Updated: Jul 9, 2022
Dead Reckoning (1947) directed by John Cromwell
part of the Columbia Noir #5: Humphrey Bogart box set from Indicator
(PLEASE NOTE: This is a REGION B set)
It’s an early Sunday morning in Gulf City, still too early for the sun to come up and nighttime activities to cease. A brightly lit sign boasts “Tropical Paradise of the South.” Few film noir locales can be called tropical, yet some of them seem to guarantee paradise. Gulf City, at least based on our introduction to it, fails to deliver on either promise. Rip Murdock (Humphrey Bogart) would no doubt confirm this failure of the city as he attempts to slip and slide through its rain-soaked city streets, avoiding contact with people, or perhaps trying to distance himself from the police.
Rip stumbles around the city, looking disheveled as if he’s just barely escaped a beating. He dashes into a church, eyes a priest, and corners him. Father Logan (James Bell) turns out to be a man in uniform, a paratrooper just like Rip. Maybe he’ll understand. The words spill out of Rip like a flood: “I’ve gotta tell somebody about this thing before something happens to me.”
Rip takes the priest (and the audience) for a ride on The Flashback Express which transports Rip and his paratrooper buddy Johnny Drake (William Prince) from a Paris hospital to a train headed to Washington, D.C. where they are scheduled to receive a hero’s welcome and medals for their bravery during the war. Rip is excited mostly for Johnny, whom Rip believes is more deserving of all the attention. Johnny, however, is nervous, and not because he’s camera-shy. When the train stops and the press want to photograph and interview the duo, Johnny runs away and hops another train headed in the opposite direction, leaving Rip alone and confused.
In a couple of days Rip learns that Johnny was killed in an auto accident in Johnny’s hometown of Gulf City. Suspecting that something’s fishy, Rip travels to Gulf City to discover the truth.
While in the “Tropical Paradise of the South,” Rip discovers that Johnny wasn’t completely honest about his past. I won’t go into the particulars, but it appears Johnny was involved in some shenanigans with a married nightclub singer named Coral Chandler (Lizabeth Scott). That involvement led to murder, which could explain why Rip is having so much trouble getting straight answers from anyone. Can Rip trust Coral, the local cops, or anyone in Gulf City?
This early in the game (about 15 or so minutes) we recognize that Dead Reckoning contains several of the necessary elements to constitute a good or maybe even a top-notch film noir. We’ve got Bogart, Scott, scriptwriter Steve Fisher, a mysterious past, a supporting cast of characters we’re pretty sure we can’t trust, hardboiled banter, and more. Dead Reckoning is good, but not great, and here’s why:
Rip makes a transition in character that isn’t totally believable. We buy it because it’s Bogart, and we’re used to seeing Bogart perform in a certain way: confident, savvy, independent, a man with smarts and tough talk, knowing how to handle the ladies, calling all the shots. But we see little of this at the beginning of the film. Rip is just a typical soldier, maybe a bit atypical because he and Johnny are about to be decorated, but it’s clear that Johnny is the one who’s more worthy of being honored. Rip seems like a regular G.I. who’s used to following orders and was just doing his duty. But once he hits Gulf City, Rip becomes Sam Spade, complete with hardboiled banter and mannerisms that seem as if he borrowed them from The Maltese Falcon clearinghouse. When Rip discovers a dead body in his room, he’s got the smarts and resourcefulness of a Sam Spade, knowing exactly what to do without a second thought.
Speaking of The Maltese Falcon (made just just six years before Dead Reckoning), the script contains too many allusions to the John Huston classic. Not only do we get lines that are so similar to The Maltese Falcon (“You know, you do awful good,” and “When a guy’s pal is killed, he ought to do something about it”), we also get a sadistic henchman (Marvin Miller) who dreams of kicking Rip in the head whenever possible, and Rip on the wrong end of a Mickey delivered by a club owner named Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky). It’s fine to pay homage to a classic, but Dead Reckoning relies too much on devices from a better, more memorable film.
Although she’s not great, Lizabeth Scott gets the job done. Let’s not forget that in this picture Scott is something of a Lauren Bacall substitute, or more correctly, a Rita Hayworth substitute, as Hayworth was originally chosen for the role. This was also only Scott’s third film, and here she often seems bland and unexpressive. Yet to her credit, perhaps Scott is exactly right for the part, especially when we consider her performance in light of the character of Coral as it develops throughout the film.
The film generally looks good, but you’ll see at least a couple of instances of awkward editing and clunky cinematography, particularly cuts between points-of-view in which the lighting doesn’t match either in backgrounds or on actors’ faces.
Yet there’s plenty of good stuff here as well. When speaking to the priest, Rip’s face is often in the shadows, portraying either that his lack of knowledge has him “in the dark,” or perhaps showing us that the city’s darkness has swallowed his soul. There’s also a wonderful scene where Rip lures Coral to the dance floor in order to administer his own clever lie detector test.
It’s subtle and probably not accidental, but there’s the friendship angle that is briefly explored in a way that doesn’t necessarily try to steal from The Maltese Falcon. Early in the film, Rip trusts Father Logan because they are part of a brotherhood of paratroopers. Rip believes in Johnny because of what they’ve been through during the war. He trusts Johnny, so the priest must be worthy of trust as well. Rip cares enough about his friend to take a chance on a priest who probably understands him in a way that no one else can.
Overall Dead Reckoning is a good, but not great noir I will enjoy revisiting.
Audio commentary with film scholar, preservationist, and historian Alan K. Rode
Although I have not yet listened to all of this commentary, Rode is knowledge and his presentations are always first-rate. I look forward to listening to this track in its entirety.
A Pretty Good Shot (2022, 17 min.) appreciation by writer and film programmer Tony Rayns
Rayns offers an excellent overview of the casting decisions in the film, how Bogart was brought over from Warner Bros. and Lizabeth Scott from Paramount, director John Cromwell’s career, and more. Rayns also explores some of the film’s themes such as servicemen returning to a chaotic and unfamiliar America. Although he spends a little too much time summarizing the film’s plot, Rayns brings a knowledgable eye to the picture’s background and development. Well worth your time.
Watchtower Over Tomorrow (1945, 16 min.)
Indicator continues the addition of these short films that people have either forgotten about or weren’t aware of in the first place. These are typically featurettes that share a theme, director, producer, or star from the main film on the disc. Watchtower Over Tomorrow, directed by John Cromwell, is essentially a public service propaganda film from the War Activities Committee giving us a tour of how the United Nations was formed after WWII. I’m glad these films exist, they are interesting archival works, but you’ll probably only watch it once. At least we get to see Lionel Stander.
80 stills of varying quality
Next: Knock On Any Door (1949)