There's no compromise here
When one thinks about the great legends of classic Hollywood, certain images come to mind: Clark Gable as Rhett Butler carrying a protesting Vivian Leigh as Scarlet O'Hara up the main staircase of Tara. Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski screaming for his true love, Stella. Marilyn Monroe standing over the subway vent, skirt floating about her shapely body. And then there's Humphrey Bogart. Few will forget him as Rick, giving Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa a romantic sendoff to end all sendoffs in Casablanca. Very few actors, past or present, stand the test of time better than Bogie. He cemented his dynamic presence with hard-boiled detective tales and gangster films throughout the '30s and '40s, only to grow into the more mature and complex work of the post war era. Bogart was one of the most unlikely of Tinseltown icons. Slightly built, with a face carved from granite by nicotine, his minor lisp the fodder for a hundred would-be future impersonators. There was (and is) no denying his power, both as an actor and a personality. In celebration of this legend's timeless career, Columbia TriStar has recently released a series of his films on DVD. And while Dead Reckoning is archetypical Bogart, it also represents another Hollywood truism. Every major mega-star had a few cinematic detours off the classic path on the way to immortality. Low rent B-movies were also part of their contractual obligation.
Facts of the Case
While on his way to Washington to be decorated for service in the war, Sgt. Johnny Drake jumps train. His friend, Colonel Warren "Rip" Murdock (Bogart) is confused. Hoping to figure out what is going on, he traces his friend/service pal to southern hotspot Gulf City. Upon arriving, he learns his friend is dead. The police have found his burnt body in a car wreck. Rip traces Johnny's history in the town, where he discovers that Johnny skipped bail to join the service in order to avoid a murder charge. Seems the love of his life was the wife of a wealthy businessman, and Johnny was accused of killing him. Rip traces the woman to a nightclub, where he meets more of Johnny's associates: Mr. Martinelli the suave mob boss and Krause, Martinelli's hired goon. He starts asking questions and is drugged. A body is discovered in his hotel room and the police are hot on his trail. Rip digs deeper and finds that the woman, Mrs. Coral "Dusty" Chandler, may not be telling the whole truth about the killing of her husband. And as the twists and double crosses begin to mount, Rip must stay one step ahead of the mob, the police, and a fancy dame that he might actually be falling for. Emotions can cloud even the most jaded of hearts, but it's up to Rip to discover the truth and uncover the real killer, no matter who it may be, or how painful the outcome.
Dead Reckoning is standard good old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment. It presents a carefully crafted, if overly wordy script that tinges all of its characters with the proper noir nuances of love, loss, deception and defeat. It is elaborate in its settings and luscious in its lighting and photography. It also stars Humphrey Bogart, doing a twist on his world-weary private dick persona. Perhaps a better way to describe this film would be Sam Spade Goes to War or The Maltese Colonel. There is a mystery here, one so convoluted and complex that it requires 110% of the audience's attention 120% of the time. The first half of the film is told in flashback, with information and standard hardboiled analogies ("hot as a street corner diamond") coming fast and furious as Bogart's Rip confesses all, the same old story of how he got himself in a jam, to a compassionate priest. Lots of talk going on here. But even after we leave the backstory and head into the final showdowns and revelations, the soundtrack is still filled with words. Current audiences used to the modern style of brooding method mannerism may find all this rapid-fire repartee manic. Indeed, characters spend very little time in silence. There is just a constant pouring forth of internal and external emotions and motives from mouths. In many ways it's the constant motion of dialogue that keeps the movie rolling forward, not action or skillful direction.
