Tuesday, 10 June 2008

DEAD RECKONING (John Cromwell, 1947)

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One of the many positive aspects of film culture here is the availability of very affordable DVDs of Classical Hollywood and art cinema releases. This allowed me to view a film noir I've always been interested in seeing, Dead Reckoning. I was familiar with the film from the last chapter of Frank Krutnik's great study of noir and masculinity, In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity (1991), "A Problem in 'Algebra': Dead Reckoning and the Regimentation of the Masculine". Krutnik's book is one of the better studies of noir, but, perhaps because I had not seen the film, I found the last chapter difficult to follow. I look forward to revisiting it.

Part of the difficulty may be with the film itself. Dead Reckoning is one of the oddest films I can remember seeing. Although made in 1947, it comes across almost as a pastiche of noir. It stars Humphrey Bogart as a returning veteran who investigates a pre-war murder case involving his war buddy. As in many noirs, this investigation focuses on a woman, his friend's former lover who Bogart quickly falls for as well. Bogart's character, however, does not trust women as easily as his duped friend. He gives a speech early in the narrative about wanting to shrink a woman down to pocket-size so he can control her, only having her become full-size when he wants (presumably, when he wants her physically, although the dialogue is only implicit about this). This is such a hyperbolic expression of the usual noir anxiety over female sexuality that it reminded me of R. Crumb's comics about the headless woman. It is so blatant and obvious that it feels like a postmodern noir reworking rather than a film made before the term itself had gained any widespread popularity.

The casting plays a role here too. Bogart seems to be referencing his former roles as a detective in films such as The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941) and The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946). There are actually lines taken almost directly from the former, in a manner reminiscent of a recent neo-noir like Brick (Rian Johnson, 2006). And Lizabeth Scott as the female lead bares an uncanny resemblance to Lauren Bacall, Bogart's co-star in the later. Also recalling The Big Sleep are aspects of the plot revolving around a gambling house and its boss. And the finale (Figure 3) recalls the more well-known Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947), although it was released earlier in the same year. Thus what this seems to suggest is not so much a knowingness about all or maybe even any of these affinities but rather a confluence of elements now considered central to the definition of noir.

Another one of these characteristics is the use of the noir cityscape in what appears to be a small Southern city (Figure 1) and the use of the flashback structure. The presence of both of these ingredients feels odd, particularly the flashback, which is esoteric in the fact that it is not really needed. The film begins with Bogart telling his story in a church to a priest (Figure 2) (even though he isn't Catholic), but the flashback is only half of the story. Eventually it ends and the last part of the narrative is told linearly. The flashback seems to have no clear purpose, which is unusual for classical cinema. Even noirs like Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) and The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946) have a clear design for their use of the device. Here, we have to look at the device as purely ornamental and atmospheric, or use an art cinema reading strategy and search for possible thematic resonances. Or, it could be just an awkward and lazy way to give the audience narrative information and establish a closeness with the protagonist.

The final coda is also intriguing. Bogart, with arm broken, stands over the dying femme fatale (Figure 4). She is shown wrapped in white (Figure 5), saying how scared she is and how she wishes she could be in his pocket. Bogart then calls her "Mike" (his nickname for her) and tells her to (metaphorically) jump out of the plane just like he and his friend Johnny did during the war. The film ends with this image (Figure 6). The misogyny is blatant, but so is the homoeroticism (complete with the line that he loved Johnny more than her). And the film is made more incoherent by having the female character join the regime of masculinity. It is like a parody of a Howard Hawks film.

Ultimately, this is a classical film that, as a classical film, is a failure. It lacks the aesthetic distinction of a great auteurist and also fails as an entertainment. It is simply too stilted and too absurd for there to be any real emotional resonance. However, its intertextuality as an example of noir gives it an idiosyncratic appeal. That said, I'm more excited to read more about the film than to ever watch it again.

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