Dead Reckoning first and foremost is an empty shell of a film with a bare-bones plot designed to allow Humphrey Bogart as much dialogue, narration, and monologues as possible. There’s only room for a handful of characters in this old school noir, and they have to get their words out fast less Bogart begin speaking his next monologue over their precious few lines. The film, though made a few years after Casablanca and arguably at Bogart’s height of popularity, isn’t well remembered and those who do seek it out are usually left cold by the drawn out would-be murder mystery. There’s a good reason for this.
The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and the mystery itself isn’t super mysterious since there’s only 1 real suspect for 85% of the film (although anyone familiar with the Law of Economy of Characters and the twisty nature of noir will probably be able to suss out most of the central mystery, assuming you care to as the mystery itself is pretty ill-defined.)
So why did I choose to write about this film that time purposefully forgot? Because classic noir films are delightful and the femme fatale of the film is defined entirely by 3 things: Her husky voice, her formerly bad grammar, and most importantly, her love of a magnificent cocktail: The Ramos Gin Fizz.
Coral Chandler (Lizabeth Scott) is the husky voiced center of this mystery and the tough nut Bogart spends most of the film attempting to crack. You see, Bogart’s best wartime bud/fellow paratrooper Dear Sweet Johnny Drake (William Prince) runs off when he finds out he is due to receive the Medal of Honor. Bogart, a taxi company owner and amateur sleuth apparently, deduces that Johnny is not running away because he’s afraid of medals or honor, but rather has a secret identity and doesn’t want his picture in the newspapers. Bogart immediately drops everything to go search for his special friend (I’m not implying there was any wartime trench buggery, but the movie kinda is.)
Bogart (his character’s name is Rip Murdoch, but be honest, you didn’t care) is able to find Johnny’s hometown because right before running away, Dear Sweet Johnny accidentally dropped his society pin that had his real name on it. If it seems convenient this would happen for the first time on a leisurely train ride and not during all the WWII paratrooping these two guys did together, well… it is, and you should probably get used to such conveniences if you seek out this movie as the plot just sort of meanders unless something like “Bogart tries to turn off the radio and accidentally switches to the police scanner station” or “a friend has a stockpile of old German grenades” happens.
But anyway, Bogart finds himself in Gulf City where he sort of looks around for Johnny but mostly hangs out in his hotel room, throws baseballs at the furniture (?), and delivers flowery monologues with lines such as “What to do in a hot wind smelling of jasmine except wait and sweat and prime the body to sweat more?” It’s all pretty amazing, but alas, we must soldier on with the mystery.
After some light sleuthing, we discover quickly that Johnny was an english tutor for the sultry bad-at-grammar gin cocktail loving Coral, had an affair with her, confessed to the shooting death of her wealthy octogenarian husband, and died in a fiery car crash sometime after Bogart arrived in Gulf City. So now our mystery is who killed Coral’s husband, who killed Dear Sweet Johnny, and why is any of this happening.
Bogart finds himself at cocktail lounge/nightclub/secret mob casino The Sanctuary Club looking for the harlot who got Dear Sweet Johnny into so much trouble (Bogart’s attitude towards women in this film is… problematic.) There we meet Louis the Bartender. In the tradition of extremely helpful cinematic bartenders, Louis not only knew Johnny, he was also hiding him, knows all about Coral, and in a truly amazing turn of events, is in possession of letter that presumably explains everything. All he needs to do is live long enough to get all this helpful information to Bogart and the mystery will be solved in no time. Fingers crossed!
The fruitful conversation with Louis the Bartender is cut short by the arrival of the club’s resident goon and more importantly, our leading lady sidling up to the bar next to Bogart and ordering her signature cocktail and defining character trait, the Ramos Gin Fizz, a cocktail known for being as delicious as it is incredibly complicated to make.
Gin fizzes were extremely popular (for people of means at least) directly before and directly after prohibition (and probably during in various speakeasies.) By the time Dead Reckoning was made in 1947, their popularity was likely starting to wane but film going audiences would have recognized it as a refined classy cocktail favored by high society types. Having Coral being a Ramos connoisseur shorthands that she has taste, experience, and money.
Bogart takes one look at this duplicitous set of gams and/or beautiful innocent flower, immediately decides he hates everything about her, and therefore resolves to get to know her better, as one does. We then learn that since her English tutor/lover confessed to putting a bullet into her husband’s skull, Coral has been hanging out at mob boss legitimate business owner Martinelli’s club, drinking Ramos Gin Fizzes and playing roulette in his secret illegal casino hobby game area. And occasionally singing.
This leads to my favorite scene, Coral singing her signature song. She’s sitting at a table trying pry information about Dear Sweet Johnny from Bogart when the owner plants a spotlight on her and forces her to sing. Does she walk up to the stage and grab a microphone? Nope, this awesome bitch literally just takes a breath and starts singing straight into Bogart’s face without moving an inch. I was half expecting her to start singing out of one side her mouth and slurping her gin fizz in the other.
Now, legitimate business man Martinelli doesn’t like Bogart in his club asking questions about what happened to Johnny for entirely unsuspicious reasons. So they spend some time in the club’s secret illegal casino private gaming area where roulette playing Carol immediately lands on number 13 (in a poor example of foreshadowing) and loses her money.
