Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Tag Archives: Bill Williams

“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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‘Deadline at Dawn’ is nonstop noir

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New York City has Bricky Coleman in its clutches. The small-town girl came to the city to become an actress, but it didn’t work out. Now she’s a dime-a-dance girl living in a dingy walk-up, bereft of spirit and hope. One evening she dances with Quinn Williams, another small-town transplant with equally dismal prospects. Somehow Quinn manages to erode Bricky’s layers of cynicism and suspicion and they become friends and allies in solving a dangerous puzzle.

Like most Cornell Woolrich novels, this one is dark and fast moving. The entire book occupies only a few early morning hours. Getting around a burglary and solving a murder stand in the way of the two young protagonists’ escape from their dismal lives.   An early coincidence and one or two later plot twists require a significant suspension of disbelief, but you sign on quickly because the dark corners of the city and its malevolent denizens are easily accepted as Woolrich draws you and his young protagonists into a race against the clock.Deadline at Dawn

The atmosphere is thick. Bricky looks up a dark street.   “Three anemic light-pools widely spaced down its seemingly endless length did nothing to dilute the gloom; they only pointed it up by giving contrast.” For Bricky, the main enemy isn’t a lurking murderer, it’s the city itself. It wants to possess her and grind her down. The young protagonist’s unhuman nemesis is similar to a lead character’s unnatural fear of the stars in the sky in Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes. Merciless, mysterious forces conspiring to thwart success is a common Woolrich theme.

Looking for a murderer so they can put a regrettable event in Quinn’s life behind them and escape to small-town paradise, the two split up and dash about the city at night. In back-and-forth chapters each amateur sleuth thinks he or she is on the right trail, but of course there are complications, dead ends and unexpected dangers. We move quickly from Quinn’s perilous encounter with a stranger who he follows around the city, to Bricky’s capture by a pair she thinks did the murder.

I have a copy of the first printing of the “Tower Books Motion Picture” edition illustrated with photos of the 1946 film based—very loosely—on the book. Instead of chapter numbers or titles, there are faces of a clock, and each chapter heading has the hands moving closer to the 6 a.m. deadline Quinn and Bricky are racing toward. That’s when they hope to catch the interstate bus and escape New York City. The photos from the movie don’t match the novel. Quinn is represented as a sailor—in uniform—by Bill Williams.

Note that Deadline at Dawn is an example of Woolrich’s practice of recycling scenes, characters and events from short stories into novels. The first scene of Bricky’s dance hall dysphoria is similar to the beginning of a short story, Dancing Detective, that focuses on another cynical taxi dancer with moxie. After this first scene, however, the novel departs completely from the short story.

Like so many Woolrich stories, Deadline at Dawn looks at the many faces of fear. “And the man who says he’s never been afraid is a liar,” Woolrich says. Later he tells us, “Fear rots the faculties.” Unlike the movie version, the novel maintains the pessimism, the dread and the eerie notion of noir.

Deadline at Dawn
Cornell Woolrich (writing as William Irish)
The World Publishing Co. 1946
219 pages

Now available in a new edition from Centipede Press
300 pages   $14.52

Hyperlinks:

Centipede Press
Deadline at Dawn (film)

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