12 June 2006 | bmacv
A very sticky summer night in the city
When a blind ex-husband wearing a boutonnière shows up late in the evening demanding $1400, a good night is probably not in store. Especially when his former spouse's drunken excuse for not paying is "that sailor" must have stolen it. Thus begins Deadline at Dawn, an early noir that's not only a taut and agreeably complicated little mystery but that also aspires, and largely succeeds, in constructing an urban microcosm.
The sailor (Bill Williams) on shore leave has, as sailors on leave do, drunk too much, gambled away his money, been lured up to a wicked woman's apartment, and fallen into a blackout. (The movie's based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, writing as William Irish, who knew whereof he wrote.) When he climbs back out, thanks to black coffee supplied by a kindly newsie, $1400 tumbles out of his pocket.
Trying to piece together the evening, he strays into a dime-a-dance palace, where he meets a would-be hard case (Susan Hayward in her 24th movie!). Making small talk with his bored-to-the-bone partner, Williams speculates whether a rainstorm might break the heat wave. "Such things have been known to happen," replies Hayward, thereby lowering the thermometer pronto. (The quirky, bristling dialogue by Clifford Odets is one of the many amenities of Deadline at Dawn.) Of course, Hayward inevitably thaws enough to offer counsel to Williams and serve as sidekick in his quest to make amends (he's a square-rigger right out of one of the square states). They return to the robbed woman's apartment only to find her (Lola Lane) dead. It's unclear to the befuddled Williams, and to Hayward, whether he might indeed have been the culprit. Trouble is, he's taking a 6 a.m. bus back to Norfolk, where he's stationed; there's only a few hours left to clear his conscience or fess up to the police.
An immigrant cabbie (Paul Lukas) improbably volunteers as a third ally, and the three, together and separately, embark on various sleuthing expeditions through the dark and soupy streets of Manhattan. For a movie that clocks in under an hour and a half, Deadline at Dawn boasts a cast just short of epic. Among the principals who intersect are Joseph Calleia, as a ruthless yet debonair gangster; Osa Massen as a lame housewife expelled from the rubble of Europe; and Steven Geray as a well-mannered stalker. Joining them are countless players with brief walk-ons, comic or poignant, of the 8-million-stories-in-the-naked-city variety, giving the movie the sole directorial effort by east-coast theater maven Harold Clurman its distinctive tone and texture. (Jules Dassin must have borrowed greedily from it when he came to film his own The Naked City during the sweltering New York summer of 1947.) Deadline at Dawn falls short of perfection. It's too short for all it contains, it's a bit sooty from all the red herrings, and its way out verges on the-butler-did-it (or maybe Roger Ackroyd). But a lot of RKO talent went into its making (in addition to the above, Nicholas Musuraca photographed it, and Hanns Eisler later to become a serious Leftist composer in East Germany wrote the score). But it has its own sweaty, big-city flavor, a pungent New York Story, and a prototype of many noirish delights yet to come.