Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949)

Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949) is a film noir caper which satisfies with its buddy-movie flavour, and location-hopping road movie feel.

Starring Howard Duff, Dan Duryea, Shelley Winters and a young Tony 'Anthony' Curtis, Johnny Stool Pigeon cuts its chops on role reversal, as dyed-in-the-wool copper Howard Duff toughens up to the wrong side of the law, becoming an undercover hood in order to bust a massive drug ring.

Not many films from the 1940s tackle the new-ish science of drug abuse, but Johnny Stool Pigeon does. 

Evidence of product itself and its effects are kept to a minimum, and so most of the caper is spent as Dan Duryea, already a criminal on the inside, helps show conservatively acting and dressing Howard Duff, how it is done on the dark side.

First, you gotta wear a snappy suit, and thirty dollar shoes. But is that enough for Howard Duff to lose his straight-guy copper flavour?

We'll have to see. He's up against amazing rising young star Anthony Curtis; and veteran John McIntire in a villainous suit of rodeo gear.

A super-zippy cast makes Johnny Stool Pigeon a certain stop on the Film Noir Flight Funicular, and even if none of it delves too deep into the darks of the culture of America and its mind, Johnny Stool Pigeon is a caper, and should be regarded as such.

Sometimes fun and capers are all you need, and Johnny Stool Pigeon is a low key film noir production insofar as it manages all this without straying into 'classics' territory.

More hat wearing

Credit may well be due to Howard Duff, who makes the grade twice in Johnny Stool Pigeon, as he manages successful buddy-pairings with both Shelley Winters and Dan Duryea. These have to be the pins that make such a hard-working non-classic film noir so much fun and worth the effort.

Howard Duff and Shelley Winters hit it off

Tony Curtis

The 'bars' shot is a film noir staple
Here seen with sulky Shelley Winters

Drug addiction plays its role as something of a new crime that nobody knows anything about, is shrouded in secrecy almost, and yet treaded as so horrific that even criminals (Dan Duryea) are against it. Old school versus new school crime is as relevant a theme as any. And when we do get to the real villain of the piece, he is every bit as horrible and worth the wait.

Like James Mason's character Phillip Vandamm in North by Northwest, John McIntire plays a bad-guy with a plane.

The bad guys with aeroplanes are a top sort of top slot guys in the fraternity of villainy and their planes always promise a great denouement. 

The denouement in Johnny Stool Pigeon might even be better than the denouement in North by Northwest. First the interior of the villain's plane is leopard skin. It is an amazing get out for a plane and as tacky as the rodeo costumes John McIntire habitually appears in up until he is revealed.

John McIntire and Shelley Winters
Leopardskin interior villain's aeroplane

Spoiler - amazing game of chicken

And for more fun kicks than your average forties thriller-chaser, the aeroplane plays chicken with a car, which is unmissable, and for 1949, shows true cinematic vision. This villain is John McIntire by the way, and even with such a great cast here, he is up for some scene-stealin'.

McIntire, a regular on horseback in Westerns from 1940, to 1989 (if Turner and Hooch can be called a Western - sorry); and also the character of Sheriff Al Chambers in Psycho (1960); is  excellent as the criminal mastermind, and fools viewers as regularly in the 2020s as he did in the 1940s, here comin' across all good ole boy, and very much the country party guy.

More great casting, more great acting, you might well be on to a Hollywood gem here.

McIntire, as a character actor, made several film noirs before seeming to settle into a long run of Westerns; and he is in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and in another Classic Film Noir favourite, The Raging Tide of 1951; The Street With No Name (1948); Call Northside 777 (1948); also see An Act of Murder (1948).

The tepid film review from  The New York Times, film review, September 23, 1949, does sum things up to a degree. More than just to a degree:

"Despite a serious attempt at authenticity it is merely a brisk cops-and-smugglers melodrama, which follows an obvious pattern and is fairly strong on suspense and short on originality and impressive histrionics ... Howard Duff, who has had plenty of experience as a gumshoe both on the radio and in films, is appropriately self-effacing, hard and handsome as the intrepid agent. Dan Duryea adds a surprising twist to his usual characterizations of tough hombres as the convict who turns on his own kind, and Shelley Winters gives a credible performance as the blonde moll who also gives the law a much-needed assist. But aside from a few variations their crime and punishment adventures are cast in a familiar mold."

And this may have been a fair review in its day, but in the 2020s this familiarity has a quality deep beyond the imaginings of the golden era's producers, directors and actors. 

Johnny Stool Pigeon is still not however film noir with a powerful message; it just has a powerful cast. And packs a powerful pigeon-punch of fun. Pigeon-punches of fun are good though, and above all this is a triumph for Howard Duff, who holds down the two key relationships that keep the fun-a-rolling.

Cheese of cheese, of all cheese; the ending of Johnny Stool Pigeon is rare also in film noir, in that it has a cheesy ending; it's cheese of cheese; and a rare sight on the dark side.

So the dark side has a heart, and now and then it's a heart of cheese; film noir buddy movie crossover heaven; the cheesy ending; a rare slice when it comes to film noir.

Cheese de la Cheese
Dan Duryea
Shelley Winters
Howard Duff

Johnny Stool Pigeon on Wikipedia

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