keep the motor running and the headlights on

you give a dame these simple instructions and five minutes later she puts four slugs in a guy because she thinks it's you. welcome to the world of noir.

dead reckoning (1947) is thoroughly film noir, possibly to a fault. the standard tropes are on display in spades - convoluted flashback structure, protagonist relating the story in extended voiceover, hefty cops in hotel lobbies hiding behind newspapers, a body in the trunk (which is the source of the one bit of comic relief in the film), late night visits from homicide detectives, a gangster aristocrat casino owner with a swarthy goon in tow - the gang's all here.

first, the bad news: lizabeth scott.

yeah, bogie, i wanted to choke her too. it might actually wring a believable emotional response out of her. alright, maybe that's a little harsh. but, dear lord, she is bad in this film. i'm not entirely convinced it's all her fault in this case, though. she was obviously being used as a faux lauren bacall and she simply is not up to the task. she's a tad mannish, a terrible lip-syncher and generally just a void. she doesn't engender much feeling in any direction. as a femme fatale, she is neither truly detestable nor irresistible. it makes it tough to believe when bogart says things like "i hated every part of her" and "i can see why johnny loved you". really? i can't. not even close. it's a damned shame, really. put ann savage in her place and let her do her thing and you might have something.

and you might have something because everything else works fairly well. director john cromwell employs some interesting visual flourishes throughout the film that make great use of the monochrome. in the first two minutes you get skyline, rain-slicked streets and bogart negotiating this urban landscape to find sanctuary (foreshadowing the name of the gangster's club) in a church. in this section that sets up the extended flashback, bogart appeals to a priest (who, like bogart's character, is just home from the war) for help and a friendly ear. through this entire scene, bogart is shot in shadow. he is little more than a talking silhouette, suggesting that what he has just gone through has almost erased the man he had been. it's a beautiful effect. another fine bit of visual flair takes place here:

bogart's actual close-up is in the foreground, taking up the majority of the frame, but out of focus, suitably hazy for the beating he has just taken. we only see his wounded face in reflection, removed from himself, with his tormentor hovering over him like an apparition. fantastic shot. cromwell also gives us a scene in the morgue in which the main source of light seems to come from the drawers housing the cadavers. he throws in a few oblique angles in the architecture along the way and then we get this in the final act:

see that gap between them? it's about to be filled with gun smoke. it's a startling moment. you don't see her pull the trigger but the way the smoke wafts and lingers in the car is eerily effective, much more so than either seeing the muzzle flash and blood you could see in contemporary film or the almost cartoonish violence of some of the gangster films that preceded the noir era. and the smoke itself is lovely, occupying its own space in the grayscale composition and moving almost as if it's alive. dead reckoning has no shortage of noir aesthetic.

the dialogue crackles at times, too. hardboiled, to say the least. dig this:

"every mile we go you sweat worse with the same pain. didn't i tell you all females are the same with their faces washed?"

"his own mother wouldn't know him. he's as crisp as bacon."

"maybe she was alright. and maybe christmas comes in july."

"i gather, mr. murdock, that you've been around, as the saying is?"
"east st. louis is around enough."

"go ahead, put christmas in your eyes and keep your voice low. tell me about paradise and all the things i'm missing. i haven't had a good laugh since before johnny was murdered."

and this doozy:

"go ahead, sucker. beat it to your big beach home. this is the same gag you pulled on me last night. it's even the same corpse. only thing that's missing is the sledgehammer highball and a pair of snake eyes dice."

damn, that's good.

perhaps the most telling piece of dialogue, though, is this:

"no soap. this is operation solo."

and it's true on two significant counts:

one - this is a one man attraction. as much as there is that is perfectly serviceable about this film, without humphrey bogart it is a decidedly B picture. hell, even with bogie it is a B picture. he makes it a pretty good B, though. let's say a B+. it's a peculiar little exercise that is sandwiched between the biggest successes and most significant pairings of his career. he carries it off, though. it's no accident that he was a big a star as he was. if you can generate even the semblance of a spark of chemistry with lizabeth scott you're a better man than most.

two - the regular-joe-forced-to-become-a-detective bit will never go out of style. almost everyone would like to be that loner battling against long odds, the only one with the wits and the wherewithal to put the whole picture together. it was true in the forties, it's still true - see brick (2005). it will be true a hundred years from now. i just hope when it's my turn i draw jane greer.

1 comment:

  1. love the opening paragraph. And, yeah, those femme fatales are to die for, yuck yuck.