Director: John Cromwell
“You know, the problem with women is that they ask too many questions”
(Bogart and “Cinderella with a husky voice” – Lizabeth Scott)
One of the lesser-recognised Bogart films, Dead Reckoning was released on off the heels of the preceding year’ The Big Sleep, and slap bang in the middle of the legendary Bogart-Bacall series of films (their third film together, Dark Passage, was released in the same year). This means that it somewhat slips off the radar from most critics’ lists. Whilst it is true that it doesn’t have quite the same power or contain quite the same excitement as some of those other films, it’s still an enjoyable 90 minutes and in some ways is much more classically ‘noir’ than some of Bogart’s other, more widely known features.
In short, the film tells the story of Bogart’s character Rip Murdoch trying to track down the whereabouts of a former army buddy, who disappeared from the train returning the two pals home from the war. The backstory reveals that before the war, he had run away from that same town after being implicated in the murder of a love rival shortly before the war. After discovering his friend’s remains burned in a city morgue following a mysterious car accident, Bogart tracks down the ex-lover in question, the sultry Coral Chandler (“Cinderella with a husky voice” as Murdoch describes her) played by Lizabeth Scott. Before long, Murdoch discovers the involvement of mobsters and a clever cover-up, with Murdoch seeking to bring justice and vengeance in the name of his friend, ending in a suitably bleak fashion.
Essentially, it is the story of a man’s devotion to his friend (think of Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye and you get the sort of idea). Scott plays the role of the femme fatale with competence, although she doesn’t have quite the same chemistry with Bogart that one might quite want, but she certainly makes a good stab at it. The support cast is strong, with the two central villains feeding off of each other well. The plot is deep, and even if the final revelation is perhaps slightly predictable, it plays out well enough to keep the wider film interesting. There are several excellent set-pieces – a well-scripted gambling scene (albeit one slightly reminiscent of the one in The Big Sleep), a dramatic scene between Bogart, Scott and the two central antagonists (is there anything tougher than Humphrey Bogart throwing incendiary grenades around a room and threatening to burn men alive?), and the final bleak scenes involving Scott and Bogart’s characters facing their inevitable destinies. That said, the ending does throw up almost unavoidable comparisons with two other movies – Bogart’s comments about working solely for his friend’s memory is reminiscent of the “when a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it” monologue (also by Bogart) in The Maltese Falcon. The final car crash scene is also akin to that of Out of the Past – although in its defence, this film came out in January 1947, whereas Out of the Past wasn’t released until that November – and so Dead Reckoning gets off the hook on that front, even if the success and enduring popularity of the Out of the Past does make the comparison inevitable.
As usual, however, it is Bogart who steals the show – his direct manner and his character’s devotion to justice for his friend drives the film forward, and we get a couple of memorable one liners (“What do you mean am I checking up on you? Of course I am.”) He gets more action, not to mention physical abuse, than many of his other characters, and you can’t help but sympathise with a man who is solely out to defend his friend’s honour. Much of the film also makes use of a voiceover-narration from Bogart which, despite being a trait which is closely linked with the noir style(again, think Out of the Past), is absent from pretty much all of Bogart’s most famous features – ironic, given that he is pretty much considered the star of the genre. As a result, it gives a slightly fresher air to the film and adds a new level of unpredictability, which is helpful in distinguishing the film which occasionally suffers from all-to-easy comparisons to previous ones.
Overall, it’s a fairly strong movie in its own right, even if some elements of the plot are slightly predictable, and the vibe between Bogart and Scott isn’t the sharpest, but the murder-mystery angle here is still interesting, and a few strong set-pieces and lines of dialogue keep the film above mediocre waters. It’s not The Big Sleep or Out of the Past, and whilst comparisons with other movies aren’t always the fairest, those two are some of the greatest films of the era, and in coming out slap between them, Dead Reckoning does end up feeling a little short. But by itself, it’s still a fun and well-paced movie which gives us another 90 minutes with Humphrey. Bogart. And that can only ever be a good thing.