Alex Winkler (Bill Williams) is a sailor with a problem. He is due back on his ship before dawn breaks on this humid night in New York City, but has fallen asleep in a kiosk on the street, a little the worse for drink. When he is awoken by the seller in charge, he drops a thick wad of banknotes as he rises to leave, and wonders where it could have come from - then it begins to come back to him, he had spent some time with Edna (Lola Lane) and promised on going to her apartment that he would fix her radio for a fee, which he did. But he evidently took a lot more cash than she would have been happy with, so should he take it back to her? Actually, it's now a moot point, for she has been murdered...
There were some interesting names behind Deadline at Dawn, not least Clifford Odets, who had become a darling of the American theatre the decade previous with such works as Golden Boy (which was also filmed); here he took script duties, adapting a pseudonymous novel by pulp thriller expert Cornell Woolrich. A mixture of one man's knack for a cracking good yarn and another man's very exacting way with dialogue sounds like it should have had the makings of a classic, but a minor cult item was all this could muster, that in spite of legendary theatre director Harold Clurman having been coaxed behind the camera for the first and only time before returning to his stage origins.
William Cameron Menzies, the art director turned actual director, assisted Clurman, and the results were identifiable as of a piece with his stylised manner, both visually and in the way the characters interacted. Meanwhile in front of the lens was Susan Hayward making her comeback after a brief time away from the limelight thanks to maternity, and about as hard boiled as it was possible for her to get without her leading lady actively murdering somebody: she was not the femme fatale here, though with a few plot tweaks she could very well have taken that role. Not to say there were no shady females contained within, but they were more in support as Hayward essayed a bad girl gone good.
Maybe "bad girl" as a description was pushing it, but as the taxi dancer Alex takes refuge in the arms of, she was not about to take any bullshit from anybody, as we see when she negotiates her way out of a potential stalker's attentions on the dancefloor. So when the sailor innocently chats away to her, she wonders what his angle is, yet he is on the level, he just wants someone to talk to and reassure him that he hasn't done anything wrong tonight, and little by little that tough exterior begins to melt. First things first, she takes Alex back to Edna's apartment to return the bills, and that's where they find her strangled body. Now, we think we know who has murdered her thanks to a scene at the beginning where her creepy ex-husband was most displeased to learn she had lost the hundreds of dollars owed him.
However, as the night progresses we grow less sure as the script threw in a bunch of red herrings that had us wondering if the real culprit had been included somewhere along the line and we had not realised. Which turned out to be the case, only the explanation was so out of the blue unless you had been really paying attention - to the extent of taking mental notes and weighing up the options - then you would start to doubt the credibility of the material. That was not to say it was unenjoyable, on the other hand, as it took on a dreamlike atmosphere as befitting its early hours setting, with random folks showing up either to throw us off the scent, such as the man who escapes in a cab at high speed only to be revealed as trying to reach the vet's before his beloved cat passes away, to the woman who appears at the victim's apartment (where, curiously, everyone gets very used to the corpse on the floor) and draws a gun to get away. You were only going to get along with this if you accepted early on how off-kilter it was, if you could, you'd appreciate its oddball qualities. Music Hanns Eisler.