The True Story of Lynn Stuart (1958)

vt The Grasshopper; vt The Other Life of Lynn Stuart
US / 78 minutes / bw / Columbia Dir: Lewis Seiler Pr: Bryan Foy Scr: John H. Kneubuhl Story: newspaper articles by Pat Michaels Cine: Burnett Guffey Cast: Betsy Palmer, Jack Lord, Barry Atwater, Edmund G. Brown, Kim Spalding, Karl Lukas, Casey Walters, Harry Jackson, Claudia Bryar, John Anderson, Rita Duncan, Lee Farr, Louis Towers, Carter James Maloney, Carlos Romero, Artie Lewis, Gavin MacLeod, Madeline O’Donnell, Betsy Jones Moreland, Than Wyenn, Snub Pollard.

Despite the title, and despite the claims in the opening address delivered by California’s Attorney General at the time, Edmund G. Brown, this movie is at best loosely based on reality. There really was a woman who, under the moniker “Lynn Stuart,” infiltrated California’s narcotics gangs, but most of the details of the story have been changed for the purposes of the screen. Contrary to what you might expect, the real-life “Lynn Stuart,” who served as a consultant during the making of this movie, was actually far braver and more dogged than her fictional counterpart: she risked her life as a police informant among the gangsters for six long years.

Betsy Palmer as Phyllis/”Lynn”

When the teenage son of Nora (Bryar) dies in a drug-related incident, Nora’s sister, Phyllis Carter (Palmer), is spurred into offering her services to the Santa Ana PD as an undercover agent to bring down the drug gangs—or some of the gangsters, at least. At first Lieutenant Jim Hagan (Atwater) and his sidekicks treat the offer as a joke; as one of them, Eddie Dine (Walters), points out:

Eddie: “It’s no job for a woman. We’ve never used a woman.”

Phyllis’s husband, Ralph (Spalding), is even more caustic—and sarcastic—about the notion:

Ralph: “Well, if they do [take up your offer], you take the job. And don’t shirk your call to duty. You powder your pretty little nose, you give your girdle a good yank, and you go after dem dirty rats, both guns a-blazing.”

Barry Atwater as Lt. Jim Hagan.

But circumstances conspire to change Hagan’s mind, and soon Phyllis, having taken on the identity of Lynn Stuart, a minor ex-con from the far side of the country, is working at a diner that the traffickers are known to frequent. She even has a new “husband,” “Wilbur,” in the form of cop Jerry Jackson (Jackson). Her task is to get close to mid-level gangster and cold-blooded killer Willie Down (Lord), which she soon succeeds in doing.

Jack Lord as Willie Down, just about to murder police informer Nat (Than Wyenn).

All goes well for a while, but then, on what she’s decided will be her last day as a stoolie, (a) she witnesses Willie kill three men in cold blood, (b) one of the gang assembled for the latest job proves to be the real Lynn Stuart’s old pal from her penitentiary days, Sue Diggin (Duncan), and (c) Phyllis’s young son Jimmie (Towers) goes down with pneumonia and has to be rushed to hospital.

Harry Jackson as Jerry.

Understandably, “Lynn” rather goes to pieces. Willie and the gang’s leader, used-car merchant Doc (Anderson), decide the only safe way of dealing with her is to rub her out . . .

 

John Anderson as Doc.

To call this a minor, unheralded masterpiece would be to make a mockery of the words, but it does have quite a lot going for it—not least Betsy Palmer’s performance in what’s in effect a dual role: respectable, somewhat stuffy middle-class mom and sassy broad who gives the impression of being game for anything. (Although she becomes Willie’s girlfriend, we’re never given any indication of how far she lets the physical side of their relationship go.)

Jack Lord’s surprisingly good, too, as the psycho, and I was captivated by Rita Duncan’s performance as Sue Diggin, who’s genuinely a sassy broad.

Rita Duncan as Sue.

This was the last movie of prolific director Lewis Seiler, and the best one can say about the direction is that it’s competent—it’s at about the level you’d expect from a TV cop show of the era. The same can be said of the cinematography and the screenplay.

The latter is full of self-conscious slang in apparent imitation of the kind of lingo employed by 1950s narcotics dealers. Here, for example, is “Lynn” explaining to Willie why she did a stretch in the pen:

“Lynn”: “A cat I dug was picked up on a bank beat. They said I was driving the car. When I didn’t peep they laid it on me.”

To which all one can really say is: Gravy, booby.

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8 thoughts on “The True Story of Lynn Stuart (1958)

  1. Pingback: The True Story of Lynn Stuart (1958) – Ed;s Site.

  2. Pingback: The Noirathon Begins – Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

  3. I’m afraid I’m not familiar with this one at all. It sounds intriguing, even if it may not be a masterpiece. The real life Lynn must have been a very brave woman indeed to have done what she did. Thanks so much for joining and for raising awareness of this film.

    • Yes, the real Lynn must have been quite an astonishingly courageous person. Many thanks for organizing the Noirathon, so that obscure movies like this one (not to mention all the better-known items) can get a little exposure!

  4. My one viewing was enjoyable due to Betsy Palmer, and the novelty of a “new” noir. I don’t think I’ll seek it out again, but I probably wouldn’t turn away if it happened to pop up on the screen.

    – Caftan Woman

  5. Sounds like fun. I seem to recall Jack Lord from my youth and Hawaii-Five-Oh. Interesting to see people you generally only associate as one character in other roles.

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