“I’m not the type that tears do anything to.” This is the wool the leading men of film noir — and “Dead Reckoning” is textbook noir — try to yank over our eyes. They are calculating and sarcastic; they sing a tune about not trusting anyone, especially dames with wide, sad eyes. Capt. Rip Murdock (Humphrey Bogart) plays the part well until his feelings get in the way. Even in the wake of a murderous double cross, Rip can’t ignore his humanity. He does the kind thing even when cruelty is justified.
Bogart made an impressive career out of this back-and-forth between cynicism and personal conscience. Give him cookie cutter part and he’d give you an underwhelming performance. But conflicted men, men who couldn’t be the cool customers they wanted to be — those were his specialty. And Rip Murdock is a lulu of a conflicted soul. Though not a private eye, Rip gets dropped unofficially into the job. He’s on the lookout for World War II comrade Sgt. Johnny Drake (William Prince), who jumped their train and disappeared once he learned he was a Medal of Honor recipient. Anyone that afraid of publicity must have some blood on his uniform somewhere, and the best parts of John Cromwell’s sublimely shot “Dead Reckoning” involve Rip’s recount of the scrapes his earnest search gets him into.
It’s too bad that the story itself doesn’t quite live up to Bogart’s wry narration of its parts. Unlike “The Maltese Falcon” or “The Big Sleep,” the plot of Cromwell’s film isn’t especially difficult to follow. Unfortunately, the lack of complexity does not translate into consistent suspense. Parts of “Dead Reckoning” involving the femme fatale Coral Chandler — played by Lizabeth Scott, a nervous, inexpressive actress — and Rip’s affection for her stutter. There’s little sizzle between Scott, whose wooden delivery ruins a number of choice lines, and Bogart. He tries hard (or maybe not; this character is second skin to him), yet the tainted love story feels strained and, even worse, uninteresting. This flaw is not immediately obvious because, as per noir tradition, “Dead Reckoning” starts at the end and works up to the start. Limping and bloodied, Rip darts into a Gulf City cathedral looking for a priest (James Bell). He has a tale to tell, and it’s quite a yarn. Rip tracked Sgt. Drake there to learn his friend is dead. There’s more to the story, Rip knows, and in probing into the deceased’s past he finds Sgt. Drake joined up to duck a rap for murdering the husband of Coral, a dishy blonde nightclub singer. Acquainting himself with Coral brings a sinister figure into Rip’s life: club owner Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky, a bit over the top), who may be involved in Sgt. Drake’s unexplained death.
“Dead Reckoning” has been pegged a B-grade copy of “The Maltese Falcon,” and there’s a wealth of evidence to back up that argument. Exhibit A has to be Rip Murdock himself, a man out to avenge the wrongful demise of a partner. One scene even finds Bogart quoting Sam Spade on the subject: “When a man’s friend is killed he oughta do something about it.” True, in “Dead Reckoning,” there’s an actual relationship to support that reasoning, but there’s no denying the origin of the sentiment. Cromwell’s film also employs a clear MacGuffin, or essentially worthless object that drives the story. In “The Maltese Falcon,” it was the falcon statue; in “Dead Reckoning,” it’s a letter Sgt. Drake asked his friend Louis Ord (George Chandler), to pass on to Rip. The similarities add up, but they don’t add up to a copy nearly as good as the original.
Bogart’s tough-and-humane performance aside, though, there’s one area where “Dead Reckoning” succeeds roundly: Leo Tover’s murky, alluring cinematography. The film establishes itself early as one of the best-looking noir efforts in the genre with an opening shot of Gulf City, its sign flashing brilliantly against the dark, clouded sky. Rip, being the flawed protagonist, gets the heavy shadow treatment from scene one. His story begins in the shadows of a church pew, his face obscured, and ends in the white light of a hospital room. That can’t be a coincidence.