The knowledgeable film buff will immediately recognize many of the familiar movie contrivances piling up, cliché upon cliché: the lonely lady looking for love and sympathy with men who can protect her. The ruthless club owner with a secret and a damning piece of evidence to hide. The dull witted bodyguard/goon who likes to work over nosy newcomers with brute force and animalistic glee. The cop whose waistband is as wide as his detecting instincts are narrow. Mix them up with some highballs, long dark shadows, wet streets at night, a great many cigarettes and smoke-filled close-up two shots, and you have all the usual suspects in Hollywood's handbag of the gritty who-done-it. But unlike better, more convincing mystery fare, Dead Reckoning suffers under all that recognizable overfamiliarity. You just know that Bogie will be framed, that the woman is not all she claims to be, and that there are probably seven or eight sides to every story. The art of convenience and coincidence is practiced ad infinitum in this ham-fisted standard backstabber murder for love and money storyline. True, many classic Hollywood thrillers wear their by now as old as the studio system plots far too openly on their sleeve to be tricky or subversive. Without a decent element of surprise, the only saving grace can come from the actors placed in charge of the charade. Sadly, aside from Bogart, Dead Reckoning is rather light with solid acting talent.
An argument can be made that Bogart is very passive here. While seemingly proactive in trying to solve the case, he actually lets more things randomly happen to him, only to work at solving them later. His character is ill defined, without much background to work with (some hints at mob involvement are merely skimmed over). And those reams of dialogue and exposition he has to work through don't help either. His war experiences are down played and our worldly serviceman doesn't look like a man who'd be content owning a fleet of taxicabs. The introduction of an interesting verbal signature (the skydiving term "Geronimo") does provide a doorway of sorts into the inner burden that Bogart carries in the film. But as a character and an actor, Bogie is merely the perfect foil and mirror for the other characters around him. It's impressive to see just how he changes, altering his personality and mannerisms to suit the circumstances. Also amazing is how he accentuates the other actors, bringing out bright spots in what are more or less plebian performances. The reliance here is not on in-depth characterization though. It's on mega-multi leveled plot design and the indescribable magnetism that Bogie radiates off the screen like bolts of lightning off a power generator. He may not make a convincing Colonel, but he is a fantastic Humphrey Bogart.
As for the rest of the cast, they are a bunch of barely noteworthy character and B-actors. As the old saying goes, you want X, you'll take Y, but you get Z. Here, we desperately want Lauren Bacall's husky sensuality. Her pairings with Bogart (Key Largo, To Have and Have Not) are the stuff of holy Hollywood mythology. In a pinch, we'd take Veronica Lake's mysterious fragility. But regrettably, we are stuck with the rather dull damsel of Lizbeth Scott as Dusty/Mrs. Chandler. More icicle than black widow, she is stringent and vacant, like low quality porcelain. She has a very Barbara Bain look about her (you keep waiting for Martin Landau to show up from out of the corner of a shot), and while her acting is perfectly serviceable, she seems less glamorous than your typical Bogart co-star (especially compared with the company mentioned before). She just doesn't resonate like a woman Bogie would risk everything for, or fall in love so quickly with. Equally underwhelming is Morris Charnovsky as Martinelli, our villain (of sorts). He comes off as too sophisticated and pampered to be an ex-street hood, and his clipped near British delivery seems there merely to remind audiences of better, more imposing forces that have gone up against Bogart (Sydney Greenstreet, et cetera). He never poses much of a threat, even when he is actually threatening. During the final confrontation with fire raging all around him, he seems perturbed, not desperate and angry. Maybe with a better cast, this film would circumvent its B-movie roots. As it stands, Dead Reckoning is fun but shallow.
But no matter its intended theatrical placement, this is still an old time Tinseltown production, and the value is there in spades. Sets are opulent beyond belief and richly detailed. Mrs. Chandler lives in an apartment that would make Mariah Carrey weep from jealousy, and the nightclub the characters frequent (and the villain owns) is so exclusive and expensive looking that you might feel underdressed just from watching the movie. Yes, there are some racially questionable holdovers from the very non-PC early days of Hollywood casting. We get overweight black maids and English mangling hotel workers. And in many instances, director John Cromwell seems confused by the dark, arcane requirements of film noir. Some scenes are overlit to near blinding, and other times attempts at sinister silhouettes just don't work. Still, unlike low rent movies in the present day, even cut-rate Hollywood cinema shimmers marvelously. Yet it's all flash in the name of very little substance. Dead Reckoning has a decent story that will probably keep you guessing, and then reconsidering your guesses, right up until the heavy handed Deus Ex Machina style ending. But it still feels overly pat, as if the screenwriters realized that one twist might not be enough (or in this case, fifteen or sixteen twists). By the end, you will feel as manipulated and mangled as the victims in that opportune car crash. Thankfully, the power of Humphrey Bogart, his presence and his persona are enough to keep you stone sober, focused, and amused.