Bogart chides her for her poor gambling skills and goes on to win a bunch of money shooting craps because he listens to his instincts or something. Martinelli takes them to his private office and Louis the Bartender arrives to serve the group cocktails and warn Bogart that his drink has been drugged. As a man who literally just explained how he “doesn’t like taking unnecessary risks” and “always listens to his gut” goes ahead and downs the roofied whiskey. He wakes up with a foggy head and Louis the Bartender’s corpse (Louis! Noooooo!)
Now we have all the pieces of the puzzle. A mobster, a not entirely trustworthy dame, dead bodies, and a letter that will hopefully explain just what the hell is going on exactly. Unfortunately we still have an hour of movie left and not a whole lot of actual mystery so most of the rest of the movie is a meandering mess as Bogart and Coral drive around getting to know each other.
Coral expresses how she doesn’t seem to ever experience true love, and if she can’t be fulfilled in love what can she do except sing songs and drink Ramos Gin Fizzes. The cocktail is a sign of her being trapped. She just keeps hitting the same beats, drinking the same cocktail, singing the same song, waiting for something (or someone) to come along and break the rut and help her feel truly satisfied.
This leads to some unfortunate input from Bogart who expresses that what he wants most in a woman is being able to shrink her down and put her in his pocket when he doesn’t want her around and then take her out when he needs a dinner date or laundry done. He literally wants to treat women as an object to be enjoyed when convenient.
It’s all very problematic and I’ve seen this movie a couple times and I still don’t know if Coral actually buys any of these bullshit. He starts calling her Mike, which I’m sure adds nothing to my theory that Bogart and Dear Sweet Johnny were perhaps a little more than really good buds. Even with the homosexual subtext it’s all sexist, boring, and it goes on for a while. It’s implied they fall in love during this time and maybe Coral/Mike really is just a sweet innocent flower, but that doesn’t hold up to any kind of scrutiny, so let’s talk more about gin fizzes and afterwards I’ll just tell you how the movie ends.
Let’s Talk Gin Fizzes
Fizzes are one of my favorite family cocktails in concept. They are delicious, have a unique texture, look impressive, and are a fantastic opportunity to flaunt your bartending skills. I say favorite in concept because in practice they are complicated, time consuming, exhausting, and can really fuck up your night if they become popular with your customers. A basic fizz recipe is typically spirit, acid, sweet, egg white, and carbonation (e.g. Gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white, soda water.)
Unlike most cocktails, fizzes live and die on technique. The sugar needs to be completed dissolved and the egg white completely emulsified to achieve the distinct velvety and flavor packed yet simultaneously light and airy texture. To achieve this you need to shake the cocktail thrice, first vigorously without ice, again with ice, then add a splash of soda water and give it gentle rocking motion. When I say vigorously, I mean hard as shit, you need that emulsification to take place and a ton of air mixed in. Hence the exhaustion if you find yourself making a bunch of these in one night.
The Ramos Gin Fizz is even more famously complicated, since it has heavy cream (requiring even more shaking to emulsify everything) and orange flower water (a somewhat uncommon ingredient in anything except fancy cocktail bars, although honestly, you’re not getting a Ramos anywhere outside of a super fancy cocktail bar.) The cocktail’s inventor famously demanded the cocktail be shaken for 15 minutes to achieve the perfect consistency. His bar employed teams of young men (20-30 at the height of popularity) to just stand there and do nothing but shake Ramos gin fizzes for hours and they still failed to keep up with demand.
So we end up with this cocktail that despite it’s delicious allure and extreme desirability, you really have to wonder if the pain and massive effort are worth it. You love the cocktail, but it’s such a gargantuan pain in the ass you kinda just want to pretend it never existed.
Which bring us back to Coral/Mike. This is the point that if you don’t want the entire movie spoiled, you’d best stop reading now. See it turns out she wasn’t innocent after all (duh), although she didn’t kill her 2nd husband. That’s right, the Old Man So-and-So whose murder Dear Sweet Johnny took the blame for was not Coral’s first husband. Martinelli was. Or rather is. Coral/Mike has been married to Martinelli since they were grifting con artists living in Detroit. The old man she married was supposed to die soon after their wedding and she and Martinelli were going to make off with the inheritance. But the old man didn’t die fast enough and Martinelli is an impatient man so he shot the guy through an open window. Johnny thought Coral had done it so he took the blame because of love.
If you thought we got that information from the letter Bogart spent the bulk of the movie trying to retrieve, you’d be wrong. He never gets his hands on that damn letter. No, Martinelli just blurts out all this information as fast he can because Bogart has him cornered in a burning room. Martinelli escapes the burning house only to be shot and presumably killed by Coral.
Bogart and Coral/Mike then drive away to bask in love and happiness… for approximately 2 minutes. Bogart is driving as fast as he can while confronting Coral/Mike about all the information he just received. Coral decides this is a good time to shoot Bogart, who slams the car into a tree at full speed. Despite maintaining unnecessarily complicated lies for an entire movie, turns out Coral isn’t too bright after all. The high speed collision and bullet wound leave Bogart slightly sore, while Coral dies in the hospital despite having no visible injuries.
If you plan on watching this film and attempting to whip up a Ramos Gin Fizz of your own (or 4), but are horrified at the techniques involved, just pop 2 oz gin, 1oz lemon juice, 1 tablespoon sugar, .5oz heavy cream, an egg white, a few drops of orange flower water, and 2-3 ice cubes into a magic bullet, and blend it for a minute or so. Take a tall glass, fill it halfway with ice and pour in a splash of seltzer water. Add the contents of the magic bullet and voila, a significantly less hard to make Ramos Gin Fizz.