This week’s mystery movie was the 1946 RKO picture “Deadline at Dawn,” with Susan Hayward, Paul Lukas, Bill Williams, Joseph Calleia, Osa Massen, Lola Lane, Jerome Cowan, Marvin Miller, Roman Bohnen, Steven Geray, Joe Sawyer, Constance Worth and Joseph Crehan.
Screenplay by Clifford Odets. Based on a novel by William Irish (Cornell Woolrich). Photography by Nicholas Musuraca, special effects by Vernon L. Walker, art direction by Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey, set decorations by Darrell Silvera, music by Hanns Eisler, musical director C. Bakaleinikoff, edited by Roland Gross, sound by Earl A. Wolcott and James G. Stewart, gowns by Renie, assistant director William Dorfman.
Executive producer Sid Rogell. Produced by Adrian Scott. Directed by Harold Clurman.
ps. James Curtis, who wrote an excellent biography of William Cameron Menzies, emails that Menzies did a lot of work on “Deadline at Dawn” in production design and as co-director, but had his name taken off the picture because he hated director Harold Clurman and didn’t like the way the movie turned out. Menzies’ involvement explains the film’s remarkable visual style.
“Deadline at Dawn” is available on DVD in a four-disc set from Warner Archive.
This week’s mystery movie was a request from Sylvia E. and it was an interesting jaunt into a rather quirky film. It’s based on the novel of the same name, written by Cornell Woolrich under the pen name William Irish. The plot is oddly episodic, calling for a large cast of people who pop in for a few moments, like Roman Bohnen as the owner of a cat that swallowed a chicken bone, and Armand “Curly” Wright, a fruit peddler who wants nothing more than to sell his last bananas to Bill Williams so he can go home.
At certain points in the film, there are so many people in the apartment with the murder victim that “Deadline at Dawn” comes close to Alfred Hitchcock’s humorous treatment of a dead body in “The Trouble With Harry.”
The photography, by Nicholas Musuraca, is impressive, as in this shot of the sleeping Edna Bartelli (Lola Lane).
“Deadline at Dawn” was a natural for radio dramas of the era, and the book and the movie were adapted for various programs. The book was turned into a radio drama Jan. 30, 1945, on NBC’s Mystery Theater (no actors are credited) and on May 15, 1948, “Suspense” aired a version with Helen Walker and John Beal.
The film was the basis for a May 20, 1946, episode of Lux Radio Theater with Joan Blondell, Bill Williams and Paul Lukas.
Trivia note: The movie was Susan Hayward’s return to the screen after giving birth to twin boys, born Feb. 19, 1945. Hayward, who was married to Jess Barker, was borrowed from Paramount to make the film.
Audience slant: (Family) Good entertainment for most audiences, but especially for the more sophisticated. Children may find it too slow-moving and too thought-provoking for thorough enjoyment.
Box office slant: Needs intensive exploitation to obtain initial draw. Word of mouth should be favorable resulting in good prospects for later runs. Not strong enough to stand alone in the average situation.
Comment: Production, direction, screenplay and excellent performances have been combined to concoct one of the better who-dun-its. However, the picture has moments of fanciful situations that lack complete plausibility, marring in slight degree what might have been a superb picture. While Bill Williams’ young sailor might conceivably be as dumb as he is portrayed here, and while Miss Hayward’s part calls for her to be a hardboiled, worldly-wise young lady, it just doesn’t seem possible that these two would go into the kitchen of the apartment of a recently murdered woman in search for food and drink while the woman’s body, not yet cold, lies sprawled on the living room floor.
While minor faults such as this are permitted to creep in and intrude on the otherwise exciting mystery, the picture as a whole is top entertainment, sparked by Mr. Odets’ inspired dialogue and the performances of Williams, Miss Hayward and particularly of Paul Lukas.
RKO has prepared an extensive press book, slanted along the lines it is believed will get the most out of this film. By following the lines set down in the press book and intensively attending to details the picture can be made into a better than average box office attraction, particularly in later runs when favorable word of mouth has had a chance to circulate. It is not strong enough, however, to stand alone in most situations.
Bosley Crowther, writing in the New York Times (April 4, 1946), said:
Plainly, the first essential of a first-class mystery film is that it catch and excite audience interest in the telling of its uncertain tale. And the longer it keeps the audience guessing the more intriguing it is likely to be. Those two desirable essentials are eminently satisfied by RKO’s latest thriller, “Deadline at Dawn,” which opened at the Palace yesterday.
