Bogart, a wisp of jasmine and some custard in an acceptable noir
Feb 22, 2011
Captain Warren 'Rip' Murdock (Humphrey Bogart) and his friend Sergeant Johnny Drake (William Prince) are on their way to Washington right after the war for reasons they haven't been told. But on the train, they learn that Drake is going to receive the Medal of Honor. Drake realizes the publicity he'll get, and the next moment he's jumped off the train and disappeared. Murdock can't figure it out. He remembers the small enameled medallion Drake always carried with the name John Joseph Preston engraved on it. He knows something is wrong, and he's determined to track his friend down. Murdock winds up in Gulf City a few days later, staring at a corpse burned beyond recognition lying in the morgue. And he learns the only thing found on the body was a small lump of melted metal with enamel on it.
Dead Reckoning is grade B noir, made watchable by a strong Bogart performance and a story line that almost compensates for noticeable weaknesses.
When Murdock investigates what drove Johnny to leave Gulf City and join the army, then come rushing back, he discovers a beautiful widow, Dusty Chandler (Lizabeth Scott), an unscrupulous gambler, Mr. Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky) and Martinelli's goon (Marvin Miller), who likes to administer brutal beatings to soft music. Murdock has to keep his guard up; he can't quite figure Dusty out. It turns out Drake, who's real name was John Preston, voluntarily took the fall for her when her wealthy husband was shot and then ran out before the trial. Did Dusty really love Johnny or was she just using him? Murdock meets her at Martinelli's supper club, buys her a drink and invites her to dance while he tells her of Johnny's death. "I wanted her in my arms while I told her," Murdock says in flashback. “My right hand on her spine would feel the shock if there was any. She'd tested pure so far, but so did another girl I knew once, right up to the dollar."
"Tell me where you saw him...please," Dusty begs. "On a slab in the morgue, burned to a crisp," Murdock tells her.
"Her whole body," Murdock tells us, "had gone soft as custard when I slugged her with it, but I kept thinking -- she has to know something." It turns out that she does. This leads to more murder, beatings and betrayal. The worms of doubt and distrust dine well.
The drawbacks to the movie are due in part to Scott's performance. She was, in my view, a limited actress. We don't know which way she's going in the movie, good girl or bad, until the end, but she just doesn't create the kind of anticipatory tension that some other actresses could create with Bogart. She has a great husky voice, an nice overbite and a cultured accent halfway between Bryn Mawr and a lisp.
Bogart was at his best, I think, when he had strong, vivid actors to play off of. They accentuated his own unique style. Not only does Scott seem pallid, the other actors don't strike many sparks with Bogart, either. Carnovsky makes a smooth villain but not a vivid one. Marvin Miller simply doesn't carry much menace as an enforcer. The others, with the exception of Wallace Ford as a semi-reformed safe cracker, are all interchangeable with dozens of other Hollywood character actors.
On balance, if you like Forties noir and Bogart you will probably enjoy the movie.
But was that Dusty's real story? Here’s what really went down. I got it straight from Raymond.
Dusty Chandler in Dead Reckoning: I’ll bet you didn’t know Dusty was a cross dresser. No one did. Except me, of course, Raymond Hope. I don’t expect you’ll recognize my name. Back in the day I was what you might call a specialist in making things disappear. A studio had a problem with a star? A phone call to me and a nice retainer...the problem disappeared. Sometimes permanently. Mind, it was just a job, but I was good at it.
When Dusty Chandler showed up in my office, all I could see was one more kid on the make, willing to do anything to get a chance to grab the brass ring. They don't realize that Tinsel Town is home to a million tales...and the more grotesque the stories are the more likely they're true. Dusty was good-looking in a come-hither kind of way, which was a little unsettling. He was small, blonde and had so much overbite he could eat an apple with his mouth closed. I explained that he might make it as a Lon McCallister wannabe, but the next Gable? No way. Dusty just stared at me. Then he said, give me five minutes. He marched out of my office, his head high, toting the valise he’d carried in. Five minutes later in walks this blonde dame in a slinky dress, with long blonde hair and a whispery voice that was almost a lisp. I could tell it was Dusty because of that overbite. “You’ll be hearing more of me,” he said. “My real name is Buck Scott. When I was little and pretended I was Jane Withers, people who made fun of me called me ‘Lizabeth.’ But you, Raymond, can call me Dusty” And with that he marched out.
Six months later I read in Variety that Bogie was making a movie about a search for a buddy in the small, steaming town of Gulf City. He gets mixed up in murder and betrayal, of course, just the usual Southern stuff. But get this. His love interest is going to be a new discovery…the starlet Dusty Chandler. Jeez, didn’t he know Dusty was a guy?
Turns out nobody did, although I heard that Bogie complained that Dusty had too much fuzz on her upper lip during the kissing scenes. It bothered him, but he still told Louella that Dusty was a great smoocher.
What happened next, I can’t really say. All I know is that Dusty showed up a few months later in a panic. He was in trouble, real trouble. He’d started dating a powerful guy even I won’t name. Let’s just say he was a skinny Italian singer with mob ties. Dusty fell for him, hard, but he knew suddenly buying boxer shorts for two might not go down well. So Dusty gambled. Really gambled. He flew to Zurich and saw a specialist. Then just ten weeks after he flew back Dusty was pregnant and Frank, I mean the Italian singer, was tip toeing through the tulips. But Dusty hadn’t figured on one thing. When Dusty gave birth by way of his bottom, the surprised obstetrician couldn’t stop gossiping. Frank, of course, didn’t take well to the jokes his mob friends began telling at his expense. So now Dusty and his baby were in my office asking for disappearance advice.
Hell, I liked Dusty. He was a good kid. I arranged for a quiet retirement, financed by the studios who were scared to death the story would leak. Then I found a small, blond, husky unknown…a female, this time. The match wasn’t perfect. She had an overbite but she couldn’t manage an apple with it…maybe a small ear of corn. I set her up with the studios and gave her Dusty’s ‘female’ name to use. I guess I’m just a big guy with a soft heart. Maybe you’ve heard of her…Lizabeth Scott.