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Dead Reckoning (Jan. 2, 1947)

Lizabeth Scott looks a lot like Lauren Bacall. It’s hard not to compare her to Bacall even when she’s not acting opposite Humphrey Bogart.

There’s a lot of that going around in John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning, a film that isn’t as well known as some of Bogie’s other noirs, like The Maltese Falcon (1941) or The Big Sleep (1946), and which suffers in direct comparison with them. But taken purely on its own merits, it’s a tense, well-made picture, full of post-war desperation, but with little of the silliness of a lot of returning-vet noirs, like Somewhere in the Night (1946).

Bogart plays a paratrooper, Capt. “Rip” Murdock, who was ordered to Washington, D.C., to receive the Distinguished Service Cross along with his buddy, Sgt. Johnny Drake, who was to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Before they could get there, Johnny hopped off the train and went on the lam before any newspaper reporters could snap his picture.

Rip finds a Yale pin from the class of ’40 that reveals that Johnny’s real name was John Joseph Preston. Rip follows the clues to Johnny’s hometown of Gulf City. (It’s unclear where Gulf City is supposed to be, but it has to be somewhere along the Gulf Coast. There are palm trees, and Bogie refers at one point to “Southern hospitality.” There is a real Gulf City in Florida, but it’s an unincorporated little town that had a population of zero by the 1920s.)

Rip rolls through the microfiche in the Gulf City public library until he finds a newspaper article dated September 3, 1943, with the headline “Rich realtor slain.” The motive was jealousy — both men loved a woman named Coral Chandler — and Johnny confessed to the murder, but disappeared before he could be sentenced, and enlisted in the army under a false name.

Rip finds a scrap of paper in his hotel room with a single word, “Geronimo,” scrawled on it. It’s from Johnny (it was what they always yelled before jumping out of planes), but the next time Rip sees Johnny, he’s a burnt-up corpse in a twisted car wreck.

Rip tracks down the woman in the case, the beautiful and statuesque Coral “Dusty” Chandler (Lizabeth Scott), a singer in a Gulf City nightclub. The scene in which she sings “Either It’s Love or It Isn’t” under a spotlight to Rip at his table is memorable, though Scott’s lip synching is pretty awful. Rip calls her “Cinderella with a husky voice,” and they embark on a whirlwind love-hate romance.

Most of the film is told in flashback. Rip sits in a pew in a church, his face hidden in the shadows, confessing his sins to Father Logan (James Bell), whom he sought out because he’s a former paratrooper. Logan was known as “the jumping padre, always the first one out of the plane.”

If you’re starting to think that Dead Reckoning might have an overabundance of references to parachuting, you’d be right, and we haven’t even scratched the surface. (The title of the film refers to flying a plane without the aid of electronic instruments — which is a metaphor for Rip’s dangerous, seat-of-the-pants investigation — and the final image of the film is a woman’s face metamorphosing into a billowing white parachute floating to earth along with the whispered word “Geronimo.”)

In many ways, Dead Reckoning feels like a pastiche of earlier Bogart film noirs. The loyalty to a dead man is straight out of The Maltese Falcon (“When a guy’s pal is killed he oughtta do something about it,” Rip says). A villain who rushes to open a door at the climax, only to be shot down, is straight out of The Big Sleep. And the film’s chief antagonists, the effete, cultured Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky) and his brutish, mildly brain-damaged henchman, Krause (Marvin Miller), are straight out of too many noirs to count.

Dead Reckoning carves out its own misanthropic place in the noir pantheon with its doses of brutal violence, fiery finale, and Rip’s distrust of dames, which is nothing new for a noir, but which Dead Reckoning takes to new heights. Rip says things like “I don’t trust anybody, especially women” and “Didn’t I tell you all females are the same with their faces washed?” And his diatribe about how women should all be shrunk down to pocket size has to be heard to be believed.

Dead Reckoning is full of memorable hard-boiled dialogue. Unfortunately, Scott can’t always pull it off the way Bogart can. The dialogue in film noir is often artificial, but it’s artificial in the same way as Shakespearean drama — it can express something more real than “naturalistic” dialogue can, but it takes a very talented actor to make it work.

Bogart had his limitations as an actor, but he perfectly delivered every single line of dialogue in every single film noir in which he appeared. Dead Reckoning is no exception, and while it’s not the greatest film I’ve ever seen, it’s damned good, and I look forward to seeing it again some day.

