Film Score: Hanns Eisler Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Starring: Susan Hayward, Paul Lukas, Bill Williams and Joseph Calleia
Cornell Woolrich, Deadline at Dawn is given the RKO touch and, even though it doesn’t really have any major stars, it manages pack a lot of interest into the story and gets the most from its second-string cast. There are a couple of major flaws in the picture that no doubt keep it from being considered a classic. The most obvious is the unbelievable plot, and it never really recovers from that. Not only is the motivation for not reporting the murder incredibly thin, but the investigation is extremely convoluted. But if you can look past those obvious flaws, it’s kind of an endearing film, and the ending, while it strains credulity to the breaking point, is surprisingly satisfying. Not a noir film in any way, it’s really an amateur sleuth mystery with a few Expressionistic touches thrown in and a ticking clock is the only means of ratcheting up the suspense. The film was the only one ever directed by theater director Harold Clurman and while it wasn’t the best choice of projects he was ably assisted by fellow theater collaborator Clifford Odets on the screenplay, which also has its charms.
Behind the credits a blind man, Marvin Miller, makes his way up the stairs of an apartment building. He knocks on the door of his ex-wife, Lola Lane. A fly on her face makes it look as though she’s dead, but then she opens the door and lets him in. He needs the money she owes him, but when she goes to get it she discovers a sailor she recently had up to her room has stolen it. Down on the street the sailor, Bill Williams, is talking to the owner of a newsstand. It’s hot out, and when he goes to get his handkerchief the money drops out, but it’s clear he didn’t know it was there. Nevertheless, he takes the money and wanders into a dance hall and meets taxi dancer Susan Hayward. She’s a bit surly because she hates her job, but Williams’ small-town charm wins her over. When he confesses that he did take the money, but that he was drunk and doesn’t remember doing it, she agrees to help him put it back. When they get there, however, it turns out Lane is dead. Everyone in the bar where he met her knows Williams went home with her, so he figures his only chance not to get arrested is to find the murderer himself, before he has to catch his bus at six in the morning and go back to his base. Reluctantly, Hayward decides to help him.
The two split up to investigate, Hayward heading to Greenwich Village to follow a woman with a limp, and Williams getting into the cab of Paul Lukas to chase a nervous man who ran out of the alley near Lane’s apartment. Eventually Lukas is dragged into the investigation as well. Susan Hayward, who would become more of a star in the fifties than she was here, is obviously cast because she has a look that’s sort of a cross between Joan Bennett and Hedy Lamarr. She’s wonderfully alluring and the audience can see the wheels turning in her head, though they don’t know exactly what she’s thinking. Paul Lukas plays a fascinating character, something of a cross between the fairy godfather and Bulldog Drummond. The lines that Odets wrote for him are full of philosophical observations and sentimental drivel and yet somehow never become tiresome. Even Bill Williams, not the greatest actor by a long shot, makes an interesting presence. And though his small town sailor boy wears thin after a while, just watching Hayward fall for him makes it a little easier to take.
If composer Hanns Eisler is not a well-known name it is because he only spent a short time in Hollywood working on some interesting but obscure films. But when the communist witch-hunts began he decided to return to Europe rather than deal with the insidious and extra-legal investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The film came at an opportune time for Hayward. Her last film as a loan out under her Paramount contract, where she was miserable, the success of the film helped her get a new contract with Universal. While the picture is set in New York City, it was filmed exclusively on the 20th Century Fox backlot but, again, all of the things that could be a negative for so many films don’t seem to diminish this one. In addition, there are several distinctive character actors who appear in cameo roles including Curly Wright as a fruit peddler, Dick Elliott as a drunk man on the street, Al Bridge as a police detective, and the great Roman Bohnen as the frantic man with the dying cat. Deadline at Dawn is simply an odd film, in a tremendous number of ways, and yet it’s easy to see why it was so popular with audiences because somehow it all works.