The Killer Is Loose: The Psychology of the Psycho

Budd Boetticher’s B-movie crime drama The Killer Is Loose (1956) stars Joseph Cotten as Detective Sam Wagner – a personality-free role Cotten could have played in his sleep – who helps convict mild-mannered bank teller Leon Poole (Wendell Corey) for his complicity in a bank holdup. Before the conviction, however, Cotten accidentally shoots Corey’s wife while apprehending him. Corey vows revenge, which scares Cotten’s wife, played by Rhonda Fleming. The main drama in the film is that Corey breaks out of jail and immediately goes after Fleming (jealousy over her being Cotten’s alive wife).

The first time we see Corey, his back is turned to the camera. It stays that way for an uncomfortably long time, though it’s really only a few minutes. Corey’s performance is disturbing and his character is layered with the painful memories of being a GI during World War II. He is not just some cookie-cutter psycho; he has a backstory and complexity.

As Corey holds his dead wife in his arms, he looks up at Cotten. The gaze is chilling.

Seen in the courthouse (in front of a portrait of Honest Abe, no less), Corey exudes a Harold Lloyd type of lamb-like meekness.

By this point, Corey has broken out of jail. Sans glasses, you can see that Wendell Corey was actually kind of good-looking. You see the man behind the mask (or glasses). You can also see the curve of the blade in Corey’s right hand. He’s about to kill an innocent citizen.

I like this juxtaposition of Corey’s two frontal mugshots.

The film presages Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, who may have been inspired by the repeated descriptions of Corey as a “psycho,” as well as the names of Cotten and Fleming’s characters: Sam and Lila Wagner.

Corey insists that he does not want to hurt the wife of a soon-to-be victim. After he has killed another man, Corey asks, “What else could I do?” as though he hadn’t had any other option. Another interesting point: Corey almost never raises his voice. His quietness is unsettling.

On the hunt for Fleming, Corey disguises himself by wearing a woman’s raincoat and carrying a purse; could this have inspired Norman Bates?

Watch the film, available on Netflix Instant, to see Wendell Corey in the performance of a lifetime. It’s not great art, but at 73 minutes, you could do a lot worse than enjoying this memorably psychotic performance.

Bonus: I get a perverse kick out of these typically terrible 1950s ideas about how women can’t separate their minds from their hearts and think reasonably. The assumption here is that Rhonda Fleming’s character would not being able to assess the seriousness of the situation with Corey on her trail, mainly due to her being Cotten’s wife. Marriage apparently precludes her from being logical.

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