Saturday, March 6, 2021

Movie Reviews: Deadline At Dawn

Deadline At Dawn
directed by Harold Clurman
Deadline At Dawn
was based on the novel of the same name by the famous pulp writer Cornell Woolrich aka William Irish aka George Hopley, some of whose work appears in The Big Book of Pulps, which was earlier reviewed here. Woolrich had a pretty interesting life in some ways, tragic in others. 
Filmmakers adapted a lot of Woolrich's work for the big screen. The most famous films made from Woolrich's novels or short stories were probably Alfred Hitchcocks's Rear Window and Francois Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black
There are always secrets within secrets in Woolrich's work, in print or on screen. Likely this had something to do with his own life and secrets. Woolrich was a repressed guilt ridden diabetic gay man who after a failed marriage lived with his mother until her death. Woolrich was also one of the greatest pulp writers to exist, with a keen if oft cynical insight into human nature. Pick up any of his works if you are into pulp/noir fiction.
Deadline At Dawn is an excellent film by Harold Clurman, though as befitting his stage background it often feels like a play. It loses something by being shot almost entirely on soundstages. The hurly burly of mid century New York City doesn't always come across. 
What does come across is the mixture of love, lust, greed, altruism, revenge, and forgiveness that mark us as human and which we all have in various proportions. As with the best films, Deadline At Dawn is timeless. It could very easily be set in today's time with minor changes. People might dress differently and speak differently but the core challenges of being human are more or less the same as they have always been.
I liked the film's dialogue, but it is occasionally over the top and even arguably rococo. I guess either you like that sort of thing or you don't. Most of the dialogue, when not taken from the book, was written by Clifford Odets, who later had the misfortune of running afoul of both his Hollywood friends for talking in front of HUAC and of HUAC for not talking enough about his Hollywood friends. You can't please everyone you know.
US Navy Sailor Alex Winkley (Bill Williams) is not the sharpest knife in the kitchen drawer. In fact I don't think I would trust him with any machine more complex than a pencil sharpener. However like all sailors Alex gets a certain amount of leave, which he has used to gamble. Alex's leave is up the next morning at 6 AM. Alex must be on the bus to his Norfolk, Virginia base. Otherwise he'll be AWOL. Alex may not be an Einstein but he is conscientious and open, something which causes him problems throughout the film. People find it hard to believe that anyone can be that honest and that direct. They assume that Alex is trying to pull a fast one on them.
After an early evening of drinking and losing money to crooked gamblers, Alex wakes up with an unexplained sum of cash in his pockets. The last thing Alex remembers is that he went with a woman Edna Bartelli (Lola Lane-seen earlier in this movie) who needed (ahem) 'her radio fixed'.
Alex patiently explains all this to the not so sympathetic taxi-dance hall girl June Goffe (Susan Hayward), whom he has paid for a few dances. June is unsympathetic because she's tired and suspicious. Guys say anything to get what they want from June. June initially sees Alex as a sap. June is not necessarily a prostitute as we would understand the word but she's not necessarily not one either. June's unblemished looks are in stark contrast to her untrustful, cynical, hardbitten attitude. 
Alex convinces June to accompany him back to Edna's apartment as a witness to his returning the money. June agrees despite herself. She makes it clear to Alex that there's not going to be any hanky-panky with her. June starts to feel protective of Alex because (1) he's appallingly naive (2) not a ugly man and (3) she's from Norfolk just like Alex.
However when the duo take a cab over to Edna's apartment they find the place trashed and Edna dead. There are other people who saw Alex enter and leave the apartment earlier. 
Alex swears he didn't kill Edna but just can't recall what happened during the missing hours. An older avuncular garrulous cabbie who is positively exploding with old proverbs, aphorisms, and advice, Gus Hoffman (Paul Lukas) senses something isn't right. 
After a confrontation, Gus decides to help Alex and June find the real killers. But they don't have much time. At 6 AM Alex either must turn himself in to the police or be on that bus back to Norfolk. Edna had a lot of high profile friends. Edna's brother Val Bartelli (Joe Calleia) is a hot tempered gangster who will kill whomever murdered his sister. Whatever else Edna might have been she was Val's sister and if you want to keep living you'll keep Edna's name out of your mouth! Val is described as having "a face like the back of a hairbrush".
This is a much a slice of life story about the people who come out in the night as it is a murder mystery. The director smartly sends the trio of would be detectives as well as the viewer chasing down plenty of bad leads. There is poignancy in this film, some of it utterly unrelated to the main story. Deadline At Dawn has some surprises for the viewer. So that was good. As with most movies of this era Deadline At Dawn lacks what modern viewers would see as explicit sex or violence. Obviously there is the bad girl/good girl split, common then and now in films.
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