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.

Knock on Any Door (1949)

17 03 2014

Nicholas Ray’s interest in wayward youth tends to yield some of his best efforts, most notably Rebel Without a Cause and They Live By Night. This early effort, coming after They Live By Night, speaks to this interest and its central argument is an admirable one. Ray could be chastised for his bluntness, but the film’s discourse, the idea that the impoverished are unfairly criminalized is sort of stunning and remarkable, especially considering the era in which it is argued. I do not fault Ray for his bluntness, as I don’t think “subtle politics” is inherently smoother to digest, but this film ultimately pulls up short because it betrays the central argument. It ends up eating away at his own idea. He himself indulges into criminalizing poverty, but the fact that the film manages to illustrate this argument in an artful enough way (yes, parts are indeed hammy) means it is absolutely worthy of attention.


Nick Romano has a criminal past, which doesn’t make it difficult for the police to pin the murder of an officer on his hands.However, he swear he didn’t do it. He calls his lawyer, Andrew Morton, but he’s fed up with Romano constantly getting in trouble. Some silent stares from his social worker wife, Adele, convinces him to go to bat for Romano for one more time. The trial begins and Morton uses his opening statement to describe his relationship with Romano, how they met, and just what exactly the two went through in the past six years. The idea is that Nick Romano can’t be seen as innocent unless the proper context is established, because all signs already point to his guilt.


From a pure storytelling perspective, there is something I admire about how Ray structures his film. The opening hour is basically an extended flashback of Romano’s difficult adolescence as told by Morton to the jury. Then, the film immediately switches gears to a tense and sweaty court case. Traditionally, this could be viewed as sloppy filmmaking, but to me it shows Ray’s own youthfulness. It’s jarring, but the sloppiness is endearing to me. The film seems to work on its own level, one that is indeed forceful with social commentary, but at least doesn’t mask its discourse in a film that is typical and orthodox. On the contrary, Burnett Guffey’s cinematography is spectacular. The film frequently positions its subjects in the corner of the frame, almost as though they are spectators in a showing of the film itself, reinforcing the idea that crimes are not something performed in a blender. Instead, there are an influx of factors. It sounds like an attempt to dissolve responsibility, but he wants to re-center things on the individuals who are never criminals, but are deeply complicit in criminalizing certain groups.


I think what Ray is ultimately arguing here is not only insightful, but kind of ahead of his time. Morton’s closing remark is one of Bogart’s most dominant yet engaging moments as a performer. Many might see his argument as either far too eloquent or a boring tirade too simplistic in grouping his critique against “society.” Instead, there is something banal about saying society is the real criminal, but the film’s text extends its critique to something deeper. Perhaps, Bogart’s passionate final defense shows hints of an acknowledgement of hegemony, though that word obviously never reaches his lips. Ray using Bogart as a mouthpiece might seem like an error, one that wouldn’t be expected in a filmmaker that was championed by Manny Farber.


Ray’s biggest mistake is not being on the nose with his politics. Sure, it does bring the film to a halt at times but it doesn’t feel unnatural. Instead, Ray betrays his own politics. The film’s most crucial mistake comes twenty minutes in where we learn that the Romano family, reeling from the death of their patriarchal figure, has moved to the “worst neighborhood in town, arguably in the entire country” to quote Morton. The film wants to suggest that the poor are unfairly criminalized, but this very scene does the exact same thing. Instead, it seems to suggest that it is only interest in arguing the innocence of Nick Romano, not that of the other criminalized bodies entrenched in poverty. He’s just misunderstood and is unfairly thrown into a dog eat dog environment, but the rest of inhabitants are just pawns in reinforcing the discourse of an evil society. Of course, the film’s titular plea, to “knock on any door” suggests some sympathy for all, but Ray’s less pointed political moments reveal the holes in his argument. Later in the film, Kid Fingers, a well-known homeless man is mocked by Morton on the stand for the delight of the jury. Ray seems to forget his own point when its convenient in forming the idea of Romano’s innocence. He doesn’t apply this revolutionary thought to all of his subjects, instead reveling in the same unfair criminalization that he seems interested in rallying against.


Through all of this, I do find Ray’s idea to be one that is at best, admirable and worst, just woefully executed. This is an efficient film, with wonderful photography and a nice performance from Bogart but neither of those two elements are missing from his masterpiece two years later, In a Lonely Place. The unique quality here, the thing that would be the pull is Ray’s attempt at a socially-conscious film. Where he does succeed in some places, he ultimately winds up being something of a hypocrite. Sure, this doesn’t look particularly good with the film’s already forceful politics. The latter bothers me less, because I instead see it as eagerness on the part of a young filmmaker. Some of the film’s “flaws” in a sense are more beneficial (at least to me) than others, but I can’t forgive some of Ray’s more hypocritical moments.