I guess when you watch enough films it’s almost inevitable that a certain degree of familiarity with plot and characters creeps in. Leaving aside the matter of remakes and such, this is often simply a false perception on the viewers part. However, every once in a while, a movie like Dead Reckoning (1947) comes along where familiarity is not just a case of perceived similarity but a clear rehash of characters, themes and even dialogue from earlier works. This picture borrows heavily from two previous Bogart vehicles - The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, the latter being the most obvious with lines of dialogue getting recycled by the very man who made them iconic in the first place. Although Dead Reckoning never manages to attain the heights of its source of inspiration, it remains an entertaining (if slightly cheesy) film noir.
It opens strongly with a battered and desperate Captain Murdock (Humphrey Bogart) dodging the cops along the dark, rain slicked pavements of Gulf City. Symbolically seeking sanctuary, he slips into a Catholic church and melts into the protective shadows. Recognising the returning priest as a former army padre, he takes the opportunity to unburden himself and tell his tale in an improvised confession. This introduces the flashback structure that dominates the bulk of the film’s running time. In brief, Murdock is now running scared in Gulf City as a result of his attempt to locate an old army pal who decided to take a powder rather than face exposure as a wanted man when he learns that he is to be awarded the Medal of Honor. The plot follows Murdock’s efforts to clear the name of his friend for a murder that he believes was out of character. The friend in question ends up burnt to a crisp in a car wreck before Murdock even has a chance to contact him, so he must feel his way in the dark in a strange town and among an assortment of shady figures. The closest link to his friend, and the person most likely to hold the key to his fate, is a husky voiced cabaret singer by the name of Coral Chandler (Lizabeth Scott). Murdock’s innate distrust of women means he starts off sceptical of the sincerity of this lady, and her apparent closeness to the smoothly repellent night club owner and gambler Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky) merely serves to heighten his suspicions. Throughout the movie Murdock blows hot and cold in relation to Coral, his attitude varying from doubt to acceptance and back again, even as he finds himself increasingly attracted to her. It’s only after Murdock turns Martinelli’s office into a raging inferno that the truth behind his friend’s demise finally comes to light.
Bogart’s character in Dead Reckoning is a detective in the Spade/Marlowe mold in all but name; he frequents the same kind of places, mixes it with the same mobsters and duplicitous types and speaks in the same hard-boiled idiom. He even brings matters to a head in a way we’ve seen before - as he tosses the deadly incendiary grenades around Martinelli’s office to loosen tongues you almost expect to hear him snarl “That’s one, Eddie…”, and the climactic scene with Lizabeth Scott borders on a pastiche of the payoff in The Maltese Falcon. Despite the lack of originality in the script (I’ve also read that the movie was initially planned as a kind of follow-up to Gilda) it still stands up as a medium grade noir. A lot of this is due, I think, to Bogart’s strong performance, his cynicism and toughness papering over the weaknesses in other aspects of the movie. The short scene in the morgue - the one cool place in town - highlights this through its combination of smart-ass dialogue and implied violence. In fact, there’s a good deal of violence in the movie, although much of it takes place off screen. The savage beating Murdock receives from Marvin Miller’s sadistic thug, all carried out to the accompaniment of dance time music, is never shown but the damage to the hero’s face makes it clear enough what’s been going on. Morris Carnovsky’s Martinelli makes for an interesting villain, reminiscent of George Macready’s Ballin Mundson in the aforementioned Gilda, as a lowlife with a veneer of sophistication and mock delicacy. The weakest link in the whole chain is ironically the one person who’s presence ties all the strands together - Lizabeth Scott. She was clearly supposed to act as a kind of surrogate Bacall, a sultry foil for Bogart’s two-fisted protagonist. She looks the part and pitches her voice low enough to promise heaven and honey, but her overall performance is a poor one. At one point she spins Bogart one of those hard luck yarns so beloved of femme fatales and then, not reading the result she wanted in his features, asks if he doesn’t believe her. And that’s the problem; there’s a lack of conviction and credibility when she delivers some of the most crucial lines in the movie. Leaving aside the performers, John Cromwell’s direction is mostly effective and there are some darkly moody scenes. The tense opening and the subsequent flashback power things along, but the return to “normal” time lets the momentum slow a little, and a little too early, before the final reveal.
The R2 DVD from Sony/Columbia is reasonably good but not without some faults. The transfer is generally clean, but there are moments of softness and a few occasions when scratches and light damage prove mildly distracting. The only extra feature offered is a gallery consisting of a few posters. Generally, this is a pretty respectable noir, though not quite top flight material. The script is too much by the numbers and unquestionably derivative of other pictures. Still, it does hold one’s interest and has rewatch value if only to enjoy again some fine, snappy lines. That, and a typically gritty Bogart performance, earns it a recommendation.