is an outbreak of the disease in the city. As public health officials try to contain the outbreak, Dr. Ben Wood (William Bishop) and a team of investigators look for the person who brought the disease to the city to keep them from spreading it to even more people even as the police search for the diamond smuggler, unaware that they are looking for the same person.

The film was very loosely based on a real smallpox outbreak in New York City in 1947.

See also Panic in the Streets, another film from the same year about a disease outbreak in a US city, this time pneumonic plague in New Orleans.

Provides examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Past: Released in 1950, set in 1947.
  • Answer Cut: Sheila's brother Sid tells her "You look like you could kill.", and the scene dissolves to the first fatality of the smallpox outbreak—the porter at Pennsylvania Station, whom Sheila infected and thus indirectly killed.
  • Antagonist Title: The title refers to smallpox, the disease that threatens to cause an epidemic in New York City.
  • Big Bad: Smallpox and the risk it poses to New York City is the main cause of conflict in the movie, though there is some conflict unrelated to it in the subplot about Patient Zero Sheila Bennet's personal life.
  • Brief Accent Imitation: Dr. Wood and his nurse briefly imitate Officer Houlihan's accent when discussing the patient he brought them. It's clear from their tone of voice that they don't agree with Houlihan's assessment that the patient needed immediate medical attention.
    Dr. Wood: Another emergency?
    Nurse: She fainted.
  • Climbing Climax: After killing Moss and disarming Sheila, Matt realises that he won't be able to escape down the stairs because the police will be waiting for him at the bottom, so he decides to climb out the window and jump to an adjacent building instead. Sheila follows him out onto The Precarious Ledge, and is shortly thereafter followed by Dr. Wood in turn.
  • Death of a Child: Walda succumbs to smallpox. Her mother accuses Dr. Wood of being a murderer.
  • Dedication: "To the men and women of public health—the first line of defense between mankind and disease."
  • Definitely Just a Cold: Sheila needs to lean against a lamppost to stay upright, but still turns down help from a police officer. She proceeds to nearly faint, so he walks her to the health office next door to see a doctor. She then tries to sneak off before seeing the doctor. Dr. Wood gives her some medicine and instructs her to see her own doctor. Her condition keeps getting worse, but she doesn't seek medical attention until more than a week later, and then only because she had accidentally left her medicine behind when she ran from the police and needed more. She goes back to Dr. Wood, and is shocked when he tells her that she has smallpox, despite the massive vaccination campaign due to the outbreak that she couldn't possibly have missed.
  • Disaster Movie: The disaster being the beginning of a smallpox outbreak in New York City. The film focuses heavily on the public health response with the authorities trying to contain the outbreak, though there is also a subplot about Patient Zero Sheila Bennet's personal life which is more like a typical Film Noir.
  • Disease-Prevention Aesop: The main focus of the film, which lays out in no uncertain terms how terrible an out-of-control outbreak of smallpox in New York City would be and the importance of vaccinating the population in order to be able to contain it. This was with good reason, as the film is based on a real outbreak of smallpox in New York City in 1947, which was successfully contained. In the film, Health Commissioner Ellis paints a dire picture of what an uncontained smallpox outbreak would be like:
    "We're a threatened city. There's no limit to it, every case spreading out on its own until the very air is polluted and breath means death!"
  • Disney Villain Death: Matt dies by falling to his death after misjudging a jump while trying to escape the police by Roofhopping.
  • Dramatic Irony: When Sheila comes home to her husband Matt, her sister Francie is already there. They make it seem like Francie only just arrived, but the audience knows that Matt is cheating on Sheila with her sister. This leads to the following exchange:
    Sheila: It's good to be home again.
    Francie: Just like old times, the three of us.
    Sheila: Only I'm not sharing my husband with anybody.
  • Dramatization: Instead of just telling the story of the smallpox outbreak in New York City, the film adds a more typical Film Noir subplot with diamond smuggling, infidelity, and revenge.
