Thursday, May 29, 2014

Death in Small Doses (1957, Joseph M. Newman)

Joseph M. Newman's Death in Small Doses peaks with its great title and sensationalist poster art (illustrated above) and, from there, is never as fun as it should be given its basic elements: truckers, illicit "thrill pills," and the open road.

The effective title sequence shows a delirious trucker swerving all over a country road and trying to pop some amphetamine pills, before finally crashing and burning in most dramatic fashion.  Responding to this incident, which is part of an epidemic of "bootleg bennies" causing havoc in the trucking industry, is square-jawed federal agent Peter Graves, who delivers one of the all-time painfully stiff performances.  The character is as wooden as the performance, so much so that I can't imagine a viewer who doesn't root for someone to successfully slip him a benny at some point in the film. He poses as a trucker and makes his way to the rooming house of widow Mala Powers, whose husband was the driver killed in the film's opening.

Mink's always in the action.
Down the hall is wild man Chuck Connors, whose name here is one of the screenplay's best inventions: "Mink Reynolds."  Connors is constantly in motion, being obnoxiously boisterous and grabby, playing jazz records too loud, looking to party and get crazy, and, above all, get his hands on some more of those beautiful white bennies. But, he's not only in it for himself; he recognizes fellow driver "Tom" (Graves) as someone who needs some loosening up and, like a good friend, tries to give him the same experience.  You don't need me to tell you how that goes.

It's too bad the film never really deviates at all from its straight-shooting 1950s B-movie path; it's predictably, though still annoyingly, moralistic and judgmental in its attitude towards truckers like Mink who go off the reservation and threaten '50s normalcy.  He's balanced a bit by Graves' tortured, older driving partner Wally (Roy Engel) who gives voice to the universal plight of the tired, overworked trucker who turns to "benny" to give him the needed pep to make it through one more night on the road.

The film is best when Connors is on screen, of course, and when potential lovers Graves and Powers are together, as it is not entirely clear what each character's motivations are with regards to the other. It's the one aspect of the film with an air of ambiguity and unpredictability, qualities that are in too short supply in this programmer, which is not brisk enough even at only 79 minutes.

The Warner Archive disc is marketed as part of the Collection's "Film Noir" brand, but there's really nothing more to that than marketing. The disc is feature-less (not that it cries out for any) and A/V quality is by no means remarkable, but it's 16x9 and that's the main thing.

No comments: