Humphrey Bogart plays recently returned war vet Rip Murdock. He’s searching for the truth behind the death of Johnny, his best friend from the service. Rip knows that Johnny was a damn good paratrooper and he deserves his Congressional Medal of Honor, even if it has to be awarded posthumously. That’s not so much to ask for a guy who gave everything he had to kick the Ratzis in their Teutonic nads, is it?
The only question this movie left me with was whether everyone involved knew just how cool it was when they were making it.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it’s the greatest film noir ever. Heck, I wouldn’t even call it a proper film noir, despite the fact that it has all the trimmings what with the hard boiled voice over, treacherous blonde, psychotic thugs, and a world-weary protagonist who doesn’t trust broads, but still manages to get love sick the first time he gets a gander at Lizabeth Scott.
Really though, its questionable noir status doesn’t matter because it all comes down to watching Bogart talking tough, staying one step ahead of the competition and taking beatings from dumb mugs while never deviating from his crusade to clear Johnny’s name.
Johnny and Rip are brought back to the States and given the royal treatment en route to Washington D.C. Johnny doesn’t know why they’re headed to Washington and Rip plays along like he doesn’t know either, but secretly he’s put Johnny up for the Congressional, but once Johnny finds this out, he begins to act strangely. Well, if you consider jumping off the train and hopping a freight train going in the other direction strange that is!
Rip tells General Steel that he’s going to bring Johnny back whether the military authorizes it or not. Obviously, you don’t tell a guy named Captain Rip he can’t do anything, so Rip heads off to Gulf City, a metropolis that’s positively teeming with blondes that need romancing, goons that need whupping, and secrets that need exposing.
A trip to the library and perusal of the back issues of the Gulf City Daily Planet reveal that a few years ago, Johnny was making the front page for something far removed from his kick ass parachuting.
Seems good old Johnny boy went and got himself hung with a murder beef. A blonde gal named Coral (AKA Dusty) had a rich old husband who had an argument with Johnny and the next thing anyone knows, Coral is a widow and Johnny is a fugitive.
Now, you, I, and Rip know that that fresh faced kid who only loved two things in this world, the guys in his platoon and the husky-voiced Coral, didn’t go and off any old coot. (One of the life lessons I’ve picked up from these movies is that you never trust these tomatoes with breathy voices. Sure, chicks with squeaky voices are irritating as hell, but they usually don’t get you all mixed up with death row either.)
This brings to mind one of the issues I had with the movie. If, like Rip believes, Johnny has somehow been framed up, then he had to be framed up by someone, right? Now, who in the whole wide world could possibly want to frame Johnny up for the murder of a rich old coot? Who would conceivably benefit if the old timer suddenly took a powder? Who’s blonde and sounds like she’s in need of a really strong throat lozenge?
Come on, Rip! Isn’t it painfully obvious from the very beginning that little miss ice maiden more than likely played some role in all this? You don’t have to be Magnum P.I. or Matt Houston to figure that one out!
So, why in the world is Rip almost immediately cozying up to this woman, even after her connection to a local mobster is revealed? Oh, sure, he pretends to be hard to get, even going so far as to give a completely incoherent monologue about how he wishes women could be shrunk down and put in his pocket. He should have guessed she was nuts when she didn’t hop right out of the car when he started spewing that crazy talk.
Rip discovers shortly after arriving in Gulf City that Johnny has been crispy fried in a road accident and manages to arouse the suspicion of the local cops in the process. An encounter with the smarmy villain of the piece, Martinelli, results in a feeble attempt to frame Rip for the murder of a guy who was supposed to give him a letter from Johnny.
We follow Rip as he attempts to retrieve the letter, which he assumes contains the truth about the murder of Coral’s husband while he also romances Coral and avoids being rubbed out by Martinelli and his violence-loving henchman Krause.
As is the case in these types of movies, the truth proves to be a rare commodity with slightly differing versions of the murder coming to light at regular intervals.
In spite of Rip’s street smarts, the movie requires him to ignore the obvious in order to keep things rolling along, but Bogart is so good at portraying the only character in the movie with pure motives (loyalty and love) that his convenient dimwittedness doesn’t particularly mar things.
The movie’s ending may surprise many used to how film noirs play out, but it’s indicative of why this isn’t a noir in the truest sense of the word. It’s more of a murder melodrama that slipped on a film noir costume. All the doom and gloom atmosphere, the film’s partial reliance on flashbacks narrated by a desperate and on the lam Rip, and the presence of film noir stalwart Lizabeth Scott (Pitfall, The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers, Too Late For Tears) contribute to this.
Dead Reckoning may not get as much mention as some of Bogart’s other work and while it may strike some as being derivative of those better regarded movies, he and the rest of the cast here all nail down their respective roles with such authority you can’t help but be swept up in its twisting and brutal wake.
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