Classical Film Reviews · Film Reviews

Classical Film Review: Dead Reckoning [1947]

Sargent Johnny Drake disappears after being awarded the Medal of Honour for his courageous actions during World War Two. His best friend Rip Murdock sets off to investigate and, after learning Johnny has been accused of murder, swears to clear his name. How is the dead man’s wife involved and is Johnny and Rip’s relationship closer than they’re letting on?

When Rip Murdock meets Coral Chandler, in Noir thriller Dead Reckoning, he discovers another almost perfect femme fatale; her past is hazy, she sings in nightclubs and has a bad habit of making men fall in love with her… Oh yes, and they generally wind up dead. Delightful!

But this isn’t really a story about the men in Coral’s life or even Rip’s search for the truth about Johnny’s death…

Although it doesn’t make the poster, central to the film is the love between Johnny and Rip.

It’s not uncommon in Film Noir for there to be a… I want to say ‘explicit subtext’ but that feels like an oxymoron… there is a subtext. Rip, like a lot of men in these films (and, I suppose ‘those times’ if Mad Men is to be believed…) is casually sexist. And not just a little sexist.

Women are not only devious and annoying they’re also objects. They don’t earn or deserve love- they steal it. Johnny, on the other hand, fought bravely by Rip’s side and saved his life on numerous occasions- winning both his trust and his affections.

Coral may have started out as Johnny’s girl but she seems willing to follow any man who will protect her. We’re left with many questions about her- does she even really love Rip, as she says? After all, it’s hard to believe someone when they lie that often.

It’s interesting to note- when Rip is feeling particularly fond of Coral he has a particularly masculine nickname for her. Lizabeth Scott- fantastic name isn’t it? Originally her stage name was going to be ‘Elizabeth’ but she dropped the ‘e’ “just to be different”…Lizabeth Scott, the actress playing Coral, was later blacklisted for being gay.

For those of you who aren’t aware, ‘blacklisting’ is a term that comes from the Second Red Scare (anti-communist fears) in the 1950s of which Senator Joseph McCarthy was the figurehead. Thousands of Americans and people working in America were accused of being Communists or Communist sympathisers and subject to… institutional bullying. They were stalked by investigators, questioned by government committees and could be arrested at any time.

The threat posed by a person with left-wing beliefs was judged to be an issue of national security… beware of Guardian readers! Alleged homosexuality was also grounds for being targeted and arrested.

In Hollywood, those under suspicion were either fired or denied work- despite questionable evidence.  Over 300 actors, writers, directors and even producers were denied work, their names having been added to the ‘black list’. That’s a lot of wasted talent… although some did continue to work, behind the scenes, under assumed names.

The term ‘McCarthyism’ is now used to describe reckless and unsubstantiated accusations attempting to defame a political opponent.

Bogart is on top cynical form, as always. Oh, interesting fact! He was actually born into New York high society but didn’t get his big break in films until he started playing world-weary pessimists rather than aristocrats.

In the train scene, after they discover that Drake is to receive the Medal of Honor, Murdock quips that maybe the president will let Drake “sit on top of his piano”. This is a reference to a then-scandalous photo of Harry Truman playing piano with a leggy blonde on top that was taken at the National Press Club in 1945. The blonde was Lauren Bacall – who by 1947 was his wife!