John Cromwell, 1947
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lizabeth Scott, Morris Carnovsky
A former paratrooper, Rip Murdock, meets with a priest, his old friend, to explain his recent adventures in case he dies. Flashing back, Rip explains that his army buddy, Sergeant Johnny Drake, recently went vanished. Murdock tracks him to Gulf City, in the South, but was too late – Drake’s burned body was recovered from a car crash. He learns that Drake was in the Army with a fake name, because he fled a murder charge in Gulf City. He was accused of killing the rich, old husband of Coral “Dusty” Chandler, a nightclub singer that Drake was in love with. Murdock himself soon falls for Dusty and gradually realizes that not only was Drake innocent, but that all in Gulf City is not as it seems…
Bogart was lent out to Columbia Pictures for this mediocre film that is enjoyable almost solely because of his strong performance as Rip Murdock, a take-no-prisoners former paratrooper. “Dead reckoning” is a term that means navigation without any instruments or technology, essentially traveling blind and using the information at one’s disposal to guess location and direction. It’s a great title – probably the best thing about the script – and ties together Murdoch’s wartime experiences and his predicament in Gulf City.
The script is really to blame for all the film’s flaws. Characters aren’t properly developed, plot lines go unresolved (such as a dead body in the trunk and some explosives), and Bogart’s primary focus on his missing comrade-in-arms is left by the wayside embarrassingly fast. It’s also possible that there are too many film noir clichés thrown together – a femme fatale, a younger woman married to a rich, older husband who dies, troubled soldiers returned from the war, a gangster who owns a nightclub and is entangled with the sexy singer, and so on. Many of these individual plot elements actually appear in other Bogart films, which seem to strip Dead Reckoning of any unique identity and it times it feels like a parody. For example, the dead, older husband is named Chandler, after leading hardboiled writer Raymond Chandler.
And speaking of Chandler, key elements are lifted directly from the film Double Indemnity, which he scripted. An injured, perhaps dying man gives his final confession to an older friend (in Double Indemnity, the man is a boss, here it’s a priest), much of both films take place in flashback and voice over, the main character falls for a blonde woman that plots (or plotted in the past) to do away with a rich, older husband, and he is haunted by her flower-scented perfume. Both the male and female characters have a fateful car ride together towards the end of the film, and both films essentially conclude with the couple trying to kill each other.
While nothing about this sounds inherently bad, the film is lacking something indefinable. There are five names credited on the script – Sidney Biddell, Gerald Adams, Allen Rivkin, Oliver H.P. Garrett, and Steve Fisher – which was obviously too many. Most of these men went on to better film noir projects, including Lady in the Lake (1947), The Big Steal (1949), His Kind of Woman (1951), etc. There are some intriguing things introduced, such as the opening scene, where Murdock relates his tale to a priest, but this doesn’t go anywhere. It would have been interesting to involve the priest in the plot (he is in Gulf City, after all), but this potential quickly dissipates.
Dusty Chandler is another perplexing element. While Barbara Stanwyck is excellent at conveying that Phyllis Dietrichson is simply a woman gone wrong in Double Indemnity, Scott’s Dusty simply feels confused. She’s an almost schizophrenic character, acting and making decisions to propel the plot forwards, but not out any sense of identity or rationality. Is she a good woman fallen on rough times, manipulates by evil men? Or is she a duplicitous murderess? The film doesn’t entirely answer this – she is a murderess, but she’s given no clear motivation for her crimes and it’s obvious that she loves Murdock, at least by the end of the film.
Bogart is great, as always, though by about 20 minutes into the film, it’s difficult to believe that he’s a paratrooper instead of a private detective. Lizabeth Scott shows the limited range of her acting ability here, floundering with a bad script instead of overcoming it (as Bogart is able to). Scott was unfortunately similar to Bogart’s wife Lauren Bacall – a deep, sulty voice, pretty, if angular face, and blonde hair – but unlike Bacall, whose romantic relationship with Bogie was a keystone of her acting career, Scott could play a femme fatale. Though she was never as famous as Bacall, Scott starred in a number of noir films over the years and I’ve always found her pleasant to watch. Dead Reckoning was only her third film, so she was still settling in to the genre here.
While Dead Reckoning has plenty of faults, it’s still an entertaining effort and will please Bogie fans. Director John Cromwell does a decent job, providing some memorable scenes, and went on to make two superior film noir efforts, Caged (1950) and The Racket (1951). Dead Reckoning is available on DVD and is at least worth a rental.