It is as if at a meeting at Columbia Pictures in early 1946 it was decided to make a ‘film noir’. John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning (1947) is so noir it is a parody of noir: they threw the then non-existent book at the film and produced a glorious pastiche of rip-offs and knowing references not only to earlier noirs but contemporary and future noirs. The picture which was completed on September 22, 1946 – it was released on January 22, 1947 – would have been in production when Nino Frank coined the term ‘film noir’ in his seminal article, A New Kind of Policier: the Criminal Adventure, in Paris in August 1946.
The credentials. John Cromwell went on to direct the important noirs, The Racket (1951), Caged (1950), and The Company She Keeps (1951), but he had no track record in noir in 1946, and the team of writers behind the screenplay doesn’t amount to the usual suspects to any degree – but for one exception. The script was adapted from a story by Sidney Biddell and Gerald Adams. Adams went on to script The Big Steal (1949) and Armored Car Robbery (1950), and wrote the story for His Kind of Woman (1951 uncredited). Allen Rivkin who wrote the film treatment, later scripted Gambling House (1950) and Tension (1949). The screenplay was a joint effort of Oliver H.P. Garrett and Steve Fisher. Garrett has no other noir credits, so the perp has to be Fisher who had form. Fisher wrote the stories for I Wake Up Screaming (1941) and Johnny Angel (1945), and scripted Berlin Correspondent (1942) and Lady in the Lake (1947).
Veteran DP Leo Tover with no other noir credits establishes a strong expressionist cred, and the rococo costume designer Jean Louis squeezes femme-fatale Lizabeth Scott into some seriously flamboyant gowns.
It may be all down to serendipity, but I smell a rat.
The references. Great maxi rip-offs of The Maltese Falcon (1941), High Sierra (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), Murder My Sweet (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Gilda (1946), Out of the Past (1947), and The File on Thelma Jordan (1950) – I know – I am in some cases talking rip-offs of future noirs – so sue me!
The story. Bogart is a war-hero turned hard-boiled amateur PI – he ran a fleet of cabs before the war – tracking down the mysterious death of an army buddy, who it turns out joined-up to escape a murder rap. Enter Lizabeth Scott as the dead guy’s glamorous but shifty girlfriend. Add a gambling den, hoods, and suspicious cops, and you get a noir – of sorts – the deal is not earnest and too knowing to be taken too seriously. But what fun! Bogie’s lines are classic wise-ass. To a bartender: “Come here sweet-heart”.
The lowdown. The movie opens with Bogart being pursued down a city street at night in the rain, with the wet asphalt glimmering. He loses the pursuers after hiding in a church. He way-lays a padre in the gloom and tells his story in flash-back. Vets Bogart and his buddy are on their way to Washington to get war decorations, but his buddy jumps the train after a press photo is taken. Bogart heads off to find him and find out why the guy has gone AWOL. Bogart traces him to a university town that looks like Chandler’s LA – the guy has been killed in an auto accident. The intrepid Bogie in mufti tracks down the girlfriend, Scott, an ex-chanteuse in a casino fronting as a cabaret, who after reprising her recent chart-hit and making an impression, introduces Bogie to the casino-operator, a suave foreigner engagingly played by Morris Carnovsky, and his sadistic henchman (a great camp turn by Marvin Miller). Well one drink leads to another – the last one spiked – and Bogie wakes up with a heavy hangover in his hotel-room and a stiff in the other twin-bed for company. You get the picture? Then all proceeds apace as Bogie endeavors to find out who killed his buddy and why. There is a double and later a triple-cross, with Bogie falling hard for Scott. The femme-fatale smells of jasmine not honey-suckle, and she just happens to be the casino guy’s wife! The final shoot-out is Out of the Past out of The Big Sleep. I don’t know how Bogie kept a straight face with the almost verbatim rip of the lines from The Maltese Falcon as he drives with Scott soon to hold a gun on him:
Bogart: Then there’s Johnny. When a guy’s pal is killed, he ought to do something.
Scott: Don’t you love me?
Bogart: That’s the tough part of it, but it’ll pass. Those things do, in time…
The final scene is an angelic Thelma Jordan on a hospital trolley, with death a parachute jump down the High Sierras. “Geronimo”