Jean Gillie, a radiant, redheaded British actress, gave a delightfully wicked performance as Margot Shelby in Decoy (1946) and made that movie a minor noir classic. Gillie was born Jean Mabel Coomber in Kensington, England, October 1915. She became a singer, dancer, actress and chorus girl, entering British film in 1935 with small parts in light comedies and musicals, including Smith’s Wives, School for Stars, and It Happened in Paris, a very early Carol Reed picture. Gillie’s first major role came in 1936’s This’ll Make You Whistle, the story of a four day party and nightclub crawl. Costarring with her in Whistle was the man credited with “discovering” her as a musical talent; London musical-comedy stage entertainer Jack Buchanan, described by many as the British Fred Astaire (ironically, he is best known in American film for his role in Astaire’s the Band Wagon).
Gillie did more musical roles, most notably Sweet Devil (1938) which spotlighted her dancing. In 1940, she was in the pulp hero adaptation The Spider, starring Derrick De Marney (then best known for Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent, 1937). That same year Gillie landed the title role in Tilly of Bloomsbury, the first wartime film production by UK’s Riverside studios, which had been bought in 1939 by the aforementioned Jack Buchanan. Gillie was next in The Gentle Sex (1943), a wartime morale-booster directed, produced and narrated by Leslie Howard and costarring Lilli Palmer, Joan Greenwood, in the story of a group of women joinging the British Auxiliary Territorial Service. Gillie appeared in the Saint meets the Tiger (1943), the second of 2 British-made Saint films starring Hugh Sinclair. Flight From Folly (1945), was another musical, and her last in a string of similar roles that had established her and earned her the title “the British Ginger Rogers”. With a reputation like that, who could possibly have expected the menacing, evil, death-dealing performance Gillie was about to unleash on movie audiences?
“She treats men the way they’ve been treating women for years… she two-times, steals, cheats, double-crosses”—that was the promo copy for Decoy, which came out 1946. The credits bill Gillie as a newcomer, which she was to American audiences, and what a “debut” Decoy was. She played a scenery chewing, greedy, murderous villainess who kisses and kills, with a memorable laugh rivaling (and predating!) Richard Widmark’s in Kiss of Death (1947). She racks up a body count stopped only by her own demise, which is no spoiler—the film opens with her playing the dying moll Margot Shelby, who tells in flashback how she brought her gangster boyfriend Robert Armstrong back to life after his execution by cyanide, with the help of prison doctor Herbert Rudley and the magical life-giving chemical Methylene Blue. She needed Armstrong alive, so she could find and dig up the $400,000 he stole and stashed away, and well, the joke ends up on her. Gillie’s performance in Decoy has earned cult status over the years, despite it being a little-seen rarity until its DVD release in 2007.
Directing Decoy for Monogram was American Jack Bernhard—to whom Gillie was married at the time; he met her serving in the UK during WW2 and did Decoy to make her name in the US. The couple were divorced in 1947. Jack Bernhard’s noir pedigree started off with Decoy and he went on to helm some more thrilling and memorable low budget films for poverty row studios, like Violence (1947) with Nancy Coleman and Michael O’Shea, the story of a reporter stricken with amnesia while looking into in secret fascist operations on American soil. Bernhard’s The Hunted (1948) was a stalker story written by Steve Fisher, the prolific pulp writer who wrote the novel I Wake Up Screaming, as well as numerous screenplays and adaptations including Roadblock, I Mobster, Lady in the Lake, and Dead Reckoning. The Hunted features ice skater Belita as a jewel thief with whom cop Preston Foster is thoroughly obsessed. Bernhard also directed the female serial killer gem Blonde Ice (1948) starring Leslie Brooks as a columnist who murders her way through a rich husband, a blackmailer and an attorney who catches on to her and dares to dump her, and all the while she thrills at reading about her crimes in the paper.
While Jack Bernhard was toiling away on these and other low budget films, Jean Gillie’s follow-up to Decoy was The Macomber Affair (1947) a well-done, if watered-down, adaptation of the Hemingway story “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber”, about a married couple, played by Robert Preston and Joan Bennett, guided on an African safari/hunting expedition by Gregory Peck, where their marriage completely deteriorates into cowardice, infidelity and eventually death.
Sadly, in one of the many instances of a promising Hollywood career cut short, Jean Gillie died of pneumonia in 1949, aged only 33. Jack Bernhard ended up making even less movies than Gillie, and his directing credits stop after 1950’s The Second Face, starring Ella Raines and Bruce Bennett. Luckily, thanks to DVD, we can enjoy their collaboration, and Gillie’s greatest performance in Decoy, and wonder at what further fame this talented actress would have found in film.
-I’ll be reviewing Decoy in the near future
-a version of this article originally appeared in The Dark Pages