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In his book The American Cinema, critic Andrew Sarris listed John Cromwell in the Lightly Likable category. Sarris meant this as a mild put-down of the "formal deficiencies" in Cromwell's films, so don't get the idea that there's anything light about pictures such as Of Human Bondage  and The Goddess . There's plenty of darkness in Dead Reckoning, too, which is natural for a 1947 mystery thriller from film noir's golden age. Sarris also wrote that the motto of Cromwell's cinema is cherchez la femme, but while it's true that he worked well with female stars, the most memorable face in Dead Reckoning belongs to Humphrey Bogart, not Lizabeth Scott although the riddle that keeps the movie clicking is whether Scott's character is a femme fatale, or just a femme caught up in events none of the characters can control.
Bogart plays Rip Murdock, a paratrooper captain just back from the war. In the opening scene he's scampering through the shadows of a city street, on the run from someone we can't see. Entering a church, he finds a priest and starts pouring out his story. The movie then continues in a long flashback, beginning with Rip and his army friend Johnny Drake on their way to Washington, where they've been ordered to report. Learning that he's going to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor for his wartime heroism, Johnny panics and leaps off the train, disappearing down the tracks as Rip helplessly looks on. To find out why this happened, and whether it's connected with his recent discovery that Johnny's college pin is inscribed with a different name, Rip traces his missing pal to Gulf City, a southern town. Hearing about a car accident in which the driver was burned beyond recognition, Rip views the corpse at the morgue and comes across what appears to be Johnny's mysterious pin. Soon afterward he meets Johnny's wife, Coral, a singer who's somehow mixed up with Martinelli, a sinister nightclub owner. Rip and Coral fall in love, natch, but their relationship is rocky from the get-go.
Further complications ensue when Martinelli's bartender, who had connections to Johnny, turns up dead in Rip's hotel room. Rip deduces that Martinelli killed the bartender, planning to frame him for murder. Acting on his suspicion, Rip faces off against Martinelli and gets mercilessly beaten up by Krause, a sadistic henchman. Among the plot's other ingredients are a blackmail scheme, a bigamous marriage, a visit with a safecracker, a gambling session with loaded dice, a fire touched off by military souvenirs, a high-speed car crash with Rip behind the wheel, and a death scene that finishes the picture on a sadly poetic note. Much of the film's interest comes from the shifting perspective on Coral, who is sometimes as loving a companion as Rip could ask for, and other times as sneaky as the mickey that Martinelli slips into Rip's cocktail.
Dead Reckoning was pushed into production quickly, because Warner Bros. owed Columbia for various star loan-outs and Bogart was available to repay the debt. Columbia chief Harry Cohn thought Coral would be played by Rita Hayworth, his most valuable female star, but a dispute over her contract led him to borrow Scott from Paramount instead. Cromwell had given Bogart his very first role on the Broadway stage, and since director approval was in the star's contract, Cohn accepted his request for Cromwell to direct. Perhaps because of the hasty production arrangements, Dead Reckoning doesn't always make a lot of narrative sense. The same goes for a number of classic noirs including Bogart's previous picture, The Big Sleep (1946) but as the New York Times diplomatically observed, "there are a lot of things about the script...that an attentive spectator might find disconcerting."
Scrambled storytelling isn't the only typical noir element in Dead Reckoning. Also present are the returning-veteran hero, the enigmatic heroine, multiple plot twists, and wisecrack-heavy dialogue, all woven into a story with a flashback structure and constant voiceovers by Rip that sometimes obscure more than they clarify. To his credit, Cromwell makes the convoluted tale reasonably coherent and occasionally quite surprising; he may have been known for "more sedate and imposing subjects," to quote the Times again, but he had all the necessary skills to bring a quintessentially noir style to a quintessentially noir project. The screenplay is credited to Oliver H.P. Garrett and Steve Fisher, who worked from Allen Rivkin's adaptation of an original story by Gerald Adams and the picture's producer, Sidney Biddell; they work too hard at lacing the dialogue with paratrooper talk it's a stretch when someone says "Geronimo" as someone dies but the effect is colorful, if not convincing. The picture is clearly influenced by The Maltese Falcon (1941), with Bogart avenging a friend rather than a partner this time and Scott reprising Mary Astor's duplicitous character. There's less of the earlier film's oddball humor, though, despite numerous attempts by the screenwriters.
Dead Reckoning received mixed reviews. Scott was deemed unsatisfactory by some critics, including the New York Times writer, who found her face "expressionless" and her movements "awkward and deliberate." Variety was kinder, acknowledging that she "stumbles occasionally" but praising her for a generally "persuasive, sirenish" portrayal. Bogart turns in a "typically tense performance" that "absorbs one's interest from the start," according to Variety, although Bogart biographer Allen Eyles says that in his voiceovers the star sounds "like an arrested adolescent trying to talk tough." Opinions about the supporting cast also differed, but most moviegoers will find a good deal of excellent work here. Morris Carnovsky plays Martinelli like a sort of nightclub Bela Lugosi, unctuous and threatening at once. William Prince and Wallace Ford make the most of their small parts as Johnny and the safecracker, respectively, and Marvin Miller is pure Hollywood evil as Krause, the psychopathic thug.
Sarris's fair-to-middling opinion of Cromwell was probably motivated by the general absence of personal touches in his work, always a requirement for auteur-oriented critics. It's true that Dead Reckoning is more a genre picture and a noir than "A John Cromwell Film" in the full auteurist sense. Yet looked at from another angle, Cromwell's self-effacing style becomes a plus. "He brought over a theater director's respect for the actor and the writer," says cinema scholar Richard Koszarski, "a quality which gave his work a uniformly high performance standard....To Cromwell the work of the director was not to throw off individual sparks of creativity, but to fuse the efforts of the entire creative team for the best interests of the finished work." In this case the finished work is an energetic noir, and individual sparks or not, it should make noir enthusiasts quite happy.
Director: John Cromwell
Producer: Sidney Biddell
Screenplay: Oliver H.P. Garrett, Steve Fisher
Cinematographer: Leo Tover
Film Editing: Gene Havlick
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson, Rudolph Sternad
Music: Marlin Skiles
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Rip Murdock), Lizabeth Scott (Coral "Dusty" Chandler), Morris Carnovsky (Martinelli), Charles Cane (Lt. Kincaid), William Prince (Johnny Drake), Marvin Miller (Krause), Wallace Ford (McGee), James Bell (Father Logan), George Chandler (Louis Ord)br>BW-101m.
by David Sterritt