Back when I was a young whippersnaper, they had these things called “After School Specials.” This was basically the television network’s attempt to justify their broadcast licences and prove that they actually were trying to operate within the public interest by showing the occasional program that would teach the youngsters a lesson. Don’t drink and drive…don’t smoke…just say no, that sort of stuff. Today’s movie might be described as being somewhat of an after school special…but aimed at pill popping truck drivers in the 1950’s. From 1957, and winner of the awesome title award for that year, “Death in Small Doses.”
It seems that the Food and Drug Administration has been noticing a problem with truck drivers getting hooked on amphetamines. The truckers call them “Bennys” and they help keep them going on those long hauls. They also tend to cause hallucinations and several deaths have also occurred. Something needs to be done about it, so the FDA sends a young energetic agent, Tom Kayler (Peter Graves) out to LA to find out who is supplying the truckers with the drugs.
Tom poses as a student driver and quickly takes up residence at a boarding house run by Val Owens (Mala Powers), a young widow of a deceased trucker. Several truckers call her place home, including Mink Reynolds (Chuck Connors), who seems to always be a bit high on happy pills. In fact, it seems like all around Tom is evidence of the Benny problem. His partner Wally (Roy Engel) admits he has brought Benny along for the ride from time to time, though now he’s trying to take down the suppliers. Mink even tells Tom how he can get some from a waitress (Merry Anders) at a roadside diner.
When he’s not out on those longs drives, Tom is finding that he and Val are becoming a bit sweet on each other. Things get rough, though, when Wally is beaten to death by two thugs while stopped at the diner, likely because he was going to expose the drug operation. Now Tom is assigned to drive with Mink, who is essentially a ticking time bomb due to his addiction. The two end up experiencing several close calls with high-as-a-kite Mink behind the wheel. Meanwhile, Tom tries to get information out of the waitress about who is supplying the pills…when he’s not trying to avoid being stabbed by a hallucinating Mink, that is. But as the supply lines of the drugs becomes more clear, Tom is surprised by who the trail leads to.
“Death in Small Doses” has such a great premise…I just had to see it. Though, I admit, I was a bit disappointed by the first half of the film. It’s got a short running time (79 minutes) but I found that the first half seemed to drag a bit. It gets a bit too bogged down in setting up what Graves’ character is doing. However, the second half of the film is worth the wait, with loads of drug-fuelled madness to keep us entertained.
The highlight of the film, hands down, is Chuck Connors as Mink. First of all…he’s stinkin’ Chuck Connors!! With that square jaw and huge frame, can you find me a more intimidating figure. But then add to that an over-the-top dose of crazy and you’ve got something magical. Not to mention the fact that his performance plays great off the by-the-book feel of Peter Graves’ character. There’s a wonderful unpredictability to Connors’ character that really helps fuel this film.
Though it takes a little time to find its grove, “Death in Small Doses” is just as fun as it’s title suggests. Though I fear that the next time I’m on a late night drive across Interstate 80, I’m going to have visions of crazy-eyed Chuck Connors behind the wheel of that semi barreling down on me. Curse you Hollywood!