Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Dead Reckoning and Dark Passage

A Bogart double bill I saw at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater a few years ago. There are some interesting lessons here, as well as my review and appreciation. Since I mentioned DARK PASSAGE in yesterday's Trailer Tuesday, *and* mentioned the screenwriter of DEAD RECKONING, thought I'd rerun this today. Plus there's some info on the writers of both films...


DARK PASSAGE and DEAD RECKONING.



I had seen both before (I think I’ve seen every Bogart movie on the big screen at least once) but not in a long time. I have posted on this very blog about DARK PASSAGE before - it’s a great film, even though I did not own it on DVD until after seeing it on the big screen again. I remembered it as being a good one, and I have read the novel. David Goodis is one of those great Noir writers, darker than dark. His stories are bleak and contain all of those D Words that make Noir fiction a genre. Now (2014) I'm getting ready to rewatch a couple of other films based on his books, MOON IN THE GUTTER and NIGHTFALL and SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER. Back when I wrote this entry, DEAD RECKONING was a fuzzy memory - but it was the one with Lizabeth Scott, and gets a mention in Woody Allen’s PLAY IT AGAIN SAM... can’t be bad, right?

DARK PASSAGE


The house lights go down, and some great Franz Waxman music begins (it is a week later, and I still can not get that music out of my head!) And the WB shield appears on the screen. I love Warner Bros movies - they were gritty when other films were glossy. Even their big Busby Berkeley musicals were about some broke composer and some out of work chorus girl who team up and put on a hit show that saves some theater.

DARK PASSAGE - based on a novel by the amazing Dave Goodis, produced by Jerry Wald (ex-screenwriter - back then they promoted *writers* to producer jobs and studio head of production), written and directed by Delmer Daves (DESTINATION TOKYO), starring Bogart & Bacall and Agnes Moorehead and lots of Warner Bros bit players.



The film opens with escape from San Quentin that is shot POV from the lead character (Bogart) - we never see him... just what he sees. Though the first 65 minutes of the film are from the lead character’‘s POV, and we don’t see Bogart’s face for that entire time, it isn’t 100% POV - it’s a combo of shots of POV and wide and long shots. So the film actually opens with a shot of a garbage truck filled with garbage cans leaving San Quentin Prison... then a pair of hands come out of a garbage can, and they rock it off the back of the truck. POV from inside the can as it rolls down the hill, then a great shot from *inside* the can as the prisoner crawls out, gets his footing, and escapes...

From there on it’s POV from the prisoner - as he ditches his prison shirt, hides from a dozen police on motorcycles looking for him, etc. He *hops a fence* to the road to hitch a ride - amazing stuff. Can you imagine trying to hoist one of those huge old 35mm cameras over the fence with some actor’s arms in your way (as the prisoner’s arms).

He gets picked up by a grifter... and they hear the radio report about the escaped convict! Great POV shot from our convict hero Vince Parry (voiced by Bogart) as the grifter hears the convict’s description and looks up and down at *us* - type of shoes, color of eyes, hair, etc. *We* punch the grifter and escape... and then we are picked up by Bacall, who has some connection to the convict... but what?



Bacall lets him hide out at her place, furnishes him with new clothes, and takes care of him... why? She won’t tell him. Vince was convicted of murdering his wife, has always claimed he was innocent, was convicted to life in prison, and now the only way to have a normal life is to find the real killer before the police catch up with him for escaping San Quentin. But how can he do that with his face on the cover of every newspaper?

Vince gets some back alley plastic surgery in some really dirty tenement where the doctor had his license yanked years ago... very similar to the scene in MINORITY REPORT. The doctor is this crazy guy, who tells him that a botched surgery could make him look like a bulldog... or worse. Does Vince have a place to stay? He’s not supposed to move for a while after the surgery, and needs someone who will take care of him. Well, Vince has already contacted his oldest friend who always believed he was innocent, who will take care of him after the surgery.

But when Vince is dropped off there after the surgery he finds his friend murdered - whoever actually killed Vince’s wife is getting rid of anyone who Vince can go to for help. So Vince has no choice but to *walk* across San Francisco right after surgery - climbing endless flights of stairs (those ones under Coit Tower) to Bacall’s apartment building. She takes him in again....



Okay - 65 minutes into the film, the bandages come off and we see the movie star's face for the very first time. Imagine doing that in a modern film. For half the film we do not see the star's face! While Bacall is slowly taking off the bandages there is this fear that he will look like a bulldog... or worse. But he looks just like Humphrey Bogart! After he looks in the mirror, we ditch the POV stuff and the last half of the movie is a Bogart & Bacall crime film.

