A Forgotten Corner

Before I talk about Cornered, a little-known Dick Powell noir, I need to confess. I’m not in a very noirish mood.

NOX DORMIENDA was just nominated for a Macavity Award–the Sue Feder Memorial Historical Mystery Award–and, well, I’m happy. Joyful. Surprised and shocked and ecstatic and humbled! More like a Busby Berkeley musical than the mean black and white streets.

It’s a wonderful honor to be in company with fellow nominees Rhys Bowen, David Liss, Jeri Westerson, Karen Maitland and Ward Larsen. Thank you, Mystery Readers International!! So I’ll do my hardboiled best, but if I suddenly start sounding like Mickey Rooney about to put on a show in a barn, you’ll know why!

Now, then (clearing throat). Cornered. 1945. Directed by Edward Dmytryk, the man who helmed Dick Powell’s arguably greatest noir role (as Philip Marlowe) in Murder, My Sweet. Produced by Adrian Scott, producer of that earlier film. Unlike MMS, though, Powell is not a professional gumshoe–actually, THE professional gumshoe–but rather a luckless Canadian airman, just demobbed from the War … out to discover who ordered the murder of his young wife, a member of the French resistance. Along the way, the film reminds the world that fascism didn’t end with the War.

If you think Powell is too glib, too shiny, too pat, try this movie. He’s got some glib moments–that’s the script, and he is still Dick Powell–but the emotional darkness of the film will surprise you.

There is a host of films–and a subset of noirs–that deal with post-War issues, particularly lost relationships. From amnesiac war veteran noir (The Crooked Way, 1949) to the “I married a dame who turned out to be a slut” variety (Chandler’s own The Blue Dahlia, 1946), to the excellent High Wall (1947), which is a combination of the two, noir was a cultural lens through which society could face the downside of hasty wartime unions … and help redefine family for the burgeoning conservatism of the Ike years.

Cornered is unusual in showing a tragic loss–from the GI’s perspective. And Powell is quite convincing with the pain he displays in Dmytryk’s raw, fast-paced opening scenes.

The setting quickly switches to Argentina–even before the war, a hot bed of fascism. Powell is in Buenos Aires to track down a mysterious German agent whose rumored death was just that … and who also gave the order to murder Powell’s wife. That, as they say, makes it personal.

Walter Slezak lives up to his delightful name in a scene-stealing turn as a sleazy, sneaky peddlar of information. Morris Carnovsky (Dead Reckoning (1947), Thieves’ Highway (1949)) is a fascist-fighting lawyer … before the end of the movie, Powell will need him. Nina Vale is fetching in an Audrey Totter role, and even Jack LaRue (The Story of Temple Drake, 1933) has a memorable part to play. French actress Micheline Cheirel plays a semi-romantic interest–Powell is too broken up over his wife to really pursue her–and carries it off well-enough to make me wish she’d made more films. Even Luther Adler, John Garfield’s former theater partner, (D.O.A., 1950) glowers and glimmers in powerful turn.

The script is juicy (uncredited Ben Hecht, credited John Paxton, who penned Murder, My Sweet (1944)), the direction taut, and the cinematography essential, moody noir (cinematographer Harry J. Wild filmed MMS, Pitfall (1948) and other classics.) Unfortunately, Cornered isn’t available on DVD, so you’ll have to look for it on TCM … but rest assured, if you liked Murder, My Sweet you should like Cornered. It’s worth the wait.

BTW … Scott, Dmytryk, Carnovsky and Adler were all blacklisted. Dmytryk famously caved in to pressure after spending a few months in jail, and wound up naming names. Anti-fascism in the McCarthy era was synonymous with Communism … a sad and ironic commentary that makes Cornered more of a noir than it intended.

I’ll be blogging over on the Thrillerfest blog on Friday, guesting on Working Stiffs on the 22nd, and starting a regular film noir column at Pop Syndicate in June … so stop in and pour yourself a drink. 🙂

Next time: I can’t decide between Vertigo or High Wall. I may flip a coin … but not from the tower at San Juan Bautista!