Classic Movie Review
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Lizabeth Scott
When Captain ‘Rip’ Murdock [Humphrey Bogart] lets slip he’s submitted fellow soldier Sergeant Johnny Drake [William Prince] for the Medal of Honor, Drake jumps from the train en route to Washington and disappears. Murdock follows his trail discovering Drake’s real identity and potentially murderous past.
With it’s tagline reading “He doesn’t trust anyone… especially women!”, this noir promises and delivers standard faire complete with a hard-boiled detective-type and femme fatale in the form of Coral ‘Dusty’ Chandler [Lizabeth Scott]. Convoluted though the narrative might be as the blame for a single murder casts all under suspicion, it’s easy to surrender to the darkly beautiful cinematography and stock noir characters. As is often the case with these films, it is ultimately a story of redemption for all as Murdock and Dusty fight their way out from under a web of deception and lies.
The story begins in Gulf City, self-proclaimed ‘tropical paradise of the south’. A Newspaper Man hawks the Sunday morning paper as an obviously beaten Captain ‘Rip’ Murdock [Bogart] dodges a police officer and runs into a church. He seeks the help of Father Logan, The ‘Jumping’ Padre [William Bell], saying that he wants to clear his friend’s name. Though he isn’t a Catholic, Murdock needs to tell the story and so he begins, enveloped in complete shadow as if to show us how dark his world has become.
Flash back with Murdock’s voiceover narration to he and Sergeant Johnny Drake‘s [William Prince], return from France, a couple of successful paratroopers. A Lieutenant Colonel held the train that will bring them to Washington, D.C. Drake waxes poetic for a blonde woman from his past while Murdock makes clear his disdain for Drake’s fixation by stating ‘all females are the same with their faces washed’. So we hear the first of many statements from Murdock making it perfectly clear he doesn’t need women. Murdock makes fun of Drake’s attachment to what he calls his ‘senior sorority pin’. When Drake hears of his being nominated to receive the Medal of Honor, Drake drops the pin and Murdock picks it up reading ‘John Joseph Preston, Yale 40’ instead of Drake’s name. Drake insists he doesn’t want a medal. In Philadelphia, Drake jumps from the train and runs away, waving to Murdock as he goes.
Puzzled, Murdock opts not to go to D.C. and receives permission from the military to search for Drake. He calls Yale to inquiring about John Preston and discovers he hails from Gulf City. There Murdock checks into a hotel and is handed a note addressed to ‘Mister Geronimo’ – referencing the phrase paratroopers shout when the jump from the plane. References to Murdock’s experience as paratrooper are made throughout the film to great effect, mirroring his character’s experience as he jumps into the mystery of his friend’s pervious life. Forty-eight hours later and with no new contact from Drake/Preston, Murdock goes to the library in search of anything he can find about his friend. A rich realtor, Coral Chandler, was shot on September 3, 1943 and articles point to a love affair between Preston and Coral’s wife, ‘Dusty’. Preston enlisted on October 11, 1943 under the name of Drake. Murdock reads about one witness to the event, a waiter, Louis Ord [George Chandler].
That night, instead of switching the radio off, Murdock accidentally switches it to the police band and hears reports of a car crash resulting in the fiery death of a man. This is one heck of a happy accident but this clever device, appropriate for the time period, is not used again and definitely propels Murdock deeper into the mystery. Murdock lies to Lieutenant Kincaid [Charles Cane], to gain access to the morgue where he finds the melted sorority pin on the unidentified body. A little riled up, feeling ‘like a fight’, Murdock decides to solve Drake/Preston’s murder. From this point forward, he takes on the role of detective, eschewing a position role in the military He tracks down Louis Ord, now a bartender, who is startled at first, then claims to have a letter from Preston. Ord asks Murdock to come get it tomorrow. Enter ‘Dusty’ Chandler [Scott], who charms Murdock with her Jasmine perfume and her rendition of the song ‘Either It’s Love or It Isn’t’.
And here things get interesting on several levels. Murdock seems to quickly develop the detective’s sensibility as he observes the Maitr’d Krause [Marvin Miller] threatening the bartender and the manner in which Dusty loses at the roulette table. He becomes that guy who can ‘take it if you can’, the man who doesn’t trust anybody. This shift in character might throw the viewer out of the story, but Bogart keeps us riveted with his discerning glance and cooler than cool attitude. After Murdock helps Dusty recoup some of her obviously fixed losses, club and casino owner Martinelli [Morris Carnovsky] invites the two back into his office for drinks that knock them both out – as far as we can tell. A groggy Murdock wakes to find the murdered bartender in his room. Somehow recognizing a set-up when he sees one, Murdock gets the body out of the room in time for Kincaid’s appearance at the door in response to an anonymous tip.
