Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Trailer Tuesday: DEAD RECKONING (1947)

It's that time of year!

Dead Reckoning

Usually at this time of year, Noir City is happening at the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian and I usually have my tickets. The idea behind Noir City is to find the obscure gems that people may not have seen before, and show them on the big screen for a couple of weeks. They often have any of the cast and crew who are still around show up for Q&A afterwards. I believe they also restore - or push for the restoration - of many of these films. A big studio star vehicle from the 1940s might get restored by the studio, but some cheap little noir film may not. It's great to see these films on the big screen... and often the audience is packed with VIPS who are fans of the genre. They showed a bunch of Argentine Cornell Woolrich films one year that I had never seen... not had anyone else in the USA. Because the festival is on Covid Hold this year, I thought it would be fun to look at some Noir movies, including some that I have seen at previous Noir Citys... though this week’s entry is a film that I saw at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood a few years back on a Bogart Double Bill...

DEAD RECKONING (1947)

Directed by: James Cromwell.
Written by: Oliver Garrett and Steve Fisher, and three more screenwriters including the producer.
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lizaberth Scott, Morris Carnovsky, Marvin Miller.
Produced by: Sidney Biddle .
Music by: Marlin Skiles.



Columbia Pictures noir films were an odd mixed bag. Where Warner Bros was gritty and real, Columbia was often 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 to keep the lights on, Columbia often imitated RKO - making cheap genre films like the WHISTLER series (which I plan on looking at in the near future). So you never knew what you were going to get with this studio and the style didn’t always match the subject matter.

At times DEAD RECKONING seems like a soap opera with some shoot outs. Where a Bogart film like DARK PASSAGE from Warner Bros was gritty and real, DEAD RECKONING is glossy and seems to have way too much kissing. Also, at times it seemed to be made of leftover 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 the great James Cromwell (PRISONER OF ZENDA, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY) and is glossy and pretty to look at. Script by Oliver Garrett (DUEL IN THE SUN) and the great Steve Fisher (I WAKE UP SCREAMING and LADY IN THE LAKE) and some other guys. The script is kind of a mess - all over the place and making no sense at times. You get the feeling that it began as one story and was rewritten into another. I don’t know whether it began as a cheap genre film and then was turned into a soapy love story or vice versa. It does have some great snappy dialogue. It’s one of those Bogart films that you remember the good parts of and forget the strange parts of... until you see it on the big screen again. I don’t own this on DVD, and hadn’t seen it in decades before the screening.

Story starts with a beaten up Bogart confessing to a Priest - and flashback to the story with Bogart doing VO (the reason for the confession to the priest)... but we come out of flashback at end Act 2... and Bogart goes to kick ass in present time. Except - not as much ass-kicking as I wanted. Lots of kissing though - as if someone thought people went to Bogart movies to watch him kiss Liz Scott. That’s why I wonder what sort of rewrite process this went through - it’s got that DUEL IN THE SUN soap opera feel... and then some wild ass action that is pure Steve Fisher. And that VO is snappy and fun - which is probably also due to Fisher. He does great tough guy dialogue and monologues... and that might be a good reason to watch this film.

Bogart plays paratrooper Rip Murdock on his way by train with best bud "Professor" Johnny Drake (William Prince) to pick up Congressional Medals of Honor in Washington DC. Drake seems reticent to get a medal pinned on him by the President, which is odd. When he drops a gold Senior college pin on the train and Murdock picks it up to hand it back to Drake, he notices that the pin is from Yale... and has another man’s name on it. John Joseph Preston. Did Drake steal it from this Preston guy? Before they arrive in DC, Drake jumps off the train in Philly and disappears. Why? Murdock’s commanding officer orders him to find Drake and get him to the ceremony on time, and Murdock must turn detective to find his friend.

Murdock remembers the pin, calls Yale and gets the last known address for the name that was on the pin... a corrupt resort city on the Gulf of Mexico. By the way, this movie may also hold the record for phone booth scenes.

