Friday Film Noir
Believability is a funny thing in movies. When two film fans enter a debate surrounding the merits of a picture, with one party claiming the story stretched the limits of credibility, a natural reply might be that the film requires one to raise their level of disbelief in order to be fully engaged. That debate may or may not be settled, but what everyone can agree on is that one’s lack of belief in character behaviour or plot revelations is a very personal thing. Sometimes, the real reason why how a given character behaved did not sit well is too opaque to decipher. It is an unfortunate predicament, that being to attempt an explanation as to why said film did not work beyond…it just did not work. In a first in the Friday Noir column, the credibility of a character’s behaviour will be at the heart of a negative review, in this case for Harold Clurman’s Deadline at Dawn.
The film offers the viewer a little tease in the first scene, presenting two characters who will play a gigantic part later in the story while not appearing very much on screen at all. It is a husband and wife, formerly wed by the looks of how they interact. The man, blind, asks for a significant sum of money which was promised to him. The woman does not have it on her. It looks as though the man is about to react to this revelation when director Clurman cuts to a scene introducing the actual protagonist, Alex (Bill Williams) a Navy sailor on a pit stop in New York, who has just awoken from a drunken nap at a newspaper stand. He only has a few hours before leaving the city to a military training ground but has some important things to deal with first, such as returning the huge lump of money he is carrying around. On the way to the mysterious destination, he stops off at a dancing hall and makes the acquaintance of one of the working girls, a tired, jaded, sarcastic June (Susan Hayward). Bill is the counterpart to June: far more shy, far too honest, and just a plain nice guy if a little naive. One thing leads to another, and despite her not feeling inclined to spend the night with a chap, she tags along with Alex as he finally arrives at the apartment where he was to hand over the money…which is the same apartment as seen at the start of the picture. What’s more, the woman is now dead. Alex only has a few hours before clearing his name of the murder.
Deadline at Dawn functions very much like a ‘race against the clock’ film. When Alex, nice honest boy that he is, reveals to June that he had, in fact, been at the apartment earlier that very evening but can no longer recall the events of his actions during his stay, it certainly does not make him look very good now that the woman is lying dead as a doorknob on her living room floor. Unless he can convince the authorities of his innocence (the apartment complex resides just across the street from a police station, obviously), there is no way he will ever have a chance to pursue his military duties. To make matters worse, the departed was involved with some gangsters, who naturally want Alex to answer for what they believe to be his crime. The ticking clock mechanism, when in the hands of creative writers and confident directors, can result in some inventive misadventures, the successes of which are always set against the greatest foe of them all: time. A little bit of reading on the production of the feature revealed that Deadline at Dawn is the only film for which Harold Clurman ever worked as director, (he did direct many stage plays during his career, but this was his only ever silver screen endeavour) Coupled with what at times feels like an especially clumsy script, courtesy of Clifford Odets, his lack of experience in taking the reigns of the story and giving it confidence and focus is all too evident.
Deadline at Dawn throws a lot together…but little of it sticks
Much of what ails Deadline rests in how little effort it puts into making most of what occurs believable, which of course ties the review with the introductory paragraph and the notion of suspending one’s disbelief in order to enjoy and accept a movie. Within that prism of believability, most of the issues relate directly to the charismatic June. The last aspect of that character which should be put at fault is actress Susan Hayward, who is undeniably charming in the role. Her demeanour is one that speaks to the fatigue her time at the dance hall she suffers, in addition to her less than favourable outlook on the behaviour of men in general after acquiescing to all kinds of bizarre and annoying male clients. Susan Hayward plays it with a degree of attitude, but not so much that the viewer would ever question whether or not they should invest emotion into the character. She is just likable enough while being a rather large sour puss herself, not a simple combo to manage. Nay, Hayward herself is not the issue. Rather, it is what the film has her do that blasts credibility into oblivion. The biggest question, that one that might remain with the viewer throughout the entirety of the film is why is she helping Alex. By the film’s end she has fallen in love with him, but how she feels at the end is not reason enough for her to engage in Alex’s crazy hunt at the start of the story. That excuse is not good enough. As it stands, she basically just changes her mind, from not wanting to have anything to do with Alex, whom she scolds for behaving so naively as well as believing he may very well have committed the murder, to walking into the apartment with him and arguably doing even more than him to solve the mystery. Her motivation shifts time and time again. More than once she states that either she has had it with this unorthodox night on the town or that all hope is lost, only to correct herself with a ‘Oh well, why not’ type of dialogue to keep things moving along.
The revelation that she has fallen in love with is equally confounding. Their adventure is mere hours in duration. Not even half a day, but mere hours. June and Lex, in terms of characterizations, simply are not comp. Dialogue between the two in the early goings is pithy, with June scoring many points for responding Alex’s true blue boy scout attitude half-mockingly. For her to not truly dislike him and only use her sarcasm as a defense mechanism is perfectly fine, that much comes across in the performance. Falling in love, however? Alex’s eyes are so innocent, pure, and less mature than hers that one wonders if June in fact wants to mother him rather than be his lover. It simply comes across as very strange. As a tandem of amateur detectives, they work well enough to entertain for the most part, but the end result is preposterous.
There are several supporting players which make appearances, the most memorable being Paul Lukas’ taxi cab driver, Gus. Once again, it is a situation of a fine, fine actor asked to play a part that is so difficult to believe, even in the context of a film noir, a genre known for stylizing things by a fair margin. This man is a taxi cab driver who speaks with the wisdom of a sage. The man is kind in the purest sense, wanting to provide assistance to both Alex and June, which is totally fair game, yet his dialogue is nothing more than a series of little wisdom truths. He is the male version of aunt May from the Spider-Man films, only with more emphasis on the clever life lessons if one can believe such a thing.
As the plot thickens, it becomes increasingly difficult to pinpoint who is who any longer. By the climax, it seems as though there have been at least three female characters who played crucial roles in the film, three more very important male characters, some detectives, and a series of gangsters, each one less recognizable than the last. The premise held promise, that much is certain. Deadline at Dawn, as disappointing as it is to write, proves to be widely unfocused and lacks a sharper director’s skills. For it to have worked at all, it would have had to operate well past its deadline of 83 minutes.