What a shame, then, that Columbia TriStar does such an abysmal job in the presentation of this film. Dead Reckoning was made over 46 years ago and good negatives must be hard to come across, but that doesn't mean that the print they utilized for the transfer had to show every bit of its age. There are massive defects (grain, splicing errors, spots, and tears), and the black and white image, presented full screen, is foggy. This is one noir that is mostly light gray. The sharp contrast and deep blacks one expects from a 1940s mystery thriller are just not there. We also have a strange pulsating "white noise" section in the middle of the image, as if every once in a while someone with a flashlight stands behind the middle of the screen and waves the light around. The package claims the video was digitally mastered. All this seems to mean is that they took a half-assed television print or VHS dub and slapped it onto an aluminum disc. They try to make up for it in the pristine mono soundtrack and supplements, but aside from a series of vintage movie posters in a page-through gallery and a tedious presentation of the titles in Columbia's Bogart Collection, there is nothing significant here. Certainly, a title like Dead Reckoning doesn't call out for scholarly comments or in-depth featurettes, but this is Bogart we are talking about. Something contextual would have helped sell his bygone grace to several generations who recognize him solely as a voice that Rich Little does, usually very poorly.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Movies can be categorized by their place in time. So can their enjoyment levels. No one would argue that a silent action film like Douglas Fairbanks' The Thief of Baghdad is as accomplished technologically or ranks alongside The Terminator or even Errol Flynn's Robin Hood. They are distinct to their eras, to their makers and their audiences. And this will be the main problem that most people will have with Dead Reckoning. When compared with films of the 1960s through 2003, it feels cold and unyielding, hard pressed to give up its secrets until it's damn good and ready, or until the actors finish their mouthfuls of overly arch dialogue. Persons raised on the cinema of realism that has moved through the medium in the last 30 years will find the clever come-ons, cheesy jibes, and prosaic analogies all too much to bear. Face it, most of the time Bogart narrates, it sounds one rewrite away from being a full-blown parody. And you know there's trouble when Steve Martin's failed experiment in melding the past with the present, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, starts to feel more authentic and true to the genre than this film. Dead Reckoning is too indebted to the stylish, suspenseful films that came before it, and since its release, many more films have done a better, more artistic job of reinterpreting the overall noir concept into something a little more suave and sinister. While it's always a pleasure to see Bogart at work, this is not the vehicle in which to experience his true talent.
Like most of older Hollywood, Bogart had to wait until The African Queen to get the accolades and recognition he deserved. Having wandered through countless movies, from the lowly B's to the enduring classic A list, no one now could imagine him as anything less than a superstar. But he was a working contract player, just like most of Tinseltown's now legendary faces, and he had to make his fair share of mandated muck to satisfy the business suits inside the studios. It's too bad that Dead Reckoning is not a better film. Far from a classic, it's too familiar and formulated. Like many of the movies these stars had to make, it relies on their persona more than their talent to carry the running time. And it's a shame, because Bogart was a terrific actor. He, like the other easily envisioned members of the Hollywood memory bank, honed his overall image in countless versions of Reckoning's mysterious muddle: the sharp suit and hat, with a cigarette dangling ever so carefully from his lower lip. In later works like The Caine Mutiny and Sabrina, he got to expand his range and show sides of his personality that past films failed to explore. But it's the hard-boiled P.I. ideal that he will be forever associated with. Dead Reckoning adds nothing to Bogart's legend. Instead, it relies on it for almost all of its entertainment value.
Dead Reckoning is placed on six months probation for impersonating better Bogart movies. In the pantheon of Hollywood legends, this court recognizes the stellar work and lasting image of Humphrey Bogart. He was truly one for the ages.
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