“Between you and me and the lamppost…”

The sailor suit — an important artifact in Woolrich’s personal iconography…

When Alexander Mackendrick was prepping the classic THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, he was anxious about the script. Partly because it wasn’t finished, of course. That never helps. But also because it seemed kind of… hammy. Screenwriter Clifford Odets reassured him –

“‘My dialogue may seem somewhat overwritten, too wordy, too contrived. Don’t let it worry you. You’ll find that it works if you don’t bother too much about the lines themselves. Play the situations, not the words. And play them fast.”

The  only trouble with Nicholas (OUT OF THE PAST) Musuraca’s cinematography is that I want to grab a still from every shot…

And so to DEADLINE AT DAWN (1946), adapted by Odets from a Cornell Woolrich yarn, the only feature directed by Broadway champ Harold Clurman. The combination of Woolrich’s flakey plotting and doom-laden mood with Odet’s florid phrase-making is an enticing one, and the cast is quite incredible — Bill Williams was the unknown factor for me, but he’s very good here, and in addition we have Susan Hayward, Paul Lukas, Joseph Calleia, Jerome Cowan, Stephen Geray, Al Bridge…

One thing that strikes you straight off: this is what happens if the director doesn’t follow Odets’ advice. The dialogue is slower and more emphatic than in Mackendrick’s film, and has more time to register as strange. Clurman’s direction occasionally lumbers, with stilted blocking and strenuous dramatics, a result of his inexperience in cinema, I guess. And the characters are not sleazy media jackals like those in TSSOS, they include a simple-minded sailor, a hard-bitten taxi dancer, an idealistic old taxi driver, a gangster, etc. So the verbal fireworks seem less plausible, and aiming for naturalism in the performances doesn’t make the issue go away. Odets’ “poetry of the streets” has nothing much to do with the way anybody really talks or ever did talk.

And yet — after marveling at the oddness of it for ten minutes or so, I got right into it and enjoyed the film excessively. It’s the lighter side of Woolrich’s world, with mostly appealing characters — even Calleia’s vicious hood ends up on the side of the good guys, sort of, and his energy and drive make him someh0w likable. And he never does anything terribly bad.

This is Woolrich’s No. 1 plot, where a web of circumstantial evidence enfolds an innocent person, and someone close to them must clear their name against a tight deadline — usually an impinging execution date. This serves Woolrich and his adaptors well in PHANTOM LADY, BLACK ANGEL and CONVICTED, and probably others. Here, the deadline is 6 am, when sailor Bill Williams should be catching the bus back to his naval base, so the whole situation seems less severe. However, Woolrich throws in one of his favourite devices, the amnesia blackout, so that Williams is not entirely certain he’s not after all guilty of murdering the floozy who picked him up earlier in the night.

The mental instability of the lead — he seems to be a bit punchy, and has a childlike naivety to go with his memory lapses — adds a touch of darkness to the tale, augmented by the nocturnal setting. This is a movie about running about desperate in the early hours of the morning, getting increasingly tired and increasingly hopeless. One of the most haunting moments is when a fugitive man with a mysterious box, a possible suspect, proves to be a janitor trying to get his sick cat to the vet. He’s too late.

Hayward: “Golly, the misery that walks around in this pretty, quiet night!”

Lukas: “June, the logic that you’re looking for, the logic is that there is no logic, but you’re too young to know it. The horror and terror you feel, my dear, comes from being alive. Die and there’s no trouble; live and you struggle. At your age I think it’s beautiful to struggle for the human possibilities — not to say, “I hate the sun because it don’t light my cigarette!” You’re so young, June — you’re a baby! And love is waiting outside any door you open! Some people say, “Love’s a superstition!” Dismiss those people, those Miss Bartellis, from your mind. They put poison bottle labels on the sweetest facts of life! You’re only twenty-three, June. Believe in love and its possibilities the way I do at fifty-three! Right now I hear in you the musical sounds of feeling for that boy, June! And no matter what else happens, that’s the real mystery tonight; how a casual, passing stranger can change your entire life! Am I understood? I think I am…”

Williams, for whom all seems lost, implausibly recruits dance hall hostess Hayward to his cause, and together they start following a series of unlikely leads in vain hope of catching the real killer. They’re discovered by Lukas’s philosophical cabbie (“Statistics tell us…”), who decides to help them rather than report them. When they’re investigation leads them to former mobster Calleia, the victim’s sister, he at first wants to kill Williams, but them, partially persuaded of the kid’s innocence, he joins them in their quest.

Basically, it’s like THE WIZARD OF OZ, only in Manhattan. No wait, that’s THE WIZ. And AFTER HOURS. But this is like that too, the way our wide-eyed hero picks up his ragtag band of helpers as the story goes on and the night darkens. Or else it’s like one of those Bertrand Blier films where the confused hero finds himself at the head of a growing crowd of equally misguided misfits.

