Something of an ur-noir as the genre was still developing its rhythms while also pointing forward towards the more brutalist and suffocating films to come, Dead Reckoning is a second-tier noir that functions perfectly as an introduction for the genre. In production before the seminal essay which gave a name to a certain form of post-war cinema rapidly coalescing into a movement, here is a film suffused with moody lighting, a twisty-turny plot that borders on indecipherable, and a femme fatale to nearly out-do them all. It’s like noir straight from the source with all of the signposts and accoutrements.
The entire film follows a flashback structure, a noir staple in just a few years, as a broken man confesses to a priest about his sins. While a pervasive sense of guilt and emotional corruption is nearly endemic to noir, confessing to a priest is an extreme example of it. what follows is a story that twists and turns and is so convoluted that its nearly impossible to keep it all straight.
But the pleasure of so many of these densely plotted noirs is getting lost in the atmosphere of suffocating and doomed romance, a weary cynicism that merges into melodrama and bathed in tilted angles and expressionistic shadows. The inky frames dance around guys in trench coats, seemingly haloed by cigarette smoke, and femme fatales that slink around luring men into destruction with their throaty siren calls.
Dead Reckoning is so indulgent in all of these pieces and moods that it nearly tips itself into self-parody. Bogart isn’t doing his typical noirish tough guy thing, but rather a man who stumbles into the demimonde by accident rather than, say, Sam Spade who feels grown out of it. His actions are occasionally improbable and Bogart’s performance flirts with irony and self-parody.
He isn’t met with equal fervor by his leading lady, though. I just don’t seem to grasp Lizabeth Scott as a noir actress. She seems immobile and expressionless, but not with purpose. There doesn’t seem be anything below her surface and her character is clearly engineered as Lauren Bacall type. Bacall managed to project intelligence and steely resolve, often meeting and matching her male costars with her own brand of braggadocio and strength. Scott seems adrift and can’t quite pull off the sinister undertones required for the role.
Yet I still really enjoyed the sheer spectacle of the whole thing. Sure, it feels like an excessive exercise in style, but that’s sometimes exactly what you’re open and ready to experience. For all its problems, I still enjoyed Dead Reckoning quite a bit. It the most purplish of noir films, and sometimes that’s all you need in an immersion in genre excess from time to time.