Deadline at Dawn opens with a closeup of a woman's face who appears to be asleep. But then we see a restless fly crawling on her cheek and we realize she is dead. A moment later, a knock comes on the door and slowly, the woman opens her eyes. We realize she has been asleep after all. It is a deliberately disorienting start to the film, morbid, gruesome, tricky, and is a reminder through the events that follow, even the lighthearted scenes, of the gloom and dread that can be out there in the night, waiting for us all.
Harold Clurman, the director of Deadline at Dawn, referred to it, his only picture, as "run-of-the-mill" and "of no importance" in his book All People Are Famous. A man of the theatre, founder of the influential Group Theatre in the 1930s, Clurman had little use for Hollywood, and found the materialistic focus of the filmmaking industry dismaying, although he was an associate producer at Columbia. His sense of Hollywood was that there was an emptiness, a void, so different from the New York hustle he was accustomed to, and yet at the same time he wrote:
In 1945, after a couple of years in Hollywood, Clurman got a chance to direct and he had his old friend and former Group Theatre colleague Clifford Odets write the screenplay to Deadline at Dawn. Many years later, Clurman's main memory of the film was that the censorship office at RKO had visited the set and complained about the cleavage on Susan Hayward, the female lead. Clurman recalls, "... both Miss Hayward and I insisted that this was one of the more pleasing features of the picture." Clurman must have won that battle, because Hayward's cleavage remains gloriously evident throughout the film. Clurman's indifferent attitude notwithstanding, Deadline at Dawn is a good film, with a zigzagging plot leading us to a couple of dead ends, a great and yet realistic sense of suspense (there are some truly creepy moments), and a noir atmosphere so thick you could cut it with a knife. Could the shadows be any more elongated?A loneliness seeps through the thresholds of its gimcrack mansions like fog. Built up as it was, Hollywood often struck me as just so much empty space. The desert underneath affects the atmosphere. Nevertheless, for me, it was the fairground of magical encounters and even of worthy action.
Deadline at Dawn tells the story of Alex (played by Bill Williams), a young naive sailor on leave in New York City for 24 hours, who finds himself, through his own naivete, falling down the rabbit hole.
The not-dead woman from the opening shot turns out to be Edna Bartelli (played with a floozy hard relish by Lola Lane). Bartelli is a tough dame ("She was no lullaby but she had the brains like a man," says a character who knew her) in cahoots with her gangster brother (played by Joseph Calleia, in one of the best performances in the film. "He has a face like the back of a hairbrush," says Alex the sailor - and indeed he does). The brother and sister team run a blackmail scheme all over New York, and they pick up Alex while he is on leave, inviting him to dinner, and a game of casino at Edna's apartment. Alex gets drunk. Too drunk. He blacks out. There is an hour of the night that he does not remember. All he knows is that he fixed her radio for her, and wants to be paid for his labor. She refuses, and was a hellcat about it in the process, teasing him, asking him to hug her even though he didn't want to. She eventually passes out, and he decides to take from her wallet what is owed him. He remembers nothing else.
He "wakes up" in a newsstand across the street from Radio City. A kindly newspaper seller (one of the many eccentric characters who hover on the outskirts of this film) offers him coffee to sober him up. As Alex gets up to leave, a wad of bills falls out of his pocket, and he seems baffled as to where he got the money, and how he came to be carrying around $1,400 in cash. He's disoriented. Why can't he remember exactly what happened?
Alex goes to a dance hall, and it is there that he meets June ("Call me June. It rhymes with Moon."), played by Susan Hayward, she of the sad serious kewpie doll face. June is obviously a dance hall girl, paid to dance with men who show up, and when we first see her, she is tired and grumpy, but she agrees to dance with Alex. He, thinking he's on a date, chatters away at her, telling her his whole life story, asking her questions like, "What did you want to be when you were twelve years old?" June is hard, cynical, she's heard it all before. She treats Alex like he's a halfwit. But eventually, they go back to her apartment to have sandwiches, and it is there that Alex comes clean about the disturbing events earlier in the evening. He tries to give June the money, but she won't take it, and tells him he should go back to the apartment ("She'll still be passed out cold") and put the money back, so it wouldn't be on his conscience. He asks if she will come with him, and, after resisting for a bit, she agrees. Susan Hayward does some lovely subtle acting in the film, and is able to suggest, with just a flicker in her eyes, the sadness and loneliness at the heart of June's life. She's not just a tough dame. She's a girl who came to New York with other dreams and plans, and now is afraid to go home because she'll have to tell her parents that she dances with men for money. Something in Alex, a stammering sailor boy, touches her. One of the secondary levels of the film (and it doesn't always work) is June's growing awareness of the possibility of love.
The two of them walk through the empty shadowy New York streets to return the money, looking small and vulnerable against the looming buildings. They are trailed by an ominous man in silhouette, wearing a trenchcoat and fedora. He is not detected by them. When Alex re-enters the apartment, he finds Edna Bartelli - who, earlier in the film was lying asleep with a fly on her face - now stone-cold dead. June and Alex look around the apartment for clues as to who did it. There is a white carnation on the table, a lamp has been turned over, it appears that Edna has been strangled, and there's a lipstick lying on the coffee table. June glances at it, and has a woman's intuition that it is not Edna's. "This isn't her lipstick. It belongs to a blonde."
June asks Alex, point-blank, if he did it. It is interesting that he does not answer right away, mainly because of that blank hour in his memory. He is sure he didn't do it, but how sure? He panics, knowing that once the murder is discovered, the first person the police will come looking for is him, since there were witnesses (the brother with a face like the back of a hairbrush) to his presence in the apartment earlier that night. June and Alex decide, out of desperation, to go find the real murderer, before Alex has to get on the 6 a.m. bus. They have 6 or 7 hours to solve the case. The "deadline" is at dawn, of course.
So begins a frantic race through the streets of Manhattan, which is increasingly sinister-looking and empty as the hours go by. The cinematographer was Nicholas Musuraca, who, incidentally, was also director of photography on Golden Boy and Clash by Night, two other films written by Clifford Odets. The storefronts are closed up by now, the neon blinks against the black in a lonely desolate manner, the only people awake are desperate people with secrets, it is Edward Hopper time. The darkness almost has a gleam here, in the picture, it takes on shape and tangibility. It's a beautiful-looking film.
June and Alex play detective, trying to find a blonde with a limp who was seen in the area. There are car chases up and down the deserted avenues, and a couple of absurd dead-ends, like when Alex has his cab chase down a man who bolted out of his apartment building near Edna Bartelli's, only to find that the man (played by Roman Bohnen, another old Group Theatre colleague) is racing to a pet shop, carrying his sick cat in a box.
There is a blind piano player (ex-husband to Edna Bartelli), a kindly philosophical cab driver (played exquisitely by Paul Lukas), a chilly tormented blonde with a limp (beautifully portrayed by Osa Massen, so different here from her character in A Woman's Face, a wonderful actress), a wisecracking banana seller, a famous baseball player who staggers through the streets drunk, a blonde dame in a wide-brimmed hat holding a silver pistol, and various nervous men - all of whom were being blackmailed by Edna Bartelli. The clock is running out. At times, June, who is falling in love with Alex, begs him to just "cut and run", but he refuses. He can't live his life on the run for a crime he may not have committed. He wishes he could remember what happened during that hour of blackout.
Gus Hoffman, the cab driver, finds out what the situation is with June and Alex, takes an interest in them, and joins them in their chase to find the murderer.