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Strange Impersonation (March 16, 1946)

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Strange Impersonation. Five years ago I went on a big Anthony Mann kick and watched all the movies he’d directed that I could get my hands on. I really like a lot of his work, especially the film T-Men (1947), a docudrama about Treasury agents investigating a counterfeiting ring that incorporates heavy doses of violence and a lot of subjective film noir techniques into its otherwise straightforward story. His noir revenge drama Raw Deal (1948), which, like T-Men, stars Dennis O’Keefe, is great, too. He also made a number of highly regarded westerns starring James Stewart that are worth seeing.

He made plenty of strictly for-hire programmers, too, and Strange Impersonation definitely falls into this category. Of Mann’s pictures that I’ve seen, it’s my least favorite. Not because it’s any worse than any of his other B pictures, like Railroaded! (1947), but because it breaks my first rule for maintaining audience engagement until the very end, and leaves the viewer feeling robbed.

Upon second viewing, however, and with no expectation that the film’s many plot strands would be resolved, I was able to appreciate the enjoyable lunacy of the plot and the subtexts about gender relations and women in the professional sphere. Also, for a humble programmer, Strange Impersonation looks pretty good. It has great lighting and a few really well thought-out compositions.

The film begins with a scene at the Wilmott Institute for Chemical Research in New York. Scientist Nora Goodrich (Brenda Marshall) is making a presentation to a roomful of her mostly older, male colleagues. “It’s been my aim to develop a new formula which will combine all the best features of present-day anesthetics,” Nora tells the assemblage. Pointing to a model of a human torso and head, she says, “Here is the section of the brain where the reaction will occur. It will come very quickly, within seconds of injection. The anesthesia should be complete for approximately one hour, during which time the mind may indulge in dreams or fantasies, normal or otherwise. That of course would have to be checked. For my present findings, however, the anesthetic is safe and easy to administer. So until my final report, I think that’s all.”

Remember that speech, and you may have some idea of what to expect from the film’s denouement. Upon a second viewing, Strange Impersonation plays fair, but only in the broadest sense. The journey, at least, isn’t a bad one.

Marshall gives a credible performance in the stereotypical role of the “cold fish” female scientist. She’s very attractive, but with her severe hair style and glasses, she doesn’t look like a glamour puss pretending to be a smarty-pants doctor; she comes off as relatively convincing.

The same can’t be said of all of the ridiculous lines she’s forced to spout. When her fiancé, a fellow scientist named Stephen Lindstrom (played by William Gargan with a little mustache and big, nerdy glasses) tries to kiss her in the lab, Nora blurts out, “Stephen, remember! Science!”

Nora and Stephen are engaged, but she’s putting off the wedding until after her experiment is complete. Not to worry, though. The experiment will be complete soon. Why go through all the red tape of clinical tests when you can experiment on yourself, at home, at night, with just a few pieces of laboratory equipment and your friend Arline Cole (Hillary Brooke) to help?

And that’s just what Nora plans to do, except that she hits a wrinkle on her way home. While backing out of her garage, she knocks down a young woman named Jane Karaski (Ruth Ford). As a bystander notes, Jane is “squiffed” (i.e., very drunk), so Nora offers to drive her home. Before she can engage the clutch, however, a weaselly little ambulance chaser named J.W. Rinse (George Chandler) shoves his card into Jane’s hand and promises he can get her a big settlement, even though she doesn’t appear to be injured. Jane lives in a crummy little place with a Murphy bed above a spot called Joe’s Bar and Grill. While putting Jane to bed, Nora learns that Jane is from Mississippi, and has no friends in the big city or family back home.

Nora heads back to her large, tastefully appointed apartment overlooking the city. Stephen drops in for what he hopes will be a tryst, but before too long, Arline shows up, shoos him away, and it’s time for some science with a capital S.

As Nora is drifting to sleep on the couch after dosing herself with her own experimental anesthetic, she says, “Oh, nothing will go wrong. I’m sure I’ve worked this thing out perfectly. Nothing can go wrong. I’ll just go to sleep for a little while. Just go to sleep. For a little while. Just…”

And guess what? Something goes wrong. As soon as Nora’s passed out, Arline starts a chemical reaction that starts a fire right next to Nora on the couch, then dumps the flaming concoction on Nora’s face.

While Nora is recovering in the hospital, Arline tricks the doctor into keeping Stephen away from her, which leads her to believe that he has abandoned her because of her ruined face. Meanwhile, Arline starts putting her hooks into Stephen. It becomes clear that she destroyed Nora’s face not because of any professional jealousy, but because she had designs on Nora’s man.

