This ’50s drug epic is not about hopheads on dope but working folk frying their brains on amphetamines. Peter Graves’ undercover narc seeks the source of deadly pills that are wreaking havoc in the trucking industry; the film’s wild card is an unhinged Chuck Connors — yes, that Chuck Connors — as a deranged pill-popper running amuck on the highways. Seat belts recommended.
Death in Small Doses
The Warner Archive Collection
1957 / B&W / 1:85 enhanced widescreen / 79 min. / Street Date January 8, 2013 / available through the WBshop / 17.99
Starring: Peter Graves, Mala Powers, Chuck Connors, Merry Anders, Roy, Roy Engel, Robert Williams, Harry Lauter, Claire Carleton, John Dierkes, Robert Shayne.
Cinematography: Carl Guthrie
Film Editor: William Austin
Original Music: Robert Wiley Miller, Emil Newman
Written by John McGreevy, from an article by Arthur L. Davis
Produced by Richard V. Heermance
Directed by Joseph M. Newman
The picture that crosses the forbidden territory… of THRILL PILLS!
What with the deadly opiates epidemic presently haunting the evening news it seems appropriate to return to the glorious 1950s when substance abuse was a hush-hush topic. If the statistics can be believed those Americans not drinking themselves into early graves were already hooked on the decade’s new wonder drugs. Because the Production Code frowned on storylines that suggested that citizens in our great country could ever have such sordid problems, stories about drug addiction weren’t exactly encouraged. Producer-director Otto Preminger had to defy the system to make his 1955 The Man with the Golden Arm. Less successful then but now a classic is the Nicholas Ray/John Houseman psychodrama Bigger than Life (1956): when he gets hooked on the new wonder drug cortisone, James Mason’s schoolteacher undergoes scary personality changes, literal delusions of grandeur.
At a time when hard drugs and marijuana were associated with hopheads and delinquents, upscale housewives were popping tranquilizers. An implied subtext in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers associates the plague of dehumanization with pills like Meprobamate, aka Miltown. Although the effects of abuse were likely all around them, ‘nice’ people didn’t like the subject. Magazine stories with drug abuse themes more often than not involved isolated tragedies. Newspapers that regularly reported on drug problems in poor neighborhoods would voluntarily suppress similar news stories from upscale neighborhoods.
Small movies marketed as exploitation features got deeper into the drug culture around 1958, with A.I.P.’s teenaged weed-sellers in The Cool and the Crazy and Warners’ high school heroin-fest Stakeout on Dope Street, the first movie directed by Irvin Kershner. Beating them to the draw was Death in Small Doses, a poetically-titled undercover law enforcement tale with no teenage presence whatsoever. Although the film’s advertising art doesn’t lie, viewers expecting criminal hoodlums were likely surprised to find that the film’s main focus is the less glamorous world of long-haul trucking.
John McGreevy’s serviceable screenplay was suggested by a story in the Saturday Evening Post. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration tells its agent Tom Kaylor (Peter Graves) that the abuse of amphetamine pills called Benzedrine (bennies) is making the highways unsafe and taking a toll on the trucking industry. Many drivers use the illegally- obtained pills to stay awake on long trips. When they break down with hallucinations, terrible accidents occur, such as the nighttime wreck seen in an opening prologue. Posing as a widower looking for work, Kaylor takes a room in the boarding house of Val Owens (Mala Powers), herself the widow of a driver. Val takes an instant liking to Tom. Fellow boarder Mink Reynolds (Chuck Connors) is a wild man who drives a T-bird convertible. Mink never seems to rest, even when he’s just a few hours from a long shift. His first day on the job Tom witnesses the sudden death of a former driver, Shug (John Dierkes), who wouldn’t lay off the bennies. And the friendly veteran driver who breaks him in, Wally Morse (Roy Engel) admits to using the pills as well.
Tom is careful not to be too interested in the source of the pills: Wally’s own curious inquiries lead to a very bad outcome. Pairing up with Mink is a scary ride. The hyperactive driver burns off energy by running wild on dancing dates, and does the same thing at any road cafe with a juke box. Tom has difficulty locating the source of the thousands of illegal pills. Truck stop waitress Amy Phillips (Merry Anders) falls sick and her boss Dunc Clayton (Robert Williams) tries to cover up the reason. Tom’s attentions to Val become more serious around the time that Mink’s pill use pushes him over the edge into aggressive, paranoid behavior. Hallucinating, Mink almost wrecks their truck at high speed. Tom is wondering what happened to the missing Amy, when another waitress Mabel (Claire Carleton) slips him a secret letter from the woman.
An Allied Artists production, Death in Small Doses was produced by Richard Heermance, an editor and producer that had worked closely with Walter Mirisch since the postwar Monogram days when the disadvantaged company was struggling to survive in a hostile business environment. Some of the crew on this show started with Mirisch back on his first feature Fall Guy, and moved with the executive to western productions when the famed Mirisch Corporation was in its infancy. The director is Joseph M. Newman, who moved up to features during the war, worked for several studios and is best known for the excellent film noir 711 Ocean Drive and the science fiction classic This Island Earth.
