Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: Movie reviews

“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 movie 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.

Woolrich novel is campy noir film

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Read a novel, then see the movie and you’re often disappointed.  It’s difficult for a motion picture to recreate a detailed, nuanced book filled with subplots and many characters and do justice to the original story.  This has been true perhaps since the advent of motion pictures.  Case in point: the 1946 production of The Chase, based on the novel, The Black Path of Fear, by Cornell Woolrich. 

In this space I recently reviewed the Woolrich suspense novel, a story of lost love and of desperation in the dark alleys of post-World War II Havana.  Many of the author’s novels and short stories became radio, TV or motion picture dramas and I looked to see if the film version of Black Path, called The Chase, was available on Netflix.  No luck; probably one of those “B” crime movies that have faded away as the celluloid deteriorated. 

Not so.  Checking the cast on imdb.com, I noticed a link to the Internet Archive.  That site had a copy of the movie that could be streamed, so I let it play. 

It’s difficult to discuss details of the plot without spoiling either the book or the movie.  Things that take place in the middle of the book, via a flashback,  form the first scenes of the movie.   And an event in the middle of the movie, happens in the first few pages of the book.

Without getting into too many specifics, Chuck Scott, played by Bob Cummings, is an honest, destitute vet who finds a wallet on a Miami street and returns it to its owner, Eddie Roman, played by Steve Cochran.  It’s obvious that Roman is a ruthless, wealthy hood.  The first evidence of this is a scene when he knocks his manicurist to the floor when she displeases him. The second bit of evidence is that his assistant, aka henchman, is played by Peter Lorre.

Admiring, while mocking Scott’s honesty, Roman gives him a job as his chauffer.  Later, after an unnecessary scene designed to remind viewers—if they had fallen asleep in the previous five minutes—that Roman was really a nasty guy, Scott meets the glamorous Mrs. Lorna Roman (Michele Morgan). 

The majority of the book and a relatively small portion of the movie take place in dingy alleys and flop houses in Havana.  The noirish movie does a fairly good job reproducing the book’s skid-row atmosphere, with some dialog sounding as if it were taken directly from the novel.  But this part of the film story is about as close as it gets to the book.  New scenes and new characters are added and the film makes abrupt, substantial and sometimes laughable changes in the storyline. 

For example, in the book Roman urges Scott, as his chauffer, to drive fast.  In the movie, Roman doesn’t need to tell him to speed up.  He has an auxiliary accelerator and speedometer in the back seat.  The Chase movie To speed up, Roman floors it and tells Scott to steer carefully as they exceed 100 mph in a clichéd race with a locomotive to a railroad crossing.

Critics, including Woolrich biographer Francis Nevins, Jr., criticized screen writer Philip Yordan and director Arthur Ripley for twisting Woolrich’s story, ultimately changing the character and meaning of the novel’s original “chase.”  Roman, a relatively minor character in the book, is on screen too long and Cochran’s mobster portrayal is over the top.  Woolrich’s story is about a hapless guy on the run.  Yordan’s story is partly about a harassed gangster and partly about a guy who falls for a mobster’s wife. 

In  spite of numerous missteps in the script, Cummings comes across as a vulnerable everyman, as Woolrich portrayed him, and keeps the movie alive.  The actor had recently starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur, and eight years later would become a protagonist in the Hitchcock classic, Dial M for Murder.   Lorre’s smarmy presence, of course, is a highlight of the film.  In some scenes he seems a bit bored, but that was perhaps part of his character.  Or this perception could be the fault of the grainy, scratchy print with occasional sprocket noise. 

The film is also available on DVD from Amazon but based on some of the online reviews, the DVD quality is no better than what’s available on the web stream.

Driven by a music score that rises and falls melodramatically—to almost humorous proportions at times—The Chase veers from campy gangster fare to classic film noir and back again several times.  If you see the movie before you read the book, it’s worth watching—and it’s so removed from the novel’s plot that the things you learn will not materially spoil the novel.

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