Friday, February 28, 2014

The Dark Corner (1946)

After 'Laura' became a box office hit in 1944, 20th Century Fox wanted to cash in on its success. One of the movies they hoped would continue the profitable streak was 1946's 'The Dark Corner', and it did prove to be a successful movie. The movie was based on a story by Leo Rosten which appeared as a serial in 'Good Housekeeping' magazine in 1945 (under the pseudonym Leonard Q. Ross). 'The Dark Corner' is a far darker and more typical noir movie than the more stylish & upper-class 'Laura' however, but there's a clear connection between the two due to the character played by Clifton Webb, which I'll get into later on. The screenplay was penned by Jay Dratler, who also worked on 'Laura's screenplay, and Bernard Schoenfeld ('Phantom Lady', 'Macao'). The movie was directed by Henry Hathaway, with Joseph MacDonald handling the cinematography. They also worked together on a couple of other noirs including 'Call Northside 777' and 'Niagara'. Cyril Mockridge ('Nightmare Alley', 'Where The Sidewalk Ends') did the (sparse) musical score.

Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens) is a private detective in NYC, with Kathleen Stewart (Lucille Ball) as his secretary. One day they notice a man in a white suit (William Bendix) is tailing them. Galt sets up a trap for the guy, who uses a lifted wallet to pretend he's a Fred Foss, and after some violent coercion 'Foss' explains a guy named Jardine hired him to tail Galt. Tony Jardine (Kurt Kreuger) was Galt's old partner in a small lawfirm back in San Fransisco, who did some blackmailing of rich married women on the side and who framed Galt for manslaughter after Galt threatened to expose him. After doing a 2 year stretch in prison, Galt relocated to NYC to start a new life/career. Jardine in the meantime has also moved to NYC and is having an affair with Mari Cathcart (Cathy Downs), the wife of wealthy art collector and gallery owner Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb). Galt however had no idea about Jardine moving to NYC, and tries to figure out why Jardine wants him tailed. Unfortunately for him, Jardine ends up dead in Galt's apartment, with Galt drugged and the poker used to bash in Jardine's head in his hand. Now Galt has to try and figure out what's going on, who's behind it all, why he's used as a patsy and how to clear his name.
'Listen... If you don't wanna lose that stardust look in your eyes, get going while the door's still open. If you stick around here, you'll get grafters, shysters, two-bit thugs and maybe worse... Maybe me.'
'I like those odds. I'll take them.'
It shouldn't be too hard to figure out from the synopsis above what's broadly going on in this movie, and it's not hard to figure out fairly early on in the movie either. But it does not matter too much, because a lot of this information is not revealed to Galt until much later in the movie, so it's still interesting to follow Galt around, and seeing him and Kathleen chasing leads that end up going nowhere. What's great however, is that small and seemingly insignificant things become events that help move the plot forward later on in the movie. When Galt corners 'Foss' in his office, 'Foss' accidentally spills ink over Galt's hand, which Galt wipes off on 'Foss's white suit. This ink stain returns later on in the movie to provide a lead to Galt, the same with a hanger attached to 'Foss's keys. There is also an innocent little girl with a penny-whistle who lives in the same building as 'Foss'. Essentially, the story feels much more convoluted than it really is, but the attention to detail and small things that turn out to be important, or seemingly so in any case, aids a lot in the enjoyment of the unfolding of the plot.

As far as noir actors go, Mark Stevens is underrated in my opinion. I enjoyed him in 'Time Table', but also for instance in 'The Street With No Name'. He was never seen as a lead actor who could draw in an audience however, which might explain why he's billed fourth behind Lucille Ball, Clifton Webb and William Bendix, despite being the movie's protagonist. There's a very nice write-up on him here, with more information on his life and acting career. Here he plays a seemingly typical noir private detective, but with a twist. Where Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe etc are pretty tough to the core, Bradford Galt talks the hard-boiled talk, but doesn't always walk the hard-boiled walk. He's prone to breaking down and feeling lost, desperate, when things get tough or he hits another brick wall. Galt is much more vulnerable than Spade or Marlowe, and Stevens plays him pretty well here, even if he comes off as a dead ringer for Alan Ladd appearance-wise at times. Some critics have judged Bradford Galt as being 'whiny', but I found it to be pretty cool, it makes for a nice change from the usual tough-guy detective. Galt/Stevens explains his vulnerable, lost side pretty well in a great quote, which would never have been said in this 'what the hell is going on, what's happening to me?!' way by Spade or Marlowe:
'I feel all dead inside. I'm backed up in a dark corner and I don't know who's hitting me.'
Lucille Ball plays Galt's secretary Kathleen Stewart as a witty and motherly type. She's both falling for Galt, and he for her, as well as taking care of him in a motherly fashion. Kathleen helps Galt get back on his feet when Galt succumbs to another bout of sulking and feeling like nothing's working out. It's an uncommon male-female dynamic in film noir and it works very well here, due to Ball and Stevens's acting. Lucille Ball was still several years away from her iconic role in 'I Love Lucy', and would appear in another noir, 'Lured' in 1947. But her face is instantly recognizable and she has this infectious bubbly vibe, without her character becoming an out-of-place comedic type. She's a pleasant surprise here. Lucille Ball would afterwards speak about this movie and her experience filming it in not-so-kind words, but it doesn't show in her performance, which is highly enjoyable. She was on loan from MGM at the time as she was trying to get out of her MGM contract, and she also had a less-than-stellar experience working with Henry Hathaway on this movie, neither of which probably helped her feel good about doing this movie.

