Dead Reckoning (1947)

21 04 2020

After the back-to-back rigor of Christian Petzold’s early anti-thriller classics, The State I Am In and Something to Remind Me, I was beginning to crave something a bit more simplistic. For one, I found myself veering in the direction of the irresponsible writer by making declarations about the dramatic moves his films resisted. I needed something to ground me. I needed a classic noir. The wit of Humphery Bogart notwithstanding (and I’m being intentional in attributing that to him and not the screenplay) Dead Reckoning is unfortunately even more simplistic than I had anticipated. There are pleasures to be found in this film, but they are peripheral elements, intriguing side effects of a production that may have invited too many hands onto the assembly line. Its warts, unfortunately, are the only things of worth.

Paratroopers Rip Murdock (Humphrey Bogart) and Johnny Drake (William Prince) are flown into New York via a French hospital without explanation. Upon arrival, they board a train to Washington D.C., where they informed that they’re going to be awarded the Medal of Valor. Drake freezes up in the midst of the duo’s once playful ribbing. When Murdock gets off at the next stop for a quick photo opportunity, he instead finds that Drake has abandoned the Capital-bound train all together and hopped aboard one headed the other direction. The slightest bit of sleuthing from Murdock reveals that Johnny Drake is actually Johnny Preston, a Yale graduate from the fictional Gulf City.

Murdock follows Preston to Gulf City. The fictional city, which bears a slight resemblance to New Orleans, is one of the most interesting things about Dead Reckoning. There’s a limited amount of on-location photography in the film, but what little there is does flesh out the economy of a town that doesn’t exist. Biloxi, Mississippi to New Orleans is an hour and a half drive and it’s Biloxi that acts as Gulf City’s outskirts and suburbs here. Biloxi’s tourist economy revolves around its casinos and beaches, it’s the sort of minor city neon-sign trash that gets reflected in the fictional Gulf City, which is driven entirely by the nightlife industry. It’s in this industry that Murdock runs into Preston’s old flame, Dusty Chandler.

On the train from New York to D.C., Preston is visibly hung up on Chandler still. His romantic longing is the sort of buzzkill that Murdock has little time for, and he makes quick work of it, “Didn’t I tell you all females are the same with their faces washed?” Bogart’s handling of dialogue such as this is excellent, even as the words themselves are so generic and flat that the screenplay reads like a parody of film noir. There are five writers credited here, and a quick glimpse at IMDb shows that most of them are punching high above their weight here with such a star vehicle. Between the five of them, the next most impressive credit belongs to Oliver H.P. Garrett with John Ford’s The Hurricane. Even then, Garrett merely adapted the screenplay of the legendary Wapakonetan Dudley Nichols. Bogart’s cool is the stuff of legends, quite literally. The foundation of his persona lies in the pens of icons like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and William Faulkner. His flat, effortless delivery of their words made them shine, and vice versa. In Dead Reckoning, we have a group of writers composing dialogue that sounds like Bogie. In the moment, they pull off the ruse, but the film concludes feeling like an imitation.

As a film noir, Bogart’s Murdock is of course seduced. Here, it’s Dusty Chandler, played by Lizabeth Scott. She’s introduced with the aid of a would-be classic Bogart line, “Cinderella with a husky voice” and even gets her own Gilda-esque number. This, along with Preston’s visible longing on the train positions us to be in love with her. In Bogart’s best films, his love interests either match him in wits – Lauren Bacall in anything, Dorothy Malone’s short appearance in The Big Sleep – or they offer a compelling enough alternative to his cynicism for him to take a chance. Scott’s Chandler does neither, unfortunately. As compelling as she sometimes is, it seems like a dramatic convenience that Murdock would turn witless under her spell. It’s not that she isn’t beautiful enough or understocked with clever dialogue. Her character’s simply too flat, too by-the-numbers, and cries too many crocodile tears to justify her dramatic involvement. It’s a very surface level way to read a film, but Murdock’s behavior doesn’t fit. He is too willing to fall down the rabbit hole, without an undercurrent of the desperate resignation found in a film like In a Lonely Place. All the surface cool of film noir is accessible in Dead Reckoning but it offers nothing that made specific films in the genre so special. It’s a template film, a 100 minute distraction, but nothing more.


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