In scripting this racy little baffler about a sailor-boy on leave who is compelled to prove, within six hours, that he didn’t murder a certain female, Clifford Odets has assembled a great deal of vivid incident from a novel by William Irish and has blessed it with some bristling dialogue. And Harold Clurman, director, has put it before the camera with good sense of mood and movement so that the whole thing rolls off fast and well.
The performances are thoroughly engaging. Bill Williams is winning as the gob, Susan Hayward is spirited as a night-moth who assists him, and Paul Lukas plays a taxi driver well. Indeed, Mr. Lukas’ performance as a philosopher of the city streets is the center of gravity of the picture and is humorous, hardy and warm. Joseph Calleia, Lola Lane and Jerome Cowan are superb as hardboiled creatures of the night, and Joseph Crehan does as sharp bit of acting as a police lieutenant as you could ask to see.
But, alas, the logic of the story — the second essential of a first-class mystery film — is conspicuous by its absence just when it is most in demand. No wonder it is hard to guess the murderer; there is no basis for suspicion at all. And the ultimate, hasty exposure is distinctly an anti-climax.
For Monday, we have a mystery gent. Fortunately, we have a much better print than last week. Also, he does not approve of such goings-on.
Update: This is Phil Warren (Warren S. Magwood), and I had to have him because he later worked for the Mirror and the Los Angeles Times.
For Tuesday, we have a mystery gent.
Update: This is William Challee.
For “Hm Wednesday,” we have this somewhat mysterious fellow. Our leading man has been cropped out due to insufficient mysteriousness. He will appear Friday.
Update: Here’s the uncropped image with Bill Williams and Earle Hodgins.
We also have these somewhat mysterious gents.
Update: This is Joseph Crehan and Al Bridge.
Brain Trust roll call: Howard Mandelbaum (mystery movie and Monday’s and Tuesday’s mystery guests).
For “Aha Thursday,” we have three gentlemen of varying mysteriousness. This is mystery gent No. 1
Update: This is Paul Lukas, who won an Academy Award in 1944 as best actor for “Watch on the Rhine.”
Mystery gent No. 2 is not terribly mysterious. He strongly disapproves of such goings-on.
Update: This sinister Joseph Calleia.
Mystery gent No. 3 is not terribly mysterious. He also does not approve of such goings-on.
Update: This is the anxious Jerome Cowan.
Brain Trust roll call: Mary Mallory (mystery movie and Monday’s and Tuesday’s mystery guests, and Wednesday’s mystery detectives No. 2 and No. 3), James Curtis (Wednesday’s mystery detective No. 3), Floyd Thursby (Wednesday’s mystery detective No. 3), Howard Mandelbaum (Wednesday’s mystery barker and mystery detectives No. 2 and 3), Chrisbo (Wednesday’s mystery detective No. 3), Sheila (Wednesday’s mystery detective No. 3), Thom and Megan (mystery movie, Monday’s and Tuesday’s mystery guests, Wednesday’s mystery detectives Nos. 2 and 3) and David Inman (Wednesday’s mystery detective No. 3).
For Friday, we have multiple mystery guests. And all of them pretty much disapprove of such goings-on. Mystery fellow No. 1, for example. He does not approve.
Update: This is Marvin Miller.
And our mystery woman here. She does not approve of such goings-on either.
Update: This is Lola Lane.
And finally, our leading man and leading lady. And no. They do not approve.
Update: This is Bill Williams and Susan Hayward.
Brain Trust roll call: Mary Mallory (Thursday’s mystery guests), Howard Mandelbaum (Thursday’s mystery guests), Chrisbo (mystery movie and Thursday’s mystery guests Nos. 2 and 3), B.J. Merholz (mystery movie and Thursday’s mystery guest No. 1), David Inman (mystery movie and Thursday’s mystery guests), Benito (mystery movie and predicting Friday’s mystery leading lady), Sarah (mystery movie), Thom and Megan (Thursday’s mystery guests and Wednesday’s mystery barker), Anne Papineau (mystery movie and Thursday’s mystery guests Nos. 2 and 3), and L.C. (mystery movie and mystery cast).