The other day I looked at a couple movies by director Lewis Seiler and here’s his final film, The True Story of Lynn Stuart (1958), a gritty and engrossing look at one woman’s quest to fight the heroin that claimed the life of her nephew. Betsy Palmer is great as Phyllis Carter, a young Santa Ana wife and mother who talks a Police Lieutenant (Barry Atwater) into using her unique qualifications as a woman to get really close to the dope dealers. She has a tougher time convincing her husband (Kim Spalding); first he laughs in her face and cruelly mocks her idealism, but agrees when the police assure him they’ll always be near to protect her. Trouble is, they failed with their last undercover op, whose blown cover led to his murder by top smuggler Willie (an enjoyably menacing Jack Lord). And Willie is exactly who Phyllis, in her new identity as ex-con “Lynn,” attracts with her hot “chassis” while working at his favourite drive-in burger joint. Lynn’s phony relationship with Willie gives her husband the willies but takes her deep into the mob’s heroin operations, through a bloody drug deal in Mexico, too close to a woman who can identify the real “Lynn Stuart,” and too far away from her little boy when he’s critically ill with pneumonia.
This was a story ripped from the headlines; the real “Lynn” worked for years to get this info and evidence and served as consultant on the movie (while wearing a mask). The movie boasts attractive nighttime scenes and Orange County settings, and the script spins great suspense out of the expected beats in an undercover drama: the persistent man who recognizes Lynn as Phyllis and almost blows her cover, her lipstick-scrawled message in a bathroom that flutters out of sight the second she turns her back, her attempts to sneak away for a call or escape that get cut short by Willie bursting into frame, the police losing contact when she gets sucked into a key drug deal. It’s all thrilling, and further complicating her mission are dated attitudes about troublesome hysterical dames. I enjoyed Palmer’s performance; she smoothly switches between decent lady and tough moll, and under all these pressures and frustrations she’s still cool, earnest and courageous, torn between the damage her absence does to her family, but determined to make meaningful change as a crime-fighting volunteer.