*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Date with Death" (1959) is a very good but overlooked noir that hasn't been released to DVD. It has a fine story filmed nicely on location including exterior scenes in Roswell, New Mexico. The well-done opening features a railroad train cutting through desert country in which two hobos ride. Asked where he's from, Gerald Mohr replies "Nowhere", imbuing that single word with heavyweight significance. Forced to leap from the train, a tough ex-paratrooper down on his luck, Mohr, makes his way by foot down long and hot roads, flipping a coin to decide which way to turn. This leads him to a car off the side of the road, inhabited by a dead man. Nothing to lose, he thinks, he assumes the man's identity, an ex-New York cop, who happens to be the new sheriff of a nearby town. Flagged down by two motorcycle cops for speeding, he's escorted to the town hall where he's warmly welcomed. Wanting only to pass through the town, he secures the release of Liz Renay from jail. Beyond their attraction, he wants her to buy two airplane tickets out of town.
Fate intervenes. Mohr has been hired to rid the town of a gangster who threatens to run the whole place, Robert Clarke. Clarke knows that Mohr is an impostor, but perhaps a useful impostor. He makes sure that the body is discovered, and this makes Mohr the chief suspect. The town fathers learn that Mohr is a fake, but he convinces them that he can link the murder back to Clarke and prove valuable to them. This is but the start of a cat-and-mouse game between the two, with Liz Renay, a nightclub singer for Clarke in the middle, as well as the town's previous acting chief of police, Harry Lauter, who covets Mohr's position and himself is under Clarke's thumb.
The 6' 2" Mohr with a deep baritone voice always made a mark in films, usually a supporting role that involved intrigue. Here he's the lead and easily engages us throughout, while supported by a good cast. The story is subtle and complex. It's elliptical at times, making us wonder what's going on while postponing explanations until later. At other times, it requires tense dialog to make it plausible. Only after seeing it again did I begin to grasp the logic of the story lines better. This is perhaps due to the fact that the available print I have runs 75 minutes whereas the movie's running time is given as 84 minutes.
Liz Renay has a substantial part that she handles smoothly. Her career usually involved smaller roles. She is known for having been Mickey Cohen's "moll". Harry Lauter will be recognized, but probably not by name, because he is a character actor with 325 credits and very familiar for his television work. Robert Clarke is in a somewhat similar position.
This movie deserves better than its current status.