Wed 18 Jul 2012
DEAD RECKONING. Columbia, 1947. Humphrey Bogart, Lizabeth Scott, Morris Carnovsky, Marvin Miller, Wallace Ford. Screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Steve Fisher, based on a story by Gerald Adams and Sidney Biddell, who also produced. Director: John Cromwell.
Humphrey Bogart spent most of his career at Warner Brothers, where all his best films were produced. From The Petrified Forest to The African Queen, and all the way through The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Key Largo, and countless others, when you think of a Bogart Movie, you are probably thinking of the Warners’ ambiance: the stock company of supporting players, cameramen, composers and all the other technicians, who contributed so much to the Bogart mystique.
For some reason, though, Warner’s decided in the late 40s to loan their top male star to Columbia, the smallest of the Major studios. It was run in those days by Harry Cohn, a man of epochal unpleasantness, whose massive funeral prompted the comment, “Give the people what they want and they’ll come out for it.”
Under his reign, Columbia was Home to Frank Capra and the Three Stooges, with most of its product canted toward the latter end of the scale. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that when Cohn got hold of a good thing he milked it dry, and turned out not a few classics in the process.
So when they got their hands on Humphrey Bogart for a single picture in 1946, Columbia beat their live horse for all it was worth, by hiring a corps of writers to steal all the best bits from Bogie’s biggest hits, and surrounding him with (mostly unknown) character actors, who somehow managed to look and act like a close approximation of the Warners Stock Company. The result was the Ultimate Bogart Picture.
Dead Reckoning is not particularly witty, not noticeably intelligent, and not at all original, yet it has a certain memorable quality all its own: It contains so many elements from so many (better) Bogart movies, that it somehow becomes the apotheosis of them all.
The plot, as nearly as I can determine, involves the efforts of cynical, world-weary Rip Murdock (Bogie, of course) to clear the name of a dead army pal, a quest that takes him to one of those echt Film Noir cities populated by Dumb Cops, Cultured Gangsters, Sadistic Goons, Regular Joes, and a blonde, husky-voiced femme fatale played by Lizabeth Scott, a cross between Lauren Bacall and Eugene Pallette.
All of the above, replete with beatings, gambling joints, frame-ups and shoot-outs, gets served up with more precision than originality, accompanied by a Chandleresque voice-over narration that strains its metaphors so hard you can hear their knuckles turning white. (Like that one.)
Yet if you like Bogart Pictures, it’s hard not to enjoy Dead Reckoning, thanks mainly to John Cromwell, a director who deserves a digression all his own:
Cromwell has even less of a reputation than Michael Curtiz, as Hollywood Directors go, and holds an even smaller claim to Personal Style, yet he directed films that somehow outshone the classics of better-known auteurs, perhaps because he never made a fetish of Originality.
Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Since You Went Away, Algiers, Made for Each Other, Son of Fury and The Enchanted Cottage all bear comparison with better-known films like Young Mr. Lincoln, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Casablanca, and his The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and Caged are arguably the best Swashbuckler and Prison films Hollywood ever produced, even if they came too late in their cycles to be considered “Influential.”
When Columbia turned to John Cromwell to make a film in the Classic Bogart Mold, they knew what they were doing. Cromwell approaches Dead Reckoning totally undaunted by the cliched script and predictable story line.
He gives each tried-and-true scene the freshness that Hawks, Curtiz and John Houston brought to them a few movies back, and backs off at all the right moments to allow his star enough room for the well-known mannerisms, wise-cracks and reaction shots that Bogart buffs dote on.
The result is a film that seems familiar the first time you see it, but none the less likable for that. I didn’t respect Dead Reckoning the morning after I saw it, but I suspect I’ll sleep with it again.