Top billing for film-noir regulars Humphrey Bogart and Lizabeth Scott (as Rip and Coral/Dusty/Mike/ex-Mrs. Chandler) who team up to find out what’s happened to Johnny Drake (William Prince), Rip’s wartime buddy and Dusty’s former lover. Johnny allegedly killed Dusty’s elderly husband (Chandler), then turns up dead himself (rather, a burned corpse presumed to be him).
Skulking nearby in clubs are hoods Krause (Marvin Miller) and Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky). This movie is known for period-typical snappy dialogue, and despite all its complications, a fairly obvious plot solution. Also, we get a long flashback sequence, a priest, and a femme fatale with four names.
Both the cops and some “tough customers” are after Rip. In a bit of foreshadowing, as the flashback begins, the Colonel characterizes Rip and Johnny as acting like they were still “behind enemy lines.” Pretty apt statement for film noir protagonists. In Gulf City, Johnny’s home town, Rip gets a cryptic message, possibly from Johnny. Scoping out Johnny’s background, he pieces together the Coral/Johnny/Chandler connection. It’s clear that he enlisted under a pseudonym to escape prosecution, which explains him ‘taking a powder’. Rip finds a burnt “slab of bacon” corpse in the morgue. Is it Johnny?
Next stop–the club, to check out a guy with some murder evidence, Louis Ord (George Chandler). Sounds like Johnny might still be around…The club features Coral/Dusty “Cinderella with a husky voice” is Rip’s take. She seems an awfully frosty Cinderella. Martinelli cajoles Rip and Dusty into the gaming room, as the slimy Krause presides over mischievous dice.
Louis tries to warn Rip that his drink is spiked, but Rip goes under anyway; he figures he can take care of himself, but refusing the drink would give up Louis. Nonetheless, he wakes up in his hotel room and finds Louis next to him, dead. Meaning, he’s lost a path to Johnny, and gained murder-suspect status.
Sure enough, Lieutenant Kincaid (Charles Cane) shows up at Rip’s room, but finds nothing. Rip finds a local safecracker, McGee (Wallace Ford), to help got into Martinelli’s safe. Rip figures that Johnny’s bombshell encoded letter has to be there. Shrewdly, he and Dusty manage to dump Ord’s body in Martinelli’s beach house’s garage; then call the police to report the body. That’s double bonus points–as he knows Martinelli will zip right over there–giving Rip time to rifle through the safe. Voila! the letter.
But, a trap. Not only does he not fool Martinelli, but Rip finds himself coming around after being black-jacked with Martinelli and Krause in his face, literally. He thinks very fast, and draws them in with a story. Off into the night. Soon Rip and Krause bump into Kinkaid; Krause panics. In the melee Krause gets away, but so does Rip. The “whiff of jasmine” that precedes all the bad stuff clues Rip in that Dusty is behind the mobsters’ plot. Because she’s covering up the fact that she’s Chandler’s murderer. Martinelli had been blackmailing her, thus Rip represented a threat to both of them by digging into the past.
Nobly, but irrationally, Rip prevents her from turning herself in. She’s complicit in a plot to kill him, and he saves her?! Oh, well, she loves him now. Rip plans a full-scale assault on Martinelli–he’s got the gun Dusty used on her husband. Plus Martinelli admits he killed Johnny. “You’re a sharp boy on the angles” Rip tells him. The grenades McGee gave him come in handy to highlight the gathering. Krause leaps out a window, Rip leads Martinelli out the front door. Dusty, lurking in the bushes, blasts Martinelli as he tries to flee. Problem is, Rip figures she meant to kill him.
Since he’s driving her away, telling her he’s onto her, she shoots him, but he wrecks the car. There’s yet another coming-out-of-a-coma deal, but this time it’s Dusty zonked out. And she doesn’t come out of it for very long. Kincaid has nice bedside manner, he’s apparently forgotten his stint exploring the closet; so all’s well for Rip.
But not so much for me. Just on the face of it, Coral, other than looking like something, has no redeeming qualities. Why would Tip fall for her in the first place, let alone not give up on her until about the third time she’s either tried to kill him, or set him up for killers? The “scent of jasmine” thing is lifted straight up from Double Indemnity’s honeysuckle clue.
A detail that hints at someone’s presence, especially in a romantic context, is a very good device. But it’s just too specific to use a fragrance again, after only three years, and in the same type of movie. Why not try something else–like the sound of her steps when she’s wearing a particular pair of shoes, or the way she knocks on a door, or the tap of her purse as she sets it down on a table?
Another sore point is the narration, which is a consequence of the flashback. Come to think of it, Double Indemnity dealt us those cards too. But in that movie the beginning contains the crisis that the flashback leads up to; in Dead Reckoning, the frame story is sort of a nullity. Who cares that Rip tells the story to a priest? He’s didnt even kills the gangsters; he comes away clean. Might as well start with Johnny and Rip on the train, and just go from there; no flashback, no narrator needed.
If the story had been from Coral’s point of view, then flashbacks would make sense–especially since the murder happened before the movie’s time frame. She’s the one we don’t know much about; and she’s the one behind the whole story. maybe have her husband as a character and give a glimpse of the murder scene. Anyway, it would be easy to forget about the frame story, but the voice-over hovers there gratuitously. It’s like an attempt to sabotage the suspense or parody film-noir.
I did kind of like the bit where Martinelli, basically pleading for his life, tells Rip that Coral is actually married to him; and that she scammed Chandler just as she will Rip, if he stays with her. That explanation had possibilities, bit Rip doesn’t believe him, and we don’t hear anything more about it. Think, though, if it were true, it means that Martinelli is something of a wronged-man, and even has a semi-decent motive for killing Johnny. Nothing’s better in film noir than moral complexity. But there’s none here. Rip is all good; Martinelli is all bad. So is Coral, but, I guess, because Rip is so good, he has to wait until he runs a gauntlet of misfortunes before he admits that she’s not so great afterall.
Farmermouse likes Coral’s Lincoln Continental, so he gives Dead Reckoning six whitewalls. 6/10