Friday, June 19, 2009

Dead Reckoning (1947)

Errors in Judgement in Dead Reckoning

“Didn’t I tell you all dames are the same with their faces washed.”

With The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), and The Big Sleep (1946) under his belt, Humphrey Bogart made the rather disappointing film Dead Reckoning in 1947. From director John Cromwell and with the two main stars: Bogart and Lizabeth Scott, this should have been a first tier film, but it isn’t. When the film was released it received a mixed review from The New York Times and was criticized for its rambling plot, Scott’s lifeless performance and for the implausibility of some of the main male character’s actions. I’d go along with placing the blame for the film’s failure on the plot. The original story is credited to Gerald Drayson Adams and the film’s producer, Sidney Biddell. After that, add Oliver H.P. Garrett and Steve Fisher for the screenplay, and then stick the name Allan Rivkin on top for the adaptation. That gives us a list of five writers, and it’s easy to wonder if some of the script’s problems came from the sheer number of hands editing and altering until the original story morphed into a convoluted mess.

The film’s title, Dead Reckoning probably meant more to post WWII cinemagoers than it does to today’s audience. Dead Reckoning is the term of a basic navigational method used in the absence of instruments. Position is estimated based on previously known information, and then the navigator advances that position based on using known or estimated speeds and time elapsed. It’s flying blind in a sense, and one error made--no matter how slight in the formula--will be magnified as errors are calculated onto errors, creating the potential for cumulative disaster. This clever title reflects not only the echoes of WWII that still resonate in the hero’s life, but it also exactly describes the choices the hero, Murdoch (Bogart) makes as he stumbles into Gulf City and stirs the embers of a long-smoldering crime. He makes his first errors in judgment and bases his actions on these errors, compounding his mistakes as he gets sucked in deeper and deeper into deception.

The first half of the film is told in flashback mode by the main male character, Captain Rip Murdock (Humphrey Bogart) to a stray priest Murdock corners in a Gulf City church. Murdock, running and evading the police, lurches into the church, loiters around a pillar and then corners the priest. In supplicant mode, Murdock begins to tell his tangled tale. At first the implication is that Murdock is wounded and that he’s gasping out his tale as a version of a deathbed confession. This scene is the first of many superfluous plot twists; it serves to justify and introduce the strong voice-over narration that dominates the film.

In flashback mode, Murdock’s tale to the priest begins strongly enough with two WWII heroes returning to the States. Captain Rip Murdock (Bogart) and Sgt Johnny Drake (William Prince) have been holed up injured in a French hospital, and they’ve been flown back with no small amount of expense and trouble, but the pomp and ceremony is about to come in Washington when both men are decorated for valor. When Johnny hears the news that he’s going to be awarded the Medal of Valor, he does something peculiar. He ditches the train to Washington, ditches Captain Murdock and hops a train going in another direction. Murdock vows to find him and bring him back, but just who is Drake? Murdock begins to question the identity of his war buddy right as he disappears, but before Murdock can get answers, Drake is long gone.

Murdock’s curiosity and determination to bring Johnny Drake back to Washington leads him to the discovery that his longtime pal used a fake name. ‘Drake’ was really Preston, a Yale graduate who hailed from Gulf City, and Murdock’s guts tell him that Johnny will return back to his home town, and to a particular blonde: “Cinderella with a husky voice”--a girl whose memory troubled Johnny even on the battlefields of France.

So far so good, but the plot is heading to the murky depths from which it will not return. Murdock arrives in Gulf City and discovers that there’s a room reserved for him, so evidently Johnny expected his old army pal to arrive. Along with the reservation is a cryptic note that includes the word “Geronimo” --the tag used prior to a parachute jump. Murdock now knows two things: Johnny is back in Gulf City, and that he’s laying low….

When Johnny doesn’t show, Murdock begins to worry and he decides to do some investigating. Using Johnny’s enlistment date to estimate when he left Gulf City years before, Murdock discovers that Johnny Drake (Preston) confessed to a murder involving cabaret singer ‘Dusty’ Coral Chandler (Lizabeth Scott) and her much-older wealthy real estate magnate husband. This information is delivered problematically through a spilt second visual flash at a newspaper headline. There’s another split second flash on the screen of more essential information. An important witness to the crime was a waiter at the Sanctuary Club named Louis Ord. This device of on-screen split-second flashes of essential plot twists is a major trip up for the film.

Murdock takes a side jaunt to the morgue where he exchanges some snappy dialogue with the resident cop who’s hanging out for kicks. Posing as a traveler concerned about a suicidal man, Murdock checks all the new stiffs and discovers Johnny as a John Doe burned to a crisp.

