Deadline at Dawn (1946)
Directed by Harold Clurman
Produced by Sid Rogell, Adrian Scott
Based on a novella by Cornell Woolrich (writing as William Irish)
Screenplay by Clifford Odets
Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca
Edited by Roland Gross
Classic Film Noir Collection: Volume 5 DVD
Deadline at Dawn is a real oddity in the film noir canon. It seems more of a mystery than a film noir, but if you insist on calling it noir, call it a noir fantasy, one that makes up its own rules. I admire it for more-or-less staying within the bounds of those rules, even though the final product is only moderately satisfying.
The film is also odd in that it’s the only picture directed by theater director and drama critic Harold Clurman, who founded New York’s Group Theater. Clurman’s frequent stage collaborator Clifford Odets wrote the screenplay, which is filled with Odets’s unusual blend of poetic street-talk, the sort of lines that feel like they belong in film noir, but also feel artificial, at least in this picture. That would be understandable; noir style often leans heavily on dialogue that’s not true to life, but rather poetic, hardboiled and gritty. But so many other elements of Deadline at Dawn feel artificial as well. More on that in a moment…
The film opens with a woman named Edna (Lola Lane) opening her New York City apartment door to a man who appears to be barely awake. “Why, Sleepy Parsons… Aren’t you dead yet?” she asks. Parsons (Marvin Miller, who provided voices for many films and cartoons) comes into the apartment asking for his money, to the tune of $1,400. Edna claims that a sailor took it.
Cut to a sailor named Alex (Bill Williams, who had a long career in B movies and TV), who discovers – guess what? – $1,400 in his pocket and can’t remember out how it got there. Alex is unbelievably honest and innocent, so when he meets a cynical dance hall girl named June (Susan Hayward) and tells her his woes, he asks her for help. Alex remembers enough of the events of the past few hours to know where he got the money and wants to return it before he has to catch the bus to ship out at 6:00am the next morning (hence the film’s title). Alex and June soon discover that the woman he took the money from has been murdered and off we go…
Alex is so out-of-place in the big city that he seems as if he’s in a fairy tale and needs June to help him navigate his way through it. It’s a land of strange people, including a philosophy-spouting cab driver (Paul Lukas, above), a mobster (Joseph Calleia), and many other strange folks. Odets’s script also seems to go out of its way to make the viewer aware of the various ethnicities and accents in this particular part of the city, perhaps making it more of a “Stranger in a Strange Land” setting for Alex.
June is more than able to lead Alex through this odd version of New York; she’s tough, hard-edged and no-nonsense. Yet she often says things that make us think that maybe she’s got a little bit of odd innocence left as well, with out-of-character lines like “Call me June, rhymes with moon” and “Rain, rain, go away, come again some other day.” Such lines may show that she’s got some innocence left, but they also seem artificial coming from such a hardened character.
Deadline at Dawn is filled with twists and turns, red herrings and other typical elements of film noir that in good films are either accepted or overlooked. Here, they’re simply too much to swallow, due mostly to the strange fairy tale/fantasy-like elements that take us out of the realm of noir. For all that, however, I still enjoyed the film and many of its individual scenes and performances. While Deadline at Dawn is not a great film noir, it’s certainly worth a look.