Lewis Allen, 1949
Starring: Alan Ladd, Donna Reed, June Havoc, Irene Harvey, Arthur Kennedy
Chicago reporter Ed Adams just happens be in an apartment building when a young woman is found dead. Though no foul play is suspected, Ed snoops around and finds the diary of the woman, Rosita Jean d’Ur, and becomes fascinated by her. In her diary, there is a list of more than 50 names, so Ed decides to call each one and get to the bottom of Rosita’s life – and death. Curiously, no one he speaks to admits knowing her and they all hang up suspiciously. He soon discovers a criminal conspiracy that Rosita seemed to be at the heart of and gets some clues from one of her friends, Leona, who also becomes Ed’s girlfriend. She begs Ed to give up and leave Rosita in peace, but he is determined to finish what he started.
Chicago Deadline is basically a later Alan Ladd vehicle – after his four-film partnership with Veronica Lake – and it’s easy to see why his career took a downtown. He’s not particularly bad here, but unlike the excellent This Gun for Hire, he’s miscast and is paired with an awful, clumsy script. Ladd’s Ed is just not a believable character in 1949 noir cinema (this is really only loosely noir, or perhaps would have been with a more competent screenwriter). He’s supposed to fit into the hard-nosed, plucky reporter character type, but this feels about 15 years out of date, particularly in light of the impending Ace in the Hole (1951) and While the City Sleeps (1956), both incredibly bleak examples of newspaper noir.
Chicago Deadline – outside of its ambiguous, somewhat absurd title as Ed is not on a deadline of any kind – has all the right elements, they’re just lost in the shuffle. The plot is full of gangsters, prominent businessmen, boxing, beatings, illicit romance, spousal abuse, and more. Unfortunately, there are simply too many clichés, flashbacks, plot arcs, and side characters. At several points during the film, Ladd has to stop and actually explain the events, including a long summary at the end of the film. While this works for the great, charming, and wonderful William Powell (I like him a lot, if you couldn’t tell) in The Thin Man series, it falls utterly flat here.
The film’s initial premise – investigating the life of a dead woman through their most recent contacts – is an interesting concept, certainly one used to great effect in films as diverse as Laura (1944) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s obscure but enjoyable New York mystery, Two Men in Manhattan (1959). As with Laura, the main character is investigating a dead woman and becomes somewhat obsessed with her. As with Two Men in Manhattan, the investigator is trying to contact the dead person’s romantic paramours and social contexts to get the story of their last days and is meeting with a hard time.
Donna Reed fares better than Ladd as the tragic Rosita, though the film isn’t quite sure what to do with her. She is sometimes viewed as a troubled woman with a life gone wrong, other times as a tragic heroine, and finally as the victim of a series of unhappy and complex events. Like the real-life Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, Rosita’s life is exaggerated by the press and she’s painted as promiscuous, possibly an escort, but at least a loose woman who cohabitates with disreputable men. Ed fortunately fights against this notion that she had it coming to her and this becomes his motivation to tell the story of her life. He does get a somewhat troubling start. Rosita’s death isn’t initially suspicious and is explained away as a complication of tuberculosis. Ed, who happens to be in the same building when her body is found by the cleaning lady, “investigates” her room anyway, steals her private property, and essentially begins harassing anyone associated with her. While Laura points a finger at the detective’s obsession with his dead client, Chicago Deadline fails to pursue this morbid aspect.
I can’t recommend the film, though anyone who enjoys more ridiculous detective films might want to see this out. Keep an eye peeled for Gypsy Rose Lee’s sister, June Havoc, who is actually very likable as Leona, the vapid, melancholy blonde, and it’s a shame she wasn’t given more screen time. The film also has a high body count with seven people dead, including Rosita and seemingly every man that has ever encountered her (except her brother). This film is not available on DVD, like much of Ladd’s other work, though you can find it online if you look hard enough.