Saturday, April 12, 2014

Stubs – Deadline at Dawn

Deadline at Dawn (1946): Starring: Susan Hayward, Paul Lukas, Bill Williams, Joseph Calleia, Osa Massen, Lola Lane, Jerome Cowan, Marvin Miller. Directed by Harold Clurman. Produced by Adrian Scott Screenplay by Clifford Odets. Based on the novel Deadline at Dawn by Cornell Woolrich. Run Time: 85. Black and White, U.S. Crime, Mystery, Film Noir

It’s a hot summer night, turned morning in New York City. A young sailor, Alex Winkler (Bill Williams), wakes up in a newsstand, not sure how he got there or why there is $1400 in cash in his pocket. A radio specialist scheduled to leave on a bus at six am for duty in Norfolk, Virginia; he is carried along the sidewalk by the bustling crowd and ends up in a dance hall. There he sees taxi dancer June Goffe (Susan Hayward) getting rid of Edward Honig (Steven Geray), a customer obsessed by her.

Taxi dancer June Goffe (Susan Hayward) has an obsessed admirer in Edward Honig (Steven Geray).

After a few dances, June starts feeling sympathetic for Alex, who is naïve and innocent. June invites him back to her place for a sandwich. There Alex confesses to June that, although he had an alcohol-induced blackout, he must have stolen the $1,400 from Edna Bartelli (Lola Lane) after her brother, Val (Joseph Calleia), fleeced him in a card game and she plied him with drinks.

June invites customer and sailor Alex Winkler (Bill Williams) back to her apartment.

Alex wants to return the money and persuades June to accompany him to Edna's apartment at 51st and Lexington. (June has a brother in the service and she’s a native of Norfolk.) There Alex discovers Edna's strangled body in the living room. June tries to reassure Alex of his innocence, but he is convinced it’s only a matter of time before the police arrest him.

June chooses to help Alex and suggests that they think like the killer in order to deduce his whereabouts. They stop at the corner soda fountain to get a drink, but decide they’re not really thirsty after all. June asks the soda jerk if there had been anyone else like them recently. He tells her that a blonde with a limp left the counter in a rush and took a taxi. Posing as the blonde's sister, June finds the cabbie who took her and he takes her to the blonde's destination.

While June questions Helen Robinson (Osa Massen), the blonde, about her activities at 51st and Lexington, Alex pursues a distraught man (Roman Bohnen) in a taxi cab. Alex soon learns that the man raced off because his cat (and sadly best friend) was choking and the man had gone to the pet store for help, but he’s too late. Alex orders his cab back to Edna's. Although June concludes that Helen knows nothing about Edna, Helen discusses Edna's murder with her tense husband, Jerry (Phil Warren), after June leaves.

Helen Robinson (Osa Massen) is questioned by June.

Back at Edna's apartment, June finds Alex there with his sympathetic cab driver, Gus Hoffman (Paul Lukas). Gus tries to convince Alex to forget about Edna, but June insists that Alex be cleared of all suspicion by the time he catches his bus.

Soon after the trio discovers a stack of love letters that Edna used for blackmailing purposes, a gun-wielding woman, Mrs. Nan Raymond (Constance Worth), sneaks into the apartment. Nan grabs Edna's letters and the money, but drops them as she is confronted by Gus.

Gus notices that there is a man watching the apartment. In an attempt to draw him out, June and Gus leave to see if he follows, which he does, hailing a cab to follow them. Meanwhile, Alex then calls Lester Brady (Jerome Cowan), a theatrical producer whose bounced check to Edna they also found, and makes an appointment with him. Nan, meanwhile, goes to see Brady, also her lover, and tells him about Edna, who was blackmailing her over their affair.

June with Gus Hoffman (Paul Lukas), the cab driver in Deadline at Dawn.

Hoping to retrieve the incriminating letters, Nan and Lester then inform Val Bartelli, Edna's gangster brother, about her demise. When Alex arrives at Lester's, Val accuses him of killing Edna and knocks him out after he counter punches Lester. Reluctantly, Val agrees to return Alex to Edna's with Lester, who tells Nan to go home to her husband.

Meanwhile, Gus has stopped the cab and accosted the man, who turns out to be Honig, who is what they now call stalking June.

At Edna’s, Val, unable to control his rage, starts to beat up Alex but is stopped by Gus, when he and June return. They are momentarily interrupted when drunken athlete Babe Dooley (Joe Sawyer) stands out on the sidewalk and yells for Edna to give him a bottle of liquor. The police, whose station is across the street from Edna’s, placate the Babe, by sending an officer up to her apartment to get a bottle for him. Val gives the officer one and he leaves. After Gus convinces Val that Alex is guiltless, everyone heads over to a nightclub, where Edna's ex-husband, blind pianist Sleepy Parsons (Marvin Miller), is performing.

While they’re out, Babe, who breaks his bottle, heads back to Edna’s to get another one. There he discovers her body, which Val had moved into the bedroom. Babe calls out the window for the police.

Sleepy, who had been to see Edna to collect the $1400 minutes before her death, acts nervously around her scent, which June has managed to spill all over her dress. Sleepy’s nervousness causes Val to explode with accusation. Sleepy, who has a weak heart, drops dead, which attracts the police and the entire group is brought in for questioning.

After an initial interrogation, the police zero in on Alex, who admits to Lt. Kane (Jospeh Crehan) that he might have murdered Edna during his blackout. But the police are startled when Jerry Thompson fully confesses to the crime. Lt. Kane though easily unravels Jerry's confession and they hone in on Helen.

Just then, Gus finally admits that he killed Edna because she was having an affair with Jerry, his son-in-law, and wanted to save his daughter's marriage now that they had a baby. Gus had tried to chase Alex away from the scene, but when he couldn’t do that, had tried to prove his innocence. On his way out, Gus tells June to follow Alex to Norfolk and she agrees.

A happy ending for Alex and June. She agrees to follow him back to Norfolk.

This is not a great film noir plot, filled with false leads and coincidences without which the plot would not have been resolved. All the investigative work has been for naught, as it was Gus’ guilt for getting Alex arrested, not for committing the murder itself, that results in his confession.

Deadline at Dawn represents the one and only film Howard Clurman would ever direct and perhaps that’s for the best if this film was an example of his work. Clurman did have a very successful career on Broadway. In 1931, Clurman was one of the three founders, along with Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg of the Group Theatre in New York City. He would direct and produce plays for the Group until 1941 and continued to work on Broadway until 1966. 

Susan Hayward, the star of the film, does as much as she can with the script. In my opinion, Bill Williams, who had been working in films since 1933’s King Kong, overplays the naivety of Winkle. And I get the distinct impression that a lot of the misleading plot direction was an effort to pad out Woolrich’s original novella to feature length, though I don’t have any firsthand experience with the book. A bright spot of the film is the cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, which looks great, so while the film does nothing for the brain, it is still a treat for the eyes.

There are several other film noirs I would recommend over this one. Deadline at Dawn might be forgettable with the exception of its connection to Washington’s investigation of Communist activities in Hollywood. The year after this film’s release, producer Adrian Scott was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). He refused to testify and was sentenced to jail time. Known as one of the Hollywood Ten, Scott was subsequently blacklisted and unable to work in Hollywood. Clifford Odets, the screenwriter, was called before the HUAC in 1952, but is considered to have cooperated with the committee, saving himself from being blacklisted but not from torment.

Deadline at Dawn is available for viewing at Warner Archive Instant:

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