A hunched figure runs through the nighttime streets of Gulf City, trying to escape the police who are on his trail. He ducks into a church and takes a seat in one of the pews, worried that he may have been spotted, then notices the police car drive on by. He sees a military chaplain and goes over to him in a dark corner of the church and asks him to hear his "confession" - he admits that he is not Catholic, but has to tell someone the truth of what happened to him, clearing his best friend's name in the process. The priest agrees to listen, and so begins the sorry tale of the last few days of Captain Rip Murdock (Humphrey Bogart)...
Bogart appeared in his fair share of film noirs (films noir?), but Dead Reckoning was not one of the best remembered of them, although when the competition is the likes of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep then maybe that's to be expected. Here he was not out to prove himself an innocent so much as his best friend, who we see in the lengthy flashback that takes up over two thirds of the running time had run off for his own mysterious reasons. This was immediately after he had been told he would be awarded the Medal of Honor, so why would he turn down the chance to be hailed as a war hero?
That's what his fellow parachutist Rip wishes to discover, and takes it upon himself to get to the bottom of the puzzle. We only see the friend, Johnny Drake (William Prince), for that short stretch in the opening fifteen minutes, so largely have to take it as read that there was a strong bond between the two soldiers, something that would have meant a lot to most audiences so recently after the end of World War II. It is that connection the two men have which fuels Rip's obsession in bringing justice to a case that, he quickly uncovers for himself, saw Johnny escaping a murder charge which was the reason he signed up in the first place.
Rip follows him to Gulf City, which he'd never heard of before, and plunges into a web of intrigue that places his life in danger from the hoods who he suspects were truly to blame for the murder. In one of those movie coincidences, he happens to accidentally switch his hotel radio to a police band, and overhears the discovery of a charred corpse who he deduces is probably Johnny: a trip to the morgue confirms it. He has no time to mourn, however, as there is the love interest to set up, and she is a singer in a nightclub, Dusty Chandler, played by Lizabeth Scott - well, she's supposed to be a singer, but for her big number she's obviously and somewhat hilariously dubbed with another voice.
Anyway, this will be our femme fatale for the duration, and Rip, like many a dupe before him and many a dupe after, falls for her, thinking she is mixed up in this over her head thanks to her association with local gangster (and nightclub owner) Al Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky). But who is the real killer? For half of this Dead Reckoning almost turns into parody, with Bogart's voiceover hardboiled to an absurd degree - maybe those audiences had a higher tolerance for this kind of thing back then - but after a while it settles into a run of the mill, if too murkily-plotted, film noir all too typical of the era. That said, you couldn't go wrong with Bogart in these roles, and there's an interesting angle in that the main character trusts the wrong people, except he doesn't cotton on to that until it's nearly too late for him. Not even the priest is much help. It is all sorted out by the end, though. Music by Marlin Skiles.