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