The show benefits from good performances. Just establishing himself as a mid-range leading man, Peter Graves shows why he worked so steadily: he’s a no-nonsense actor who seldom blew a dialogue line or needed a second take. Graves may be slightly bland, but he never disappoints. His Tom Kaylor is serious at all times, yet Graves allows little smiles to break through now and then, as if a funny thought just passed through Tom’s mind. When Graves much later starred in the farce Airplane! he played his Captain Clarence Oveur the exact same way, to hilarious effect: ‘disaster looms, but I just had an amusing thought.’
The big reason to see this particular show is Chuck Connors. The 6’6″ future cowboy star performs here as he never did before or since — throwing caution to the winds. The extroverted, chemically-revved up Mink Reynolds plays loud music and chases girls with abandon, and when he’s on the bennies he’s a hyperactive menace. Connors practically blasts off the screen. He’s a finger-snapping, jive-talking dervish, scooping up the tiny Claire Carleton even as she tries to wait tables:
“Hey, I’m in a dancing mood. I say, c’mon Mabel!”
When the pills drive Connors into a psychotic state he becomes genuinely scary, going nuts right in the cab of a truck barreling down the highway. The actor is so big even Peter Graves can’t control him — he’s like the dog in the Marmaduke cartoon. Connors’ overacting fits the story well. He was encouraged to go completely over the top only a few times, such as in the ill-conceived gangster tale 99 & 44/100% Dead.
Thanks to the believable dialogue the film’s leading ladies come off rather well. The downside is that both women are restricted to just a couple of sets, which makes their roles seem compartmentalized. Mala Powers’ Val Owens is appealing, especially in the low-key scenes where she and Peter Graves’ tenant compare personal histories. Powers’ career crested early, not long after her co-starring role in José Ferrer’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Her more interesting films — Outrage, City that Never Sleeps, The Colossus of New York — were not the kind to attract major attention.
The interesting Merry Anders has much less screen time. Her Amy exits early; the unhappy waitress doesn’t really connect with Graves and we’re confused when she doesn’t return at the end. Another busy actress that never got close to the big time, Anders began under contract to Fox. We know her for bright performances in scattered genre favorites that would likely be overlooked. She has a lead in the weird but awkward The Night Runner and a small part in the much classier Tracy/Hepburn picture Desk Set. Outside of her constant TV work, memorable Merry Anders jaunts include more genre oddities: The Hypnotic Eye, The Time Travelers.
That leaves a trio of unglamorous parts played by older male movie veterans whose faces we know but whose names usually escape us. Roy Engel sells some just-okay speeches about the curse of Bennies; he’s best remembered as the cop to whom Edmond O’Brien tells his sad story in the classic noir D.O.A.. Robert Williams’ mechanic plays an important part in the film’s violent ending but the script doesn’t pay off his character. Val Owens’ business friend Steve Hummel is played by Harry Lauter, who may take the prize for the most familiar yet least place-able face of his time. The screenplay’s only clumsy move comes when we hear that Steve’s job has something to do with pharmaceuticals, but the actor becomes a formidable presence at the finale. Lauter’s list of mostly small parts stretches on forever, but the only show in which I can mentally place him is The Day the Earth Stood Still — he does a great bit as the platoon leader who first encounters Klaatu on the D.C. baseball diamond.
Death in Small Doses delivers interesting characters and action but not the sordid thrills promised by the drug mania subgenre — there are no unsavory views of needles and other paraphernalia to anger the censors, and no drug-ravaged teenaged addicts with sores on their arms. No matter how one films them little pills aren’t a particularly shocking sight. Death’s two main attractions more than compensate. The crazed Chuck Connors will convince viewers that pill-popping will turn a healthy ex- ball player into a raving Bull in a China Shop.
The show is given a boost by realistic action footage of big-rig trucks on the open highway. Other ’50s program pictures about out-of-control truck action — Violent Road, Plunder Road — stage much of their cross-country driving off-road or in Griffith Park. Death feels authentic. We see stretches of mainline highway by both day and night, perhaps in the Grapevine north of Los Angeles. When Connors’ Mink goes nuts and starts weaving through traffic, the special stunt footage is very convincing.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD of Death in Small Doses is a smart remaster of this now-obscure thriller dramatizing the epidemic of pill-popping. Carl Guthrie’s fine B&W exteriors add greatly to the film’s realism and his interiors never feel like over-lit boxy sets. The active music score helps as well, without telegraphing action climaxes.
Death in Small Doses was released to the Archive Collection in 2013 and labeled a film noir, which it is not. But I was always aware of the title, which certainly feels noir. Unconnected to the movie it was a catchphrase for us back in college when any awful job or grind situation needed exaggeration — dealing with relatives, suffering through a bad relationship. Although we were having the time of our lives scraping by in Santa Monica, you wouldn’t know it by our speech patterns. We soon picked up on Robert Mitchum hipster-isms with similar negative connotations, like ‘I’m on a journey to the end of the night.’ I probably only think I’ve outgrown such speech patterns.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Death in Small Doses
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 19, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson