What better way to (intentionally or not) achieve the look and feel of what we now consider ‘classic’ film noir then to have the entire thing set at night? One single night, as a matter of fact.
RKO’s Deadline At Dawn (1946) was famous stage director Harold Clurman’s only film (and some claim that assistant director and production designer William Cameron Menzies actually handled much of the work). It’s an adaptation of William Irish’s novel by the same name (Irish being Cornell Woolrich, of course), who may have been responsible for more postwar film noir and crime melodrama story sources than any other author.
Despite her better judgement, Susan Hayward’s street-smart and world-weary New York dance hall girl hooks up with a hunk of a sailor who emerges from a drinking binge with a mysterious wad of cash in hand. And that dough may have belonged to a girl who’s been murdered. Is he a killer? Was he framed? The duo only have a few fright-filled hours to find out before he’s due back from leave, so the entire tale unfolds during one eventful night as they prowl shadowy apartment buildings, smoky nightclubs and eerie rain-soaked streets, mixing it up with various nefarious types and guided along the way by a philosophical old cabbie played by Paul Lukas. All of this speeds along (somewhat confusingly at times) towards a “Gotcha” resolution, this dark and moody film wrapping up on an unexpected positive note.
Damn near every shot’s a frameable fine art noir photo, with twisty camera angles, elongated shadows and one ominous room, hallway and stairwell after another. The big city never looked more menacing, or more darkly beautiful, for that matter. Susan Hayward’s cynical but vulnerable character is as gritty as the city she calls home, but she never looked more beautiful, even though she’s ‘dressed down’ for the part. I think that Deadline At Dawn was the first top billing for the hard-working actress who’d toiled in numerous bit parts and second (third and fourth) billed roles for nine years at Warner Brothers, then Paramount, United Artists and even Republic before she nailed this role at RKO. And though she only made two films that year, it was a turning point, soon moving her up to one lead role after another and securing five Oscar nominations and one win. Here she’s street-smart but world-weary, tough as nails but revealing a very human vulnerability. Sure, she gets to deliver some real gems, Irish/Woolrich’s novel adapted for the screen by playwright Clifford Odets. But watch closely and marvel at how Hayward achieves a poignantly bitter yet hopeful demeanour… lovely, of course, but always looking just a little bit bruised and disheveled. But then she was no stranger to NYC’s mean streets, born Edythe Marrenner in Brooklyn herself in 1917.
This one’s a must-see, though it doesn’t command the attention of some more widely acclaimed movies from the classic noir era. Thanks for small favors, even my crummy cable subscription let me see it.