In 1945’s Cornered Dick Powell plays a man exhausted, angry, and with little hope for the future. Though almost fatally marred by its serpentine plot, Cornered is worth seeing — it’s even an important film noir. It offers an extraordinarily bleak worldview, precocious even for noir, and helped pave the way for the spate of neurotic, cynical, and dark movies that would define the post-war classic period.
Character and atmosphere trump story here, so let’s cram this into as small a nutshell as possible: Powell plays Laurence Gerard, recently of the Royal Canadian Air Force, who endured the last gasps of the war as a PoW. His young bride got the blindfold and the brick wall as part of La Résistance, sold out by some Vichy prick named Marcel Jarnac, believed by all but Gerard to be dead. His dreams of post-war bliss splintered, Gerard goes on a globe-hopping manhunt for Jarnac. The story shuttles him from England to France to Switzerland and finally lodges in Argentina — destination of choice for gold-laden absconders — Fascists fleeing the tribunals and terrified of the rope. Powell settles into Buenos Aires like a tornado settles into a trailer park; upending both those eluding justice and those striving for it. By the time this whirlwind of a story blows itself out, its twists, turns, and changes in direction will have left every viewer not holding a flowchart in the same state as its protagonist, who gets lied to, led astray, and pistol-whipped so often that he spends much of his screen time massaging his temples.
Cornered was brought to the screen by the same team that reinvented Dick Powell as tough gumshoe Philip Marlowe the previous year in Murder, My Sweet. Unlike the 1944 film however, Cornered reflects a less glib, less stylishly expressionistic; and far more irresolute world. Considering the current events of the time it’s easy to understand why the filmmakers would find such convoluted intrigue appropriate, but also situate it among such frightened, neurotic, and selfish people. Yet a filmic idea can be appropriate and damaging at the same time. The plot of Cornered is so overwrought, the vision so depressing, that even director Edward Dmytryk found the film unsatisfactory. Given the significance of the film in his life though, the sentiment is understandable. Dmytryk, producer Adrian Scott, and replacement writer John Paxton were loosely involved with the Communist party during the production of Cornered (Dmytryk paid dues for a mere two months, amounting to a total contribution of four dollars, along with a fifty-cent initiation fee), and the friends actually broke with the reds when party leaders, along with the original screenwriter, tried to turn Cornered into something of a socialist manifesto. Dmytryk and Scott, both imprisoned by HUAC in 1947 as members of the Hollywood Ten, would cite Cornered as the catalyst for their break: “This is the thing,” Dmytryk said, “which actually got me out of the party.” He would serve four months at an honor farm in my home state of West Virginia, only to become the lone member of the Ten to reappear before HUAC and name names. (That whole story is far too big for this essay, but Dmytryk himself wrote of his experiences with the blacklist in Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten.)
In order to peg what makes a difficult film like this worthwhile, it has to be placed within the macrocosm of film noir. The noir movement, genre, style — call it what you will — encompasses numerous generic and thematic types, as well as its share of –isms. The list is almost endless, and seems to become more inclusive with each new boxed-set, dissertation, or edition of the Film Noir Encyclopedia (The Day the Earth Stood Still, really?). What makes Cornered important within this grand scheme is its unprecedented view of the world. Certainly no Hollywood film to date had brought to the screen a milieu so desolate or a hero so pathologically dour. Coming so quickly on the heels of cataclysm, previous efforts couldn’t have imagined the world portrayed in Cornered, neither This Gun for Hire nor Journey into Fear come close — and no previous film featured a protagonist with so little hope. In terms of global change the Second World War is the defining moment of the twentieth century, and a singular one in the development of the noir style. Insofar as this is concerned, no entry is more emblematic of that change than Cornered; whether or not it’s a particularly good narrative film is secondary.
Much of Cornered’s originality comes from Powell’s interpretation of Laurence Gerard. He’s ill tempered, irate, and intent on bowling over anything in his way. Frustrated after spending the better part of the war interned, he needs to get in his share of the licks, and who gives a damn if the hostilities are over. Yet along with this, there’s something in Powell’s performance that goes beyond the clichéd term world-weary — Gerard isn’t just tired, he’s dead tired. This is a man on fumes. He simply wants to find Jarnac and execute him, and he’s incapable of thinking about what happens after. He lives only in the now; having learned that thinking about tomorrow gets your heart broken and your teeth kicked in. It has been said that Cornered might have suited Humphrey Bogart better, an actor for whom tiredness was natural. Yet while Bogart could do angry, his rage seemed to have a leering quality — and while Gerard is reckless he’s no head case. Powell was surely no Bogart, but he nails Gerard.
Cornered is also stark in its brutality, even if its most heinous acts are committed just off-screen. In the film’s climactic scene an important character is shot not once, but seven times. The camera lingers on the gun as the shooter pumps round after round into the victim — not passionately, but in a cold effort to render the corpse’s face unrecognizable to the police. Later in the scene one character, using bare knuckles, beats another to death; the camera moving in and out of focus with each blow. The beating is administered with so little passion that it barely registers on the perpetrator. Violent acts, especially the up-close, dirty, wet ones, have become frighteningly impersonal in Cornered, as the survivors are now numb to the moral absolutes of pre-war society. It’s in this notion of lashing out, of poker-faced violence, that Cornered also anticipates film noir’s shell-shocked man apart, plagued by some unknown neurosis or gnawing guilt.
Like most good noir, the brooding thematic elements of Cornered are supported by the mise en scene, which pushes the dark frame to extremes. Dmytryk, art director Carroll Clark, and cinematographer Harry Wild give us the expected interplay of shadow and light (though the quality of the shots vary), as well as numerous offbeat camera angles. In fact the only conventional shots seem to involve one of the film’s two female characters, which is a subtle clue to her true nature. Wild often shoots from behind a pillar, around a corner, or from on high to obfuscate our sense of environment. Filming Powell in tight close-up, making him difficult to place and reinforcing the idea that he doesn’t belong further heightens this confusion. The effect is claustrophobic, disorienting, and perfectly in keeping with the film’s tone. Cornered gets progressively darker and darker as it approaches its climax, eventually to place Gerard in utter darkness, groping and bumbling through a deserted warehouse.
With the end of the war came a gradual return to normal life in the United States. Cornered was a bitter reminder for a people still celebrating victory that not all was well in the world, yet it did well with critics and audiences. It may be a shallow reason, but the film’s box office owes itself directly to the casting of Dick Powell. Preview audiences were ecstatic to see him again in what they described as a “he-man” role, with hardly any comments recommending a return to musical comedy. Even New York Times grouch Bosley Crowther lauded the film: “Cornered is a drama of smoldering vengeance and political scheming which builds purposefully and with graduating tension to a violent climax, a committing of murder that is as thrilling and brutal as any you are likely to encounter in a month of movie-going.” Yet while Don Craig of the Washington Daily News also recommended the film, he referred to the “new” Dick Powell as “ a bit self conscious” and the character Gerard as “plain stupid.” The focus on Powell aside for a moment, Cornered provides a time-capsule vision of a world gone to hell, and it does it early enough in the noir cycle to set the bar for the films of the subsequent ten years.
Directed by Edward Dmytryk
Produced by Adrian Scott
Cinematography by Harry Wild
Screenplay by John Paxton, John Wexley, and Ben Hecht (uncredited)
Screenplay by John Paxton, John Wexley, and Ben Hecht (uncredited)
Starring Dick Powell, Walter Slezak, Micheline Cheirel, Luther Adler, and Nina Vale
Released by RKO Pictures
Running time: 102 minutes