Now Murdock goes on the hunt for the waiter Louis Ord (George Chandler), and he heads to the Sanctuary nightclub where he runs slap bang into the gorgeous Chandler dame as she sits at the bar. The first look we get at Scott (nicknamed “The Threat” by Paramount) is through Murdock’s eyes as he scans her body from the ankle up those long legs teasingly crossed and glimpsed through her seductive evening gown. Although bothered by club heavy, Krause (Marvin Miller), Murdock manages to steer the Chandler babe to a table for two. Here she croons a lifeless song to the club’s patrons before Murdock drops the news of Johnny’s death.

The plot gets even thicker with the introduction of club owner Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky), and it’s not long before Murdock is drugged and wakes up in his hotel room next to a stiff. A few scenes later, the film segues back to Murdock’s confessional stint with the priest at which point Murdoch ditches the priest and bails back into the present Gulf City action. Thrown into the plot is a letter written in secret code, a missing murder weapon, and a safe expert loaded with explosives.

Although the film is packed with snappy dialogue, basically the plot needs a complete rewrite, although I have a nagging feeling that the original script had so many re-writes the pages bled red. There’s too much emphasis on minor characters while major developments are delivered as minor asides. What was the point of the priest since that entire scene went nowhere? And what was the point of the Louis Ord character except to provide a skinny stiff that travels around town in the back of Dusty’s car?

Apart from the sappy ballad Lizabeth Scott delivers in sickly-sweet sentimental fashion, she plays the femme fatale well. The flawed hero, Murdock, already half in love with the blonde he’s heard so much about, forgets his common sense when it comes to Dusty. Mulling over the implications of the scent of Jasmine he can’t forget (reminds me of Walter Neff’s memory of honeysuckle), Murdoch heads right back to the duplicitous dame after ditching the priest. Obviously since the newspaper headline that exposed the crime placed Dusty, Johnny and her dead husband together at the scene of the murder, with the husband dead that left two possibilities. And with Johnny fried to a crisp that leaves one. You’d have to be impossibly naïve or blindly in love to think Dusty didn’t pull the trigger on her old man, and since Murdock isn’t naïve, that leaves one possibility….

Murdock’s actions exemplify Dead Reckoning. He knows one thing when he arrives in Gulf City--the man he’s come to know as Johnny Drake is a good human being--a man he’d trust his life to. Johnny is in trouble, but Murdock doesn’t know why. Poking around Gulf City raises the possibility that Johnny is a murderer, but Murdock doesn’t believe that. He searches for Johnny and finds a corpse, and from then on Murdock wants to discover the truth. He begins to make errors in judgment with each error sucking him in deeper and deeper. He continues to trust Dusty even though that cloying scent of jasmine tells him otherwise, and his continued relationship with Dusty smacks of doom. If love or infatuation explains Murdock’s sometimes ill-conceived actions, Lizabeth Scott’s lifeless performance (per the critics--not me), can be explained by the fact that like most femme fatales, Dusty detracts her claws in favor of deceptively sweet, ultra-submissive behavior, and if you’re a sap--like Johnny or Murdock--you suspend your intuition and skepticism and fall in love with a succubus. One scene between Murdock and Dusty sets the stage for the relationship as he defines his perfect woman as the type who will keep quiet and disappear until nighttime, and Dusty listens, absorbing Murdock’s description. She becomes that woman--pliant, submissive, gentle…well at least on the surface.

The Columbia DVD releaseshows luscious Lizabeth Scott in Bogart’s arms. The implication is that she’s fainted, but in the cover picture she looks as though she’s been decapitated. This poor choice is just a hint of what’s in store in this problematic film. But Bogart, at least, is faultless as Murdock. Not many men can address a bartender as “sweetheart” and get away with it, but this is all part of Murdock’s charm: his sentimentality, his devotion to his old friend, and his willingness to be duped…up to a point….

Written by Guy Savage



  1. I knew there was something not quite right with this Bogart film, and I think got it. It's the plot.

  2. I find it dumb that there are so many references in the dialogue to Bogart's other films or real life. They are meant to be jokes, but they also make it seem like this film can't stand on its own. To me this makes it look like this film knows it's own weaknesses and hides behind the jokes trying to be just a parody of the idea of what a Bogart film is supposed to be.

  3. I found this film superbly atmospheric with some scenes being seductively stylish. Gulf City ("Tropical Paradise of the South") is a dream setting for a noir film - slightly surrealistic and even with a touch of oneirism. The use of shadows and light in the lustrous monochrome photography is also to be highly commended. The strong stylistic noir qualities of the film contribute to redeem certain flaws in the plot. To me, Lizabeth Scott is perfect for her role. It is quite correct that she is deceptively sweet and submissive, not lifeless. This luscious blonde had (has) a rather immobile upper lip, which might have befuddled conventional critics expecting a full-blown array of gestures in a melodramatic (or naturalistic) peformance.

    The film's ending is another master touch. To me it is profoundly poetic and sad: a parachute jump to the void as a visual metaphor for death.


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