Odets weaves a more upbeat yarn than Woolrich normally does, but the darkness glows through, which creates an exciting mix of tones. And there’s so much charm to its oddball mix of people and cunningly developed story. Premier noir.

Calleia!

“Just imagine, at my age, to have to learn to play a harp.”

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16 Responses to ““Between you and me and the lamppost…””

  1. “The sailor suit — an important artifact in Woolrich’s personal iconography”

    MINE TOO! (Not to mention Genet, Kenneth Anger, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Tom of Finland, et. al. )

    So glad your starting with Deadline at Dawn — a real gem that hasn’t been given its due. Susan Hayward is quite spectacular in it. And Bill Williams is . . . .words fail. His son William Katt (Big Wednesday ) has inherited much of his father’s drop-dead-gorgeousness.

    Clurman’s wife Juleen Compton directed a couple of films in the 60’s highly regarded by “Cahiers du Cinema” that were never given a proper release. Both Stranded and The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean are worthy of “The Forgotten” attention.

  2. William Katt — the REAL Sundance Kid — is a lovely fellow. Didn’t know he had a famous dad.

    The Compton films sound fascinating, and if anybody can find me copies…

    It’s unusual for anything Woolrich-derived to have a really sweet couple whose purpose is anything other than to be destroyed… the rather spiky male-female partnership in Rear Window being the creation of John Michael Hayes.

    I told Fiona about Woolrich’s sailor suit and for some reason she pictured a Japanese schoolgirl outfit. “Like that, but bigger,” I explained.

  3. Some of the greatest dialogue ever writte. And I can easily imagine a Woolrich version.

  4. Wow. Barbara Hale has Woolrich credentials of her own, having played in The Window (which I hope to watch this week…)

  5. I love the description of the sailor suit – I just watched Drunken Angel yesterday, and one of Shimura’s patients was a Japanese schoolgirl.

    This is on my must-see list now. Too bad it’s not on DVD.

  6. Well, I think it’s coming out in a US box set very soon! Along with some other interesting noir stuff.

  7. Maybe David Milch, creator of NYPD Blue and Deadwood, is Odets’ successor. As NYPD Blue went on, its “gritty” street” dialog became more and more stylized and sui generis and bore less and less resemblance to any actual American dialect. And he claimed to have written Deadwood in iambic pentameter, though I believe “cocksucker” is a trochee.

  8. Interesting point about the speed of delivery of Odets writing affecting its meaning.

    I would speculate that Odets wanted his dialogue to sound like someone reading copy, or like the speed and tone of a newsreel voiceover. It was just that the content ran against the grain of the style.

  9. The idea of playing the scenes rather than the lines is a very good one, and excellent advice still today. In other words, learn the lines so you can forget them, and follow Mike Nichols’ three questions: “What’s it about?” “What’s it like?” and “Whose POV is it from?” while searching, as Nick Ray would say, for the ACTION (which is similar to the motivation: it’s the thing the character is trying to do).

  10. The Window? As in this?

    http://tvvoid.com/free-classic-movies/tales-of-tomorrow-appointment-on-mars-1951/

    Golly! I tuned into “Lost Planet” completely coincidentally last night, randomly flicking through the old Tales of Tomorrow back catalogue so the show for me did just what it oughta. Brilliantly baffling.

  11. Your link took me to Appointment on Mars — what’s the connection with The Window?

    Lost Planet does look brilliantly avant-garde though! The Frankenstein episode of this show is a legend, since Lon Chaney Jnr was so drunk he thought the transmission was still a rehearsal, so you can see him carefully NOT breaking the breakaway furniture.

  12. Sorry. There’s no way to actually link to it – you simply have to go down the list – but “Lost Planet” turns out to actually be a television play called “The Window”, the idea being that the show’s live broadcast is inexplicably interrupted by the live broadcast of a window in which we make out a drunken mumbling threesome (Rod Steiger among them) and finally a murder. It’s as odd as it sounds (with the banality of the woman’s watchmakers sponsoring the broadcast to which we cut back providing a beautiful touch).

  13. But I guess that’s not “The Window” you mean. Still, well worth a look if you’re curious.

  14. I am! What an extraordinary thing.

    The Window, the feature film, is an amazing noir starring little Bobby Driscoll (the voice of Disney’s Peter Pan) — basically a child’s-eye version of Rear Window, with a mythomaniac kid who isn’t believed when he witnesses a real murder from his fire escape. Former cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff imbues the whole thing with incredible visuals, creating a feeling of stifling New York summer in b&w. More on this soon.

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