Saturday, May 22, 2010

And today, I ate crow twice: "Dead Reckoning" review

I couldn't resist a classic Humphrey Bogart film - particularly one with a good rep. I was in the mood, so "Dead Reckoning" jumped to the top of my queue, hard on the heels of a Bogey-and-Bacall-athon.

The film begins with a man on the street (Bogart's "Rip" Murdock). He's wounded and skulking about; avoiding the police, he tries to stay in the shadows. Soon, he enters a church, and finds a someone to speak to. This is Bogey's attempt to pass along what he knows, in case he dies soon. He explains how he came to this town, Gulf City...

Murdock and his wry voice served in World War II. He was wounded along with his friend, Johnny Drake (played by William Prince). The pair are suddenly taken from their European hospital and flown to New York City; they're rushed to Penn Station, with a police escort. Rip is uneasy, as he knows they must be involved in something big. Since Bogart had already cultivated the image of the reckless-but-crafty tough, it's fitting that Rip Murdock searches a superior officer's coat for information: Murdock is going to receive a silver star, and Johnny will get a Congressional Medal of Honor.

But this news doesn't please his friend. Drake seems more nervous than Rip was earlier. At the next station, when asked to pose for pictures, Johnny escapes and boards a moving train. Murdock discovers that his friend went to war under an assumed name, and he follows a clue to Gulf City. Gulf City has gambling and nice hotels and is Johnny's hometown. GC is also where Johnny was convicted of murder. And the victim was the husband of an alluring singer, Coral (the huskily-voiced Lizabeth Scott). And Coral still works at that same club. Complicated, right?

"Dead Reckoning" is very much a film noir. Although "Rip" Murdock owned a cab company, he has all the instincts of a gumshoe, and the narration to match. He meets an array of odd, well-defined characters in Gulf City. Most everyone has an angle, a backstory, or a secret. Our hero flows or stumbles from one person to the next, out-witting folks and coaxing information from them when he needs to.

As happens in this genre, though, the relationship between the male and female leads is set to centerstage. A protagonist in these movies, especially one played by Bogart, must walk a fine line between trust and deviousness - particularly when dealing with such women. Rip already has reason to distrust Coral, but can't help being drawn to her beauty and personality. He plays her for as long as he can - like being in a cell with murderers. But at some point, as the danger mounts and the two are forced to work together, he can't help but doubt his feelings of mistrust.

Bluntly, I love these movies but hate seeing the "film noir" title used. It always connotes a mystery, evasion of cop and criminal alike, and fallen or broken or vile people. But using the "FN" phrase to describe a movie virtually guarantees that you should a female lead to be the bad guy. It spoils the surprise!

I won't say what the case is in this movie, but Murdock believes that Johnny would never murder a man to get his wife. Fortunately, the conventions of film noir always allow for the possibility that the cherished friend will turn out to be less saintly than previously thought. This allows room for some suspense. That's the point of film noir - everyone is dirty, from the hero on down. And, for my enjoyment of the genre, I'm doing my best to erase the certainty of a "femme fatale" from my mind.

The upshot of the viewing experience is mixed-but-positive: It's fun watching our hero work everyone while finding out what happened to his friend. You'll be less moved as he tries to figure out whether love can arise from a series of unfortunate events. The story and romance are the weaker links, yet the humor and characters are very solid. As with all decent movies of this genre and era, you should sit back to enjoy the vivid and fun characters that fill up every scene.

"Dead Reckoning," for entertainment purposes, is somewhere between decent and good. It's definitely not going to become a favorite of yours. Fortunately, it does not have to be - this is a fair, enjoyable movie that's played as a one-man buddy cop flick. I picked an unknown, older film because I like Humphrey Bogart, and I knew a 40's noir would likely have few bland and underwritten parts. I certainly wasn't disappointed.

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