Pretty sure I don’t have all the makings for a real Ramos Gin Fizz, the drink of choice ‘round Gulf City circa 1947, where director John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning is mostly set. That’s what’s on TCM’s Noir Alley Saturday night (May 25th), hosted by God-Of-All-Things-Noir, Eddie Muller. As luck would have it, I’ll be out of town over the Memorial Day weekend and far from civilized things like cable TV, a satellite dish, Wi-Fi or even all three main broadcast networks.
But it’s not as if the Dead Reckoning DVD isn’t right on my shelf, though I’d really like to hear Muller’s remarks on this flick. Though I try to steer clear of claims about this film or that book or some show being ‘the best’, I do have my own favorites, and Dead Reckoning happens to be among them. It’s not the most famous of the classic noir period’s films, nor was it a particular success, critically or financially. But for me it just works. Hard for it not to, with Humphrey Bogart, who has to keep up with what may be the Queen of Film Noir, Lizabeth Scott.
Dead Reckoning was scripted by Steve Fisher and Oliver Garrett, based on a story by Gerald Drayson Adams and Sidney Biddell. Bogart turns in what some consider a ‘generic Bogart’ performance, that is, a bit of Spade and a bit of Marlowe stirred in with a bit of Casablanca’s Rick Blaine (as complex a mix as a Ramos Gin Fizz…recipe below). But for me, even a ‘generic Bogart’ performance is better than many other actors’ artsy-smartsy best. And Lizabeth Scott? This film’s pretty early in her relatively short Hollywood career, and even she felt it permanently typecast her as a blonde torch singer and femme fatale. No surprise then that Scott appeared in lead roles in more films noir than any other actress (as a blonde torch singer four times, in fact), though by all accounts she’d have preferred more comedies.
There are some nifty twists and turns in Dead Reckoning’s plot, so I won’t tell too much or spoil anything. The setup’s a pretty cool framing device, opening on a stateside Army Chaplain hearing Bogart’s Captain Warren ‘Rip’ Murdock tell his story in flashback. WWII behind them, Rip and best pal Johnny Drake are en route to a Medal of Honor ceremony when Johnny vanishes. Rip makes for Johnny’s hometown of ‘Gulf City’ (New Orleans?) where he learns his best pal enlisted under a fake name to hide out from the law, having been framed for murder. Bogart looks up Johnny’s old girlfriend, nightclub chanteuse Coral ‘Dusty’ Chandler’, who’s now involved with Gulf City’s gambling kingpin. The bad guys don’t like Bogart sniffing around, much less sniffing around ‘Dusty’, so they try to frame him with a murder rap, work him over and eventually attempt to just make him go away…permanently. To say more would give things away, so I won’t. Except to say that ‘Rip’ and ‘Dusty’ just about melt the silver screen, and all guilty parties get their just desserts, whether with phosphorous grenades or a car crash.
It’s no surprise that Lizabeth Scott found herself typecast after this film. Sultry looks, seductive poses, eyes that can say more than a page of dialog, and that distinctive, deep and smoky voice. She doesn’t just smolder here. She burns.
Scott was born Emma Matzo in 1922 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and moved to New York City as a teenager where she worked as both a model and actor, on Broadway and in several grueling national touring shows. She was often relegated to understudy roles, and it was during this time that she adopted the stage name of Lizabeth Scott (originally including the ‘E’) while appearing in Maxwell Anderson’s Mary Of Scotland about Mary, Queen Of Scots and Queen Elizabeth The First. She didn’t really get ‘discovered’ till she was 22, appeared in her first film in 1945, hit it big in 1946 alongside Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers, and came back from a post-WWII goodwill tour of Britain the next year for Dead Reckoning. She and Bogart became close friends during the production, and reportedly he continued to call her Dusty (or sometimes ‘Scotty’ or even ‘Mike’) throughout his remaining ten years.
By the mid-fifties, Scott grew increasingly disenchanted with her femme fatale roles, only showed modest interest in the burgeoning television industry, and had begun to fade from the scene. Complicating things was a high-profile scandal that erupted when sleaze reporter Howard Rushmore did an expose on her for Confidential magazine. First, a ‘little black book’ confiscated in a Hollywood vice raid purportedly showed Scott listed among the clientele of L.A. call girls. Confidential oozed innuendo about Scott’s friendship with Paris’ colorful Frederique ‘Frede’ Baule, a then-notorious lesbian cabaret proprietor. Rushmore finally arranged a lunch date with Scott and out-of-work actress Veronica Quillan, who wore a hidden microphone and was assigned to lure Scott into making a pass. The reporter and magazine both assumed that Scott, like most actors, would agree to a buy-back, basically paying blackmail money to keep the story buried (something we’ve all heard about recently, huh?). She declined, they went ahead and published.
But to their surprise, ‘Dusty’ sued.
The trial was protracted and ultimately ended without a settlement. Some in Hollywood cheered her on, others just took the story as-is. And of course, from a 2019 perspective, Scott as a Hollywood Violet is merely chic if not incidental. Whatever, a hearty three cheers to her for standing up to a sleaze-rag.
Lizabeth Scott (she did eventually make the stage name legal) passed away quietly just a few years ago, at age 92 in 2015. And as for a Ramos Gin Fizz, which is Coral ‘Dusty’ Chandler’s drink of choice in Dead Reckoning? It’s gin, lemon juice, egg white, sugar, cream, orange flower water and soda water, thoroughly shaken, poured through ice and served in large non-tapered 12 or 14 ounce Tom Collins’ glassware.
My own array of mixers seems to be missing orange flower water just now.