Death in Nostalgia City

By Mark S. Bacon

“Deadline at Dawn” uneven Woolrich adaptation

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Deadline at Dawn, the movie version of the book of the same name by William Irish, is an uncertain attempt at film noir with Susan Hayward, Paul Lukas and Bill Williams dashing about city streets–that are obviously soundstages–looking for a murder suspect and running into seedy types portrayed by a cast of familiar character actors who provide the darkest scenes and the darkest dialog.

The first scene of the 1946 movie is promisingly noire as Marvin Miller, looking a little like Peter Lorre, knocks on the door of an apartment where a semi-intoxicated Edna Bartelli (Lola Lane) is asleep with a fly crawling across her face. When she finally staggers to the door she says, “Why, it’s Sleepy Parsons. Aren’t you dead?”

Susan Hayward and Paul Lukas

Susan Hayward and Paul Lukas

Later, Bartelli picks up innocent-looking sailor Alex Winkley (Williams) and brings him back to her apartment. Winkley drinks too much, passes out, and eventually discovers that Bartelli has been murdered. First, he thinks he may have done it after he blacked out but June Goth (Hayward), a taxi dancer he meets, persuades him that he could not have committed the crime.   Since people saw Winkley go up to the victim’s apartment, he knows he’ll be accused of the murder and he has to catch a bus in a few hours to get to his navy ship. Goth tells him that to clear himself he must look for clues and find out who did kill Edna Bartelli.

That’s the improbable setup. The goal: With little or nothing to go on, they must find the murderer before the 6 a.m. bus.

Hayward is obviously the brains of the duo and she pushes the plot along with beauty and spunk while Williams, in his sailor suit, is the gee-willikers, guileless young seaman. (He actually delivers a line, “Gee, look at the time.”) The first clues lead the young duo to dead ends, but soon they’re joined by a cab driver (Lukas) who decides to help the struggling couple. The cabbie finds some additional evidence the youngsters missed and that leads them to the meat of the film when they encounter suspects played by Jerome Cowan, Osa Massen and the ever-menacing Joseph Calleia. The latter trio have the truly noir scenes in rooms with stark lighting contrasting with deep shadows.

Joseph Calleia

Joseph Calleia

Later, in a private club, Lukas gets a noirish line, courtesy of screen writer Clifford Odets. “The city is full of men like that. Nerves and worry. Living on cigars and bicarbonate of soda. Wrung out by sleepless nights.” Shortly thereafter, the mood shifts in a corny good-cop, bad-cop scene in a police station.

Miller makes another appearance as well, and the ending, although a surprise, does not save the picture. Directed by Harold Clurman, the film bears little resemblance to the mystery novel written by Irish, a penname for noir master Cornell Woolrich. Had I not seen the move right after reading the book I might not have noticed similarities which are pretty much limited to Goth’s occupation and the 6 a.m. deadline. Certainly not A-list noir but worth watching if you’re a Hayward fan or a fan of the character actors of that era.

The film is part of a series, Film Noir Classic Collection, on DVD and available from Netflix.

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