When he arrives at the local hotel, there is a reservation for him... and a note from Drake that says to wait for him. But Drake is a no show, and Murdock pokes around - discovering that an unidentified man was burned to a crisp in a suspicious single car accident. Drake? Murdock decides to investigate and get revenge for Drake’s murder...

Murdock goes to the morgue to look at the body - which has a melted gold blob like Drake’s Senior Pin from Yale - and bumps into local cop Kincaid (Charles Cane) who asks Murdock all kinds of questions, which he evades. But Murdock believes the body might be Drake’s and heads to the newspaper to look through back issues... and discovers that Drake was really John Joseph Preston... and was wanted for murder! He changed his name and enlisted in military to hide from the police!

“Dusty” Chandler (Liz Scott) - whose real name is "Coral" but Murdock will end up calling her "Mike" - was the woman whose husband 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... To be fair, Steve Fisher often has wacky plotting in his screenplays. HELL'S HALF ACRE and THE CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS from 2019's Noir City Fest often seemed like he was making them up as he went along.

Murdock heads to the nightclub where she sings, to interview a bartender who was a witness to the Chandler murder (?) named Louis Ord (George Chandler - how confusing was this set when they were shooting?). Ord says that Drake gave him a letter for Murdock before he was killed in the car accident... and that's when crazy psycho club bouncer Krause (Marvin Miller) who is Moose Malloy on steroids, approaches. Ord says that he'll give Murdock the letter later. Somewhere in here are a couple of poorly dubbed songs from Dusty and Murdock stops his investigation to listen.... and later dances with Dusty. There's a freakin' brutal scene here where, after Dusty talks about how much she loved Johnny Drake, he tells her that he just saw Drake. Where? On a slap in the morgue. She misses a dance step or two. He tells her he had to break the news to her that way, so that he could gauge her reaction - he now knows that she didn't kill him. Then we get the scene from THE BIG SLEEP where Dusty and Murdock gamble together and after Dusty loses, Murdock wins big and have to go to the club’s owner to get the okay to get paid...

The club is owned by mobster Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky) who is a bad carbon copy of Eddie Mars in THE BIG SLEEP - a criminal who seems more like a business owner. Instead of a pair of comic relief henchmen like Mars had, Martinelli has a Krause. Martinelli gives Murdock and Dusty drugged drinks. Ord is the waiter who brings them, and tries to tell Murdock about the drinks in front of Martinelli and Krause - but Murdock realizes if he *doesn't* drink, Ord will be busted and he will never get the letter from Dead Drake. So he downs the drugged drink... and one of those pools of darkness from MURDER MY SWEET opens up and swallows him. Actually, the pools of darkness in this film have parachutes at night. Oh, and I forgot to mention that Murdock's catch-phrase is "Geramino!".

The next morning, Murdock wakes up in his hotel room with the corpse of Ord and Detective Kincaid knocking at his door. He manages to hide the body in a hotel laundry cart. The cops were tipped off that Murdock may have killed someone... and search his room finding nothing. But Kincaid stakes out the hotel lobby... and we get another phone booth scene as Murdock has Kincaid paged claiming to be a call from headquarters... so that Murdock can snag Dusty out of the lobby and go down to the hotel parking garage... where he puts Ord's body in the trunk of her car.

Murdock and Dusty have teamed up - which requires him to kiss Dusty a lot. Take the number of kissing scenes you would expect in a revenge movie and multiply by ten. Okay, now add two more.

Okay, that's an exaggeration. 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 seem to 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. They only kiss a handful of time, but they just kiss for no real reason and kind of unexpectedly and without motivation... and the camera lingers on the kisses. And this is his dead best friend's girlfriend who was married, so any kissing just seems wrong. Though I haven't counted the kisses in THE BIG SLEEP I only remember one at the end - maybe there was one at the gas station house, too... but that's only two. Here, they kiss for no apparent reason in the car, then there's a freakin' huge kiss a few minutes later, then a few more kissing scenes.

