Captain Warren 'Rip' Murdock (Humphrey Bogart) and his friend Sergeant Johnny Drake (William Prince) are on their way to Washington right after the war for reasons they haven't been told. But on the train, they learn that Drake is going to receive the Medal of Honor. Drake realizes the publicity he'll get, and the next moment he's jumped off the train and disappeared. Murdock can't figure it out. He remembers the small enameled medallion Drake always carried with the name John Joseph Preston engraved on it. He knows something is wrong, and he's determined to track his friend down. Murdock winds up in Gulf City a few days later, staring at a corpse burned beyond recognition lying in the morgue. And he learns the only thing found on the body was a small lump of melted metal with enamel on it.
The movie is grade B noir, made watchable by a strong Bogart performance and a story line that almost compensates for noticeable weaknesses.
When Murdock investigates what drove Johnny to leave Gulf City and join the army, then come rushing back, he discovers a beautiful widow, Dusty Chandler (Lizabeth Scott), an unscrupulous gambler, Mr. Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky) and Martinelli's goon (Marvin Miller), who likes to administer brutal beatings to soft music. Murdock has to keep his guard up; he can't quite figure Dusty out. It turns out Drake, who's real name was John Preston, voluntarily took the fall for her when her wealthy husband was shot and then ran out before the trial. Did Dusty really love Johnny or was she just using him? Murdock meets her at Martinelli's supper club, buys her a drink and invites her to dance while he tells her of Johnny's death. "I wanted her in my arms," Murdock says in flashback, "while I told her. My right hand on her spine would feel the shock if there was any. She'd tested pure so far, but so did another girl I knew once, right up to the dollar."
"Tell me where you saw him...please," Dusty begs. "On a slab in the morgue, burned to a crisp," Murdock tells her.
"Her whole body," Murdock tells us, "had gone soft as custard when I slugged her with it, but I kept thinking -- she has to know something." It turns out that she does. This leads to more murder, beatings and betrayal. The worms of doubt and distrust dine well.
The drawbacks to the movie are due in part to Scott's performance. She was, in my view, a limited actress. We don't know which way she's going in the movie, good girl or bad, until the end, but she just doesn't create the kind of anticipatory tension that some other actresses could create with Bogart. She has a great husky voice, an nice overbite and a cultured accent halfway between Bryn Mawr and a lisp.
Bogart was at his best, I think, when he had strong, vivid actors to play off of. They accentuated his own unique style. Not only does Scott seem a little pallid, the other actors don't strike many sparks with Bogart, either. Carnovsky makes a smooth villain but not a vivid one. Marvin Miller simply doesn't carry much menace as an enforcer. The others, with the exception of Wallace Ford as a semi-reformed safe cracker, are all interchangeable with dozens of other Hollywood character actors.
On balance, if you like Forties noir and Bogart you will probably enjoy the movie. Just be prepared for some flaws. I like it well enough to have bought it. There are no extras to speak of. The DVD picture looks just fine.