I had mis-remembered the film (or maybe this is what happened in the book, which I read about a decade ago) - but I thought after he got the plastic surgery he re-enters his old life with his new face and gets to question all of his old friends about himself and see himself from their POV... and gets to hear what people really think about him. Though that’s touched on in a scene of the film, it really isn’t explored much because the last half of the story picks up speed and is action-action-twist-action! Relentless pacing, and some *savage* plot twists!



Bogart finds the one guy who can prove he's innocent, the guy fights him, the guy goes off a cliff and splats. No way to prove himself innocent! I'm not going to spoil the film with all of the other characters who die - but some *shocking* unexpected deaths in this film. Everyone who can help him prove that he didn’t kill his wife ends up dead. So not only do we not see the movie star’s face for the first 65 minutes, the film manages to kill off people that usually do not get killed off in a film like this. Lots of “you can’t do that in a movie!” scenes.

The film still works - is clever and has shocking twists and a great Franz Waxman score and really well done suspense scenes (one is almost a French Farce - with everyone wanting to go into the room where Bogart is hiding) - and fantastic San Francisco location work. Though San Francisco stuff was probably 2nd unit - the film feels like it was all shot there. You get a real feel for the city, and the film uses some interesting locations that you wouldn’t see in a film that just used the tourist locations.

A little side note on the novelist, David Goodis - in print he was the king of downer noir. A few months ago I read his “lost” novel THE WOUNDED AND THE SLAIN about a drunk and his wife on holiday in some Caribbean country... and while the husband is drinking and whoring, his wife starts screwing some other dude... and then everybody dies. He’s best known for DARK PASSAGE and SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER (filmed by Truffaut) and NIGHTFALL (made into another great noir film) and STREET OF NO RETURN and MOON IN THE GUTTER and CASSIDY’S GIRL and THE BURGLAR (which was made into the film THE BURGLARS which I featured some great stunt clips from in the blog entry “I Do My Own Stunts”). As a writer, he was famous for his crazy practical jokes - he would fall down stairs at movie studios and fake nose bleeds and do all kinds of things that seemed to upset studio folks. He was a loose canon in a fun way.



He also is famous for probably being the creator of THE FUGITIVE TV series... After the show aired, he sued that the show was swiped from DARK PASSAGE - the escaped man sentenced for murder who is searching for the real killer. By the time the lawsuit got to court, Goodis was dead and so were all of his relatives... and they settled with the lawyer for the estate for $12k! Stall long enough and everyone is dead and the people left standing don’t really care!

DARK PASSAGE is a darned good film, and if you have ever walked with me through an underground parking garage with one of those overhead signs that tells you the head clearance, you know Goodis is a major influence on my practical joking. Whack! Ouch, my head!

DEAD RECKONING


After the intermission, half the audience was gone... and they lowered the lights and began the second film. Columbia Pictures - not a good omen. Where Warner Bros was gritty and real, Columbia was glossy and trying their damnedest to look like MGM, just without the money or stars that MGM had. This could be a good thing when you had a noir film like GILDA which is about exotic night club singers and has a Gay subtext - the glossy look fit that story. It could also work when you had some crazy maverick like Orson Welles making a wacked out noir film like LADY FROM SHANGHAI, but your standard crime film? Um, the style didn’t always match the subject matter.

And DEAD RECKONING seemed like a soap opera with some shoot outs. Where DARK PASSAGE was gritty and real, DEAD RECKONING was glossy and had way too much kissing. Also, seemed to be made of parts of much better movies. There's a scene from THE MALTESE FALCON, and a scene from OUT OF THE PAST and a scene from...

DEAD RECKONING was directed by James Cromwell (PRISONER OF ZENDA, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY) and is glossy and pretty to look at. Script by Oliver Garrett (DEUL IN THE SUN, MANHATTAN MELODRAMA) and the great Steve Fisher (I WAKE UP SCREAMING and that other POV movie LADY IN THE LAKE). But the script is a mess - all over the place and making no sense at times.

Story starts with a beaten up Bogart confessing to a Priest - and flashback to the story... but we come out of flashback at end act 2... and Bogart goes to kick ass in present time. Except - not much ass-kicking. Lots of kissing though - as if someone thought people went to Bogart movies to watch him kiss Liz Scott.