There's also a bit of dialogue that hasn't aged well, where Murdock thinks women should be miniaturized so that men can carry them around in their pockets and only make them full sized when men want them. "You know, the trouble with women is they ask too many questions. They should spend all their time just being beautiful."

There's a nice suspense scene here where (after kissing) they get pulled over by a cop for speeding... with dead Ord in the trunk. They have to talk their way out of a ticket - by saying they are newlyweds - which leads to a public display of affection (kissing) in front of the cop.

Murdock believes that Martinelli's goon Krause killed Ord and stole the letter and now that letter is in Martinelli's safe - it's actually more complicated than that, but we don't have 90 minutes. Murdock gets the name of a retired safe cracker through his connections and they visit him. The safe cracker's son just returned from the war, with a bunch of mementos like Japanese swords and German incendiary grenades. He teaches Murdock how to crack Martinelli's safe and gives him some incendiary grenades... and then Murdock and Dusty kiss some more.

After the kissing, Murdock breaks into Martinelli’s office to crack the safe and get the letter - which is purely a plot device. The safe is already busted open and the letter is gone and he smells Dusty’s perfume moments before *someone* knocks him out. When he wakes up, Martinelli and Krause are knocking him around to find out where the letter is. Where is Bette Davis when you need her? Murdock escapes... goes to the church where he confesses... and we are out of Act Two and into Act Three and some wild-ass action scenes including the use of napalm indoors (the grenades) - not recommended, by the way. "Scratch one hoodlum!"

The ending is so insanely convoluted that everyone was married to everyone else and everyone secretly killed everyone else and everyone was blackmailing everyone else. Seriously. Just pair up any two characters in this story and they were once married. Pair up any two characters and one of them killed the other. And everyone was blackmailing everyone else. If you though the plot of THE BIG SLEEP was confusing, this movie will make your head explode. Anyway, Dusty and Martinelli were married and she was also married to Chandler and was having an affair with Drake but now claims to be in love with Murdock... but before you can say THE MALTESE FALCON Dusty tries to kill Murdock and there’s a car crash and Dusty is fatally injured and Murdock gets to have a scene where he loves her but she dies in some weird soap opera scene.

One of the problems 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's what was supposed to happen in this scene. I suspect the five screenwriters may have been working at cross-purposes - maybe one writing a crime film and the other writing a big soapy romance and the other three doing some version of either of those. It has big time tone problems - with some soap opera stuff and then some violent action scene. And the cute nicknames aren't that 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.

The weird thing about Lizabeth Scott is that I love her in other films - she’s the lead in one of my favorite films PITFALL and doesn’t seem like an older woman to Dick Powell. But here, for reasons I can’t figure out, she seems old - might be the wardrobe or the dialogue or maybe the problem is that Bogart’s character was *written* to be younger - a guy returning from WW2 is likely to be in his 20s so maybe the character was written young and Scott was supposed to be an older woman and the characterization and dialogue makes you think that she’s old. This movie - and Scott - get a shout out in Woody Allen’s PLAY IT AGAIN SAM, so maybe it’s just me and this odd hybrid of glossy soap opera and violent revenge flick works for everyone else. (Note: In reading reviews, a lot of negative reviews mention how stiff and "mannered" Scott is, so it's not just me.)

Just for fun, 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 David 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.

Anyway, DEAD RECKONING seems like a mis-fire - a movie trying to be Noir but also trying to be some glossy soap opera thing at the sale time. Not an unwatchable movie - but not the classic Noir that you might expect from the film’s reputation.. Fine for a Saturday afternoon on TCM, not as good 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... and an interesting indoor use of napalm*.

-Bill

Dead Reckoning

*Actually incendiary grenades - but crazy Krause is burned alive while staggering around a room.

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