In perfect form, Dusty barely blinks when she hears about this near misadventure, but the mention of a letter makes her certain that it must be from Preston. Admitting feelings for Preston, she suggests the letter is written in code, deducing Martinelli must have taken it from Ord and put it in his safe. Murdock phones St. Louis gangster Beretta [sp.] inquiring after local safebreakers available to help. Yes, you heard correctly, for Murdock apparently has attachments to organized crime up north. Martinelli hinted at such a possible connection over the doped drinks in his office, suggesting Murdock was sent by someone to make trouble for him. Murdock is directed by the never seen crime boss to the home of McGee [Wallace Ford] who initially agrees then refuses to take the job once he hears Martinelli’s name. McGee does suggest that the safe’s an easy one to break, and Dusty suggests he show Murdock how to do it.
Armed with the knowledge of the secrets of the safe, Dusty drives Murdock to Martinelli’s beach house. When Murdock reveals the Louis Ord’s body is in the trunk and that he intends to dump it at Martinelli’s home and phone the police to get Martinelli out of his office, Dusty speeds and they are stopped by a motorcycle cop. The two spin a yarn for the officer, claiming she sped in response to a surprise marriage proposal. They deliver this story with a marked lack of passion, yet the officer buys it completely and lets them go. The detached love affair developing between the two of them feels staged on both their parts – but this is not an unusual tonal choice in this genre. Lizabeth looks like she could have placed in a Lauren Bacall look alike contest, even imitating that sultry matter-of-fact delivery that Bacall and many others manufactured so very well. She lacks that certain something in her delivery, something that most likely stems from questions about her character.
For example, as a rich widow, how and why did she get so embroiled in a relationship with Martinelli which requires that she literally sing for her supper? This question never pops up on Murdock’s radar. He is taken with her, in spite of himself, yet there is very little exploration into why she of all people changes his mind about women. She’s a deceiver, keeping her cards close to her chest careful not to give too much away. The one great thing about her is she really appears to have a lot at stake, regardless of the origins of her circumstances – whether or not she or Preston pulled the trigger on the gun that killed her husband. Whether or not she loves anyone is also almost an unnecessary question. Ultimately, we care about her only as deeply as she effects Murdock’s story. And she certainly sends him reeling. As she sees him off at the office they night they break into the safe, she asks ‘You won’t take any fool chances will you?’ – and he answers ‘Not any more foolish than I’m taking now’ just before he grabs her and kisses her like its his last day on earth.
And so the man who never trusts anyone, especially a woman finds himself trusting only a woman. But when he doesn’t find the letter, only an attempt at a code, Murdock smells of whiff of Jasmine just before he is knocked unconscious and left to be beaten by the reportedly psychotic Krause. The narrative pauses to check back in at the church where Murdock admits he thinks Dusty ‘did it’ just before he takes off into the night. Here Murdock comes up against the point of no return, and crosses over it into what must certainly be a bloody outcome for either himself or the woman he now thinks he loves. He does not accept the help of the priest, nor does he run to the police. Though he knows in his gut she must be responsible for all that has happened, he lacks proof. Rather than search for it, he confronts her face to face, and it is here that Lizabeth both reveals and even more deeply conceals her motivations in a dazzling spinning of the events surrounding her husbands death.
He tests her resolve by threatening to phone the police and she responds by saying she doesn’t care anymore, make the call. He believes her – we even believe her though we still are not one hundred percent clear on who she is and what she’s about. He kisses her, so that ‘she knows he can’, and she admits she’s a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who is just tired of it all and promises to do good for him. Martinelli has her husband’s murder weapon, and somehow that murder weapon leads directly to Dusty. The letter nearly forgotten and determined to save her now, Murdock makes plans to go after the gun. The action that takes place in Martinelli’s office is best left to viewers eyes only for answers to most of the story’s questions come rolling out one after another in a parade of complexity almost bordering on the absurd. Having come that far, one can accept the nature of the story for what it is and simply ride out the rest. Murdock’s relationship with Kincaid recalls the kind of antics Axel Foley perpetrates in Beverly Hills Cop. The police are not smart – not in this movie, nor in many others like it, and so it is up to the regular guy, our hero, to set things right. Dusty does break down in spectacular fashion, leading to a poetic demise that once again makes reference to the paratrooper’s experience.