4 February 2002 | bmacv
The feds infiltrate heroin ring; good cast in routine noir
Federal agents risking mortal danger to infiltrate criminal syndicates supply one of the basic templates for film noir. The crooks can variously be counterfeiters (as in T-Men) or traffickers in illegal laborers (as in Border Incident) or, here in Johnny Stool Pigeon, heroin smugglers.
Those first two films were by the resourceful Anthony Mann; Johnny Stool Pigeon is by William Castle, no Mann but later to become the king of cheapie horror flicks after an apprenticeship in noir (his When Strangers Marry may be the best of his juvenilia).
It's a creditable if not especially memorable effort, thanks mostly to a cast headed by Dan Duryea, Howard Duff, Shelly Winters (in her sexpot phase) and, in a non-speaking part, young Tony Curtis (here billed as "Anthony," a better billing than he got in the same year's Criss Cross, where his manic rhumba with Yvonne De Carlo went uncredited).
Narcotics cop Duff knows his only chance to crack an international drug ring is by springing a convict (Duryea) whom he'd help put in Alcatraz. The oil-and-water team of unwilling partners travels from San Francisco first to Vancouver then, gang moll Winters in tow, to a dude ranch near Tucson run by the mob.
The plot's volatility depends on the possibility of Duff's being sold out by Duryea or recognized by Curtis, who spends half the movie knitting his brows in an effort to remember where he'd seen Duff before. Reckoning finally comes at a dangerous drug buy at the Nogales border crossing.
As a straight arrow, Duff's not bad, though in more ambivalent roles in movies like Shakedown or The Naked City, he can turn into a slithery chameleon. The reliable Duryea does his soured cynic number -- he had it down pat by now. Winters adds a dash of hot sauce, but it's a sketched-in part at best. Johnny Stool Pigeon adds up to a pretty routine hour-and-a-quarter of noir -- but that's far from faint praise.