Bendix is always solid in noirs ('The Blue Dahlia', 'The Web'), where he predominantly played a somewhat boorish/brutish guy usually on the wrong side of the law or if he was good guy like in 'The Web' there's still something sinister/crooked about him, and that's the kind of character he plays here as well. He would become famous as Chester Riley in the comedy series 'The Life Of Riley' but he was a much more versatile actor than that, and his noirs prove it. With his big frame and oaf-ish look he could play a mean tough guy as well as a loveable teddybear-like guy. There's a funny exchange between him/Foss and Clifton Webb/Henry Cathcart where the differences between the characters' backgrounds are like fire & water. Foss is a man from the street and Cathcart is a sophisticated, educated man and their respective diction reflects this. Cathcart doesn't speak or understand Foss's language, such as 'crusto-busto' which means 'a flop'. But when they talk to Galt on the phone, it becomes even funnier when Cathcart whispers instructions to Foss who relays them to Galt:
Cathcart: 'Tell him you need $200 to leave town.'
Foss: 'I need 2 yards, powder money.'
Small details like that in the script really work in a movie's favor as mentioned before, and it does so here as well. Making sure people speak in a manner that is in line with the character's background, makes a movie more realistic.

Clifton Webb essentially plays Waldo Lydecker, his role from 'Laura', here. Again he plays a smug and wealthy debonair, and again he plays a character who's obsessed by a younger woman, and again there's a painting involved with a portrait of this younger person. In this case the painting only resembles the younger woman, Mira, and is a not direct portrait of her, but the resemblances between both Cathcart and Lydecker are too apparent to ignore. Clifton Webb seemed to be made for these roles, and he's great here again. He doesn't dish out as many memorable put-downs and comebacks here as in 'Laura' tho, but he gets his fair share of quote-able lines still. His obsession, and here also his wife, Mari, played by Cathy Downs, doesn't electrify the screen nearly as much as Gene Tierney does in 'Laura' however. Mari is fairly demure, even though she has an affair with Jardine, she's not made out to be a femme fatale type of woman. She comes across as someone who's not particularly happy in her marriage to Cathcart, but who's also not resentful towards him. She's the least interesting character/part of this movie for me, even when Cathcart explains his reason for loving Mari when showing the portrait to some wealthy clients, with her present, she doesn't seem upset or in any way emotionally invested in it. I think a more sultry actress/character would've worked better in adding another edge to the movie. Ella Raines came to my mind as I was watching this movie.

The movie's look is pure noir, MacDonald did a really good job here. There are a ton of dark shadows and contrast-rich shots, and the movie is beautiful to look at in all its visual chiaroscuro noirness. Almost every shot is lighted in a great, but also effective and meaningful manner that works within the story. 'The Dark Corner' can definitely be used as a great example of 'the noir look' if one wants to show people what noir looks like, it's got a ton of great chiaroscuro shots. The main problem this movie has, is that it reminds too much of better noirs, of the classics. The references to 'Laura' have already been mention ad nauseum, but Galt's office and the way shadows are used within it, also remind of Spade's office in 'The Maltese Falcon'. The lack of a real femme fatale also doesn't help. 'The Dark Corner' is not a movie that belongs in the top echelon of the classic noirs, but it's on the second rung, looking up. It is a well-made noir that has almost everything a truly classic noir needs, and it's a treat to watch. It probably is a bit under-rated and deserves more credit in my opinion. Highly recommended.