Eventually, Nora returns home, wearing a veil and sporting some pretty convincing burn make-up. One night, Jane, the girl Nora hit with her car, shows up with a little automatic, apparently egged on by Rinse’s promises of a big settlement that has yet to materialize. She wants money, and she wants it now. The two women struggle for the gun, and Jane is knocked off of Nora’s balcony and falls to her face-decimating death on the sidewalk below. The stolen ring on Jane’s finger leads people to believe it’s Nora’s corpse. Meanwhile, Nora takes advantage of the confusion to slip away to Los Angeles under the name “Jane Karaski,” where she undergoes a very long course of plastic surgery at the Los Angeles Medical Center.

While reading the latest copy of “Chemical Views” in the hospital, Nora learns that Dr. and Mrs. Lindstrom have just bought a house in White Plains. Realizing Arline’s deception, she begs to leave, but is told it will be another three months before her face is fully restored. (She’s already been there about a year.) Her doctor tells her he can tell she never looked the way she does now, and not to think that changing one’s face can change one’s life. This scene is really weird, because once the bandages come off we learn that she gave her doctor pictures of Jane Karaski, and now supposedly looks exactly like the woman she accidentally killed. However, Nora looks exactly the same as she did before, only with black hair.

Apparently the characters in the film are seeing something very different from the viewers in the audience, because once Nora returns to New York and insinuates herself into the lives of Stephen and Arline under the guise of a new laboratory technician named “Jane Karaski,” neither of them recognizes her. I guess we’re just supposed to take it on faith that Nora’s surgery has left her looking like a dead ringer for Ruth Ford, even though she still looks exactly like Brenda Marshall with a black dye job.

If you can accept all the wackiness, there’s plenty to entertain in Strange Impersonation. The final interrogation scene in the police station, for instance, is a classic of feverish noir subjectivity, with all the characters in the film appearing in superimposition to accuse and admonish Nora as she shakes her head from left to right, screaming for them to stop.

Not to worry, though! The film has a happy ending. Just not for the audience.

Strange Confession (Oct. 5, 1945)

StrangeConfessionApparently populist rage against pharmaceutical giants is nothing new. In Strange Confession, the fifth of six “Inner Sanctum Mysteries” produced by Universal Pictures and released from 1943 to 1945, Lon Chaney, Jr. plays a brilliant chemist named Jeff Carter whose life goes from bad to worse when he twice accepts employment from the unscrupulous owner of the largest medical distributing company in an unnamed American city.

Strange Confession is more of a straight drama than the other films in the Inner Sanctum series. Except for its gruesome finale, it’s free of the Gothic overtones and murderous double-crosses found in the rest of the series. The opening few minutes are gripping, with Jeff clutching a bag in his hand and skulking through the shadowy nighttime city streets, deliberately avoiding a police officer. It’s a very noir beginning, right down to the story structure. Jeff arrives at the home of an old school chum named Mr. Brandon (Wilton Graff) and sits down to confess something horrible. He opens the bag and shows Brandon what’s inside. Brandon recoils, but the camera doesn’t reveal the bag’s contents.

Jeff recalls better days. He once had a well-paying job, a pretty wife named Mary (Brenda Joyce), and a baby boy named Tommy (Gregory Muradian). Unfortunately, his employer, Mr. Graham (J. Carrol Naish) exploited his talents and treated him poorly. He even had Jeff hard at work on Christmas Eve, composing an acceptance speech for him in which he took full credit for Jeff’s accomplishments in the lab. Jeff quit his job and worked for a small pharmacy, forced to labor on his chemistry experiments after hours in his bathroom. He was poor, but happy. But this wasn’t enough for his wife, who wanted better things in life, so a year later, Jeff went back to work for Mr. Graham. Jeff, his wife, and little Tommy started living the good life, with a house in the suburbs and an Irish housekeeper named Mrs. O’Connor (Mary Gordon).

Unfortunately, Graham, in addition to being a bad boss, was a cad. He had designs on Mary, and sent Jeff and his affable assistant Dave (Lloyd Bridges) deep into South America to work on a flu cure called “Zymurgine.” While Jeff and Dave were hard at work testing and perfecting the formula for the drug, Graham romanced Mary, who naïvely saw him as just a friend, taking her out to dinners and shows. Worse, he rushed Zymurgine into the market before Jeff’s fully tested formula was even ready to be shipped back to the United States. In a prescient moment, Graham tells his coterie of underlings, “You can sell almost anything if you advertise it enough.”

Ill-gotten profits trump integrity, and the whole thing comes full circle, personally affecting the principal characters and leading to a bloody conclusion. Strange Confession is quite a good one-hour B picture. Chaney’s performance is better than usual, and Naish is a smooth, oily antagonist. He’s well cast, too. With his hangdog features, black hair, and pencil-thin mustache he looks like a shorter version of Chaney, making him the perfect doppelgänger villain.