Thursday, August 07, 2008
Dead Reckoning (1947)
"It seems to me that the Bogie fad has faded, returning him to his real admirers," observed X. Trapnel recently. The Siren hopes that's true, because Humphrey Bogart, compared with other "icon" actors such as Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, gives the Siren the most consistent thrill of pleasure, again and again, even in a relatively bad movie. This was brought home to her when she saw Dead Reckoning.
The Siren was startled to find she'd written little to nothing about Bogart, then realized the omission makes a sort of sense. Bogart is somebody a cinephile covers early on. Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, High Sierra, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, The Big Sleep--unlike trying to fill in other filmographies, these are not items you have to hunt down one by one like so many peppercorns rolling to the far corners of the kitchen. Even his smaller parts from the 1930s, like Dead End and The Roaring Twenties, are absorbed early. He's so much a part of history, even for those barely aware of a time before color, that discussion seems superfluous, and yet discussing him is very rewarding. He was a highly technical actor, conscious of every effect, right down to the tremor in his cheek to signal anger (which Kenneth Geist says irritated Barefoot Contessa costar Marius Goring no end).
The best piece the Siren has read about Bogart remains Louise Brooks's "Bogie and Bogart." Its portrait of a cultivated man, doggedly pursuing stardom even as he's beset by his own attractions to impossible women (that is, until Bacall came along) jibes a lot more with what's on screen than just Bogie the tough guy. Certainly his persona was tough, but his characters also fall frequently for the femme fatale. He catches on, of course--he's Bogart--but not before almost becoming just another sap.
Which brings us back to Dead Reckoning. What a weird experience this movie is, like getting into a sleek car that keeps shuddering into a stall. Bogart's character runs through rain-slicked streets in a Southern town called Gulf City (standing in for Panama City? it certainly isn't New Orleans) and winds up in a church confessing to a just-discharged Army padre, even though he isn't Catholic. (Joe Breen must have loved that.) Then the movie skids into flashback about a trip to Washington as Bogart wants his buddy to accept a Medal of Honor--stall. Startup again as the buddy runs away and Bogart pursues to a rather Grand Hotel-ish accomodation in Gulf City. He finds out his buddy was once suspected of murder, but then his friend's body is discovered, charred beyond recognition. Off to the casino to find Lizabeth Scott, the buddy's true love. Scott sings a song--movie doesn't just stall here, it slams into a telephone pole.
Anyway, the Siren avoids excessive plot summary and you see where this is going, yes? In its fitful way Dead Reckoning hits all the noir themes. Soldiers in mufti. Buddy in trouble. Den of vipers. Cops no help. Woman shady, or maybe not, or maybe yes. Smooth-talking casino owner (Morris Carnovsky, not bad but demonstrating that George Macready deserves a LOT more credit for being so damn brilliant in the same role in Gilda). There were five writers on Dead Reckoning and boy does it show--the narrative arc is more like Morse code. Director John Cromwell gets some nice shots in here and there and some interesting visual motifs. Bogart and his dead pal were paratroopers and this is used as a recurrent image of falling, most interestingly when Bogart is knocked cold at a key moment in the film. But Cromwell wasn't a great enough talent to smooth out a script like this.
The script also robs the actors of the ability to create fully formed characters. The dialogue is too wordy (not a complaint the Siren often makes) and people run around with half-baked motivations. There is also a corpse stashed in a trunk at one point and while it's possible I missed the line, I could swear no real explanation is ever given as to where the poor slob winds up.
Despite all this the Siren couldn't stop watching, as Bogart kept giving her moments to love. There's one bit when the cops hammer on his hotel door at a bad time. He stashes the corpse (the same guy that eventually winds up in the trunk), changes out of his clothes, answers the door and while the cops are questioning him, he nonchalantly gets into bed in his silk jammies with black piping, still daring the coppers to hassle him. I tried to imagine Dick Powell doing this and couldn't--the movie would immediately turn into "Honeymoon Hotel," no matter how tough Powell had been acting beforehand.
The Siren thinks Bogart's needling is a key part of his cool. In real life he was famous for unapologetic rudeness to anyone who struck him as a phony. On screen he plays it the same way, a guy unable to resist mouthing off even if it's about to get him slugged, maybe even because it's about to get him slugged. Did anyone ever take a punch like Bogart? He gets beat up about midway through, mimes extreme pain quite well and yet you wholly believe that sneer that remains plastered to his face throughout, even as that bad attitude makes the thug even angrier.
Another element: his rock-solid sense of belief. At one point Bogart's character is driving along with Lizabeth Scott (and the corpse in the trunk, but let it slide) and he goes into a bit of dialogue about how a woman should be shrunk down to four inches tall and kept in your pocket until it's time to er, blow her up. I would have transcribed this exactly, but shock made me drop the pencil--you can read it here. Anyway Bogart delivers this mind-boggling speech with the same conviction he gives everything else--he doesn't wink or condescend no matter what kind of drivel he's speaking. But give him a good line and he'll wipe the floor with it, as when he's threatening Carnovsky with an incendiary device: "How do you like yourself, medium rare?"
It isn't a bad movie, just a mediocre one, a noir that has all the requisite elements--maybe too many requisite elements--and still misses the mark. But Bogart, playing a character whose shifting moods and motivations could give another actor whiplash, still fascinates. For the Siren he always will.