  • Driven to Suicide: Francie kills herself after being confronted by her sister Sheila about her affair with Sheila's husband Matt.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: Establishing Shots for Washington, D.C., London, and Paris use the Washington Monument, Big Ben, and the Eiffel Tower, respectively.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: The narrator notes the existence of this trope when describing the manhunt for Sheila Bennet.
    "If you were female, five-feet-four, and addicted to the rinse that makes hair the color gentlemen are supposed to prefer, you had to prove you weren't Sheila Bennet."
  • Face-Revealing Turn: The General at the army lab in Washington, D.C. does one of these to reveal that he has previously had smallpox and survived, and has the scars to show for it.
  • A Family Affair: Matt cheats on his wife Sheila with her sister Francie. Sheila finds out about this from Willie, the owner of the nightclub where Matt works.
  • First-Person Smartass: Downplayed. The narrator's humour is subtle, and the delivery deadpan. Examples include referring to blonde hair as "the color gentlemen are supposed to prefer" and calling bellhop "Brainy Danny" an intellectual.
  • Ghost Town: New York City with empty streets, in an Imagine Spot when Dr. Wood imagines what would happen if they fail to contain the smallpox outbreak.
  • The Heavy: While the Big Bad is smallpox causing an outbreak in New York City, Sheila Bennet is the character who causes the most problems for the good guys by (unknowingly) spreading smallpox. She is not quite a bad guy, though she is involved in diamond smuggling.
  • The Hero: Dr. Wood, the first doctor who meets Patient Zero Sheila Bennet (though he did not know she had the disease when he met her) and the doctor caring for the six-year-old girl who would go on to be the first diagnosed case of smallpox. The Health Commissioner puts him in charge of the effort to find whoever is spreading the disease.
  • Hospital Hottie: Dr. Wood and his nurse (played by Dorothy Malone) are quite flirtatious with each other, though she politely turns down an offer to grab a bite.
  • Imagine Spot: Dr. Wood pictures what it would be like if they fail to contain the smallpox outbreak—New York City being a Ghost Town. This leads him to conclude that the only viable course of action is to vaccinate the whole city—all eight million people.
  • In-Series Nickname: "Brainy Danny", a bellhop with a knack for spotting opportunities to make a quick buck.
  • Killed Offscreen: The movie wraps up with the narrator informing us that Sheila succumbed to smallpox after telling the authorities what they needed to know to contain the outbreak.
  • Move Along, Nothing to See Here: At the end of the movie, when Dr. Wood has managed to talk Sheila down from The Precarious Ledge, a policeman tells the crowd of onlookers to go home and "Read about it in the papers tomorrow."
  • Narrator: The beginning and end of the movie, as well as some other moments in the movie such as key points in the public health response, are narrated by an unidentified man who tells us that he lived in New York City at the time of the smallpox outbreak.
  • No Honor Among Thieves: Francie admits to Sheila that she and Matt were planning on cheating Sheila out of her share of the diamond smuggling affair. By the looks of it, Matt was planning on ripping Francie off too, keeping all the profits for himself.
  • Officer O'Hara: Officer Houlihan, who brings Sheila to Dr. Wood's clinic after she almost fainted out on the streets. See Brief Accent Imitation.
  • Oh, Crap!: Several of the medical workers and authority figures have this reaction to the news that there is a smallpox outbreak in New York City. Of special note is Dr. Wood's reaction when he pictures New York City as a Ghost Town as a result of failure to contain the outbreak.
    "We have to stop it! Get to the people first, beat the disease. Vaccinate the whole city!"
  • Patient Zero: Sheila Bennet, the diamond smuggler who brought smallpox into New York City. The authorities scramble to find her after the outbreak has started in order to keep her from spreading the disease to even more people and to be able to find out who she has already been in contact with.
  • Pet the Dog: Sheila is warmly friendly with Walda while they both wait to see Dr. Wood at his clinic. Hearing of Walda's death affects Sheila and convinces her safely off the building ledge.