He's paratrooper Rip Murdock on his way with best bud Johnny Drake to pick up Congressional Medals of Honor, when Drake splits. He jumps off the train and disappears. Why? Bogart tracks him down to Miami type city, where Drake is wanted for murdering his girlfriend's husband. But just when he catches up with Drake, Drake is murdered, too. Burned to a crisp in a suspicious single car accident. Bogart decides to investigate and get revenge for Drake’s murder... which requires him to kiss Liz Scott a lot. A lot. I mean, a lot. A whole lot. Take the number of kissing scenes you would expect in a revenge movie and multiply by ten. Okay, now add two more.




Here’s the thing about all of these kissing scenes - there may actually have been just as many kissing scenes in DARK PASSAGE (though I doubt it) but *those* kissing scenes were part of the story, part of what the characters would naturally do. In RECKONING they just kiss whenever they are in the same room with each other. It’s like they were trying to make this into a love story by adding more kissing instead of actually having a love story subplot. So it’s probably not so much that they kiss a lot as much as they just kiss for no real reason and kind of unexpectedly and without motivation.

Imagine a whole bunch of kissing scenes in a Steven Seagal film...

Liz Scott was the woman whose husband Bogart’s buddy Drake may have killed to hook up with... but there are also these mobsters who seemed to wander in from THE BIG SLEEP and some MALTESE FALCON femme-fatale scenes and other scenes from other movies and a story that goes all over the place... eventually coming to an end involving napalm used indoors. Not a good idea, by the way.

Strange problem with DEAD RECKONING is the dialogue - something might be set up in one scene, and then the dialogue doesn't pay it back - when it seems obvious that that's what was supposed to happen in this scene. I suspect the two screenwriters may have been working at cross-purposes - maybe one writing a crime film and the other writing a big soapy romance. It has big time tone problems - with some soap opera stuff and then some violent action scene. And the cute nicknames aren't cute in this film, and many of the gags fall flat - with lots of glossy photography of kissing.

Now, when I was a little kid, I thought that kissing girls was for sissys. But the problem with the kissing in DEAD RECKONING is that it all seems so forced. Oh, and Scott's singing is so poorly dubbed you don't believe it for a second - unlike the Andy Williams (minus the bear) singing for Bacall in BIG SLEEP. Originally Rita Hayworth was to play the female lead in this flick, but she split to play the femme fatale in her husband’s movie LADY FROM SHANGHAI and they got stuck with Lizabeth Scott who looks *older* than Bogart and has no lip syncing abilities.

Anyway, DEAD RECKONING seems like a mis-fire - a movie trying to be Noir but also trying to be some glossy soap opera thing. Not an unwatchable movie - but not very good. Fine for a Saturday afternoon on TCM, not fine on Saturday night on the big screen with your legs scrunched up under your neck because there is no legroom in the Billy Wilder Theater. I think the gloss worked against it - makes it seem like a big budget A movie with a sleazy B movie revenge action plot.

Okay, since I gave a quick bio of David Goodis, here’s some info on the co-screenwriter of DEAD RECKONING, Steve Fisher. I’m sure they brought in Fisher for the noir stuff, since he was one of those great noir writers you’ve probably never heard of. Like Goodis he was a novelist who worked on and off as a screenwriter on B movies. His novel I WAKE UP SCREAMING was made into a great noir film with Victor Mature, and that probably put Fisher on the map. SCREAMING is about a hot starlet whose best friend is murdered by a maniac, and she thinks the maniac is now stalking her. She goes to the cops, and the detective in charge of the case is... the man stalking her! And he’s trying to frame Mature for the murder... and now Mature and the hot starlet have to get the proof that the detective is the killer. Um, no one wants to believe them about that. Great concept - what if you went to the police, but a policeman was the killer? Fisher’s crime novels ended up getting him back into screenwriting, where he wrote a bunch of crime films like the all POV film LADY IN THE LAKE and one of the THIN MAN series. Many of his novels have been reprinted recently by Hard Case Press. There was this period in time when Pulp Novels and Pulp Movies intersected and the guy who wrote some throw away crime novel might also write some throw away crime movie.

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Bumper Sticker Dialogue - and THE PROFESSIONALS.
Dinner: Togos - hummus sandwich with BBQ sauce... messy!
Pages: Working on the rewrite of the assignment, trying to get it finished and out of the way before I lose momentum on this other script.
Bicycle: Yes. Short bike ride to coffee shop that is not as crowded.

1 comment:

Jim Vines said...

My mom was in DEAD RECKONING, albeit very briefly. I believe the scene takes place in a train station. She's the pretty gal who gives Bogey a sour look at the phone booth.

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