  • The Plague: Smallpox in New York City, a disease with a case fatality rate of one in three, which spreads easily even by those who have no idea that they have contracted it, in a city of eight million people. The authorities are suitably terrified; while many of them have never even seen a case before, some of them have seen outbreaks firsthand and know how fast the disease can spread, and they all know that one in three of those who are infected die.
  • Plot-Irrelevant Villain: Whereas the Big Bad is smallpox causing an outbreak in New York City and The Heavy is Patient Zero Sheila Bennet for (unknowingly) spreading the disease, the villain of the story is Sheila's husband Matt, who doesn't affect the outbreak but who is really terrible to Sheila in several ways.
  • The Power of Hate: The authorities express surprise that Sheila is still up and about (and evading capture) at a point where she should reasonably be either dead or bedridden. They muse that she has a drive that keeps her moving by sheer force of will. As it turns out, it's her quest for revenge against her husband Matt for betraying her—both by cheating on her with her sister and by cheating her out of her share of the diamond smuggling affair. As the narrator puts it, she has "the strength that comes when a woman has to settle a score with a man like Matt Krane".
  • The Precarious Ledge: Matt tries to evade capture by the police by climbing out of a window onto one of these rather than go down the stairs were they will surely be waiting for him. Sheila goes after him, but she's so delirious from her smallpox infection that she's unable to get off the ledge safely. Dr. Wood has to save her by getting her off it so she doesn't fall to her death.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: All the authority figures in the film are helpful in containing the smallpox outbreak. The Commissioner of Health of the City of New York immediately takes the threat of a widespread epidemic seriously and launches an intense investigation to track down the source of spread, and as soon as he realises that the situation is getting out of control, he goes to the Mayor ("No one told smallpox it's Sunday!"). The Mayor, in turn, provides all resources the Health Commissioner asks for, including the half-million dollars needed to cover the cost of vaccines for eight million people ("At six cents a life, that's a buy."), and makes sure to be the first one to get vaccinated in front of a room full of reporters to get publicity for the vaccination campaign.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Based on the 1947 New York City smallpox outbreak three years prior.
  • Seeking Sanctuary: In order to avoid capture during the manhunt for her, Sheila hides in a convent.
  • Self-Disposing Villain: Matt dies by falling to his death after misjudging a jump while trying to escape the police by Roofhopping.
  • Shout-Out: To Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. See Everyone Loves Blondes, above.
  • Spreading Disaster Map Graphic: Done with a map of Manhattan marked with black flag pins to track the smallpox infections. An ominous fantasy sequence depicts the flags appearing in greater and greater densities on the map, then fades to shots of a vacant city.
  • Tap on the Head: Averted. A few blows to the head is all it takes for Matt to kill Moss.
  • Throw 'Em to the Wolves: Sheila decides against killing Matt when she discovers that he has killed Moss, telling him that she doesn't have to anymore since he'll be executed for murder.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: The main plot focuses on the smallpox outbreak in New York City and the authorities trying to contain it, with a subplot focusing on Patient Zero Sheila Bennet's personal life, with diamond smuggling, infidelity, and revenge.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Sheila, who spreads smallpox to several people—thus starting an outbreak—without even knowing that she has contracted the disease herself.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: There really was an outbreak of smallpox in New York City in 1947, but the specifics have been radically altered for the movie. In Real Life, the index case was not a smuggler but a regular tourist, did not get infected in Cuba but in Mexico, and was not the subject of a contact-tracing manhunt but was rather admitted to hospital before the outbreak really began.
  • Woman Scorned: Sheila finds out that her husband Matt has been cheating on her with her sister Francie, and that the two of them were planning on running off with the profits from the diamond smuggling affair, cheating Sheila out of her share. After Sheila confronts Francie about this and the two of them suspect that Matt was probably planning on running off with the profits without either of them, Francie kills herself. Sheila then decides that she is going to kill Matt. As the narrator puts it, she has "the strength that comes when a woman has to settle a score with a man like Matt Krane".