The Film Noir Odyssey
Writer: Bernard C. Shoenfeld, Jay Dratler
Based on the story by Leo Rosten
Director: Henry Hathaway
Cinematographer: Joseph MacDonald
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Cast: Mark Stevens, Lucille Ball, Clifton Webb, William Bendix
Release: May 8, 1946
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Percent Noir: 70%
“The Dark Corner” contains perhaps my favorite moment in all of noir. It’s a moment so perfect that I remembered seeing it when I was a kid (probably on AMC or TCM) and it lingered with me for decades after I had forgotten what movie it took place in. Imagine my surprise and delight when I realized that this film climaxes with that exact moment!
You’ve got your femme fatale, here played well by Cathi Downs, dressed to the nines in a full, glamorous mouton coat (and hat!) unloading every bullet from her gun into her husband, and then throwing the emptied gun at his body in rage. It’s all about that small beat – throwing the gun – and the bitter, resentful, furious contortion of Downs’ face that makes it transcendent. I rewound several times and loved it more with each revisit.
And the rest of “The Dark Corner”? Well, it’s great too.
Mark Stevens stars as a private dick with an unlucky name (Bradford Galt) and an even more unlucky past (he was framed for murder and went to prison for it). Galt hires a new secretary named Kathleen (Lucille Ball) who immediately begins helping him figure out all the mysterious, deadly things that are happening to him. Case in point: a heavy in a white linen suit (William Bendix) is tailing him none-too-subtly, a car nearly runs him over, and at one point he wakes up after a beating with a fire poker in hand and a dead body next to him. Involved somehow is a bananas-rich fine art dealer named Hardy Cathcart (the movie has many qualities, but giving its characters good names isn’t one of them) who is played by Clifton Webb, and his much-younger wife Mari (Downs).
Each of the major characters (except Bendix’s heavy) are given more depth than one would expect, but the standout here is Kathleen. Most “good girl” characters in noir are boring nonentities who carry one of two props – pearls to clutch or handkerchiefs to twist. But Kathleen has gumption, and most of the script’s best lines. We immediately get her bond with Galt and the movie exploits her belief that he’s a good man early and often.
It also helps that Ball has off-the-charts chemistry with Stevens, which makes it easy to root for them. Stevens, who unfortunately never hit it big like he should have, has a difficult balancing act with his performance. In one scene he’s got to spar romantically with Ball and in the next seem savage and brutal with the darker characters, but he pulls it off well.
The screenplay by Bernard C. Shoenfeld and Jay Dratler explores one of my favorite recurring themes in noir – the contrast between the lower middle class and the uber-rich. Raymond Chandler loved playing with this in his work, and it’s exploited well in this movie, with Webb’s performance as engaging here as the variation he played on it in “Laura.”
The screenplay is also smart in how it plays its hand – it pays off several twists much earlier than we expect, and others happen in ways we would not imagine. Sure, the way Bendix’s character is offed is a little rote, but that’s the exception, not the rule. It’s also interested in the psychology of a man who would be a private detective in a way most other films noir are not – Galt is a broken man after what happened in his past, and we watch as he tries to recover a portion of his soul again. But he’s hurt… as he reaches out emotionally to Kathleen, it’s tentative. He claims he doesn’t want her to get hurt but we understand that he also isn’t sure he’ll make it if everything falls in on him again. I am reminded of that fantastic scene in the otherwise-awful “Lady in the Lake,” where Robert Montgomery and Audrey Totter allow all their tough-guy walls to fall for a few moments of real intimacy.
The director is noir superstar Henry Hathaway, who also handled “Kiss of Death,” “Niagara,” “Call Northside 777” and “Fourteen Hours.” His movies are visual without seeming too showy, with a few great images that linger long after it fades to black. But his real gift was exploiting his actors’ best qualities – knowing exactly how to hone their performances for maximum impact. You remember not only the headliners in his movies, but the smaller supporting players as well. You also remember the idiosyncrasies of real life painted into the film, like the little girl we see with the kazoo, or the way the dry-cleaning employees speak with Galt and Kathleen.
It’s also worth noting what a good dramatic actress Ball was. In less than a decade, she would be the most recognized person in America and is remembered as the best comedian in television history… which makes it easy to forget that she could really sell the drama just as well as the humor. In addition to this film, she starred in one of my favorite whodunits, the woefully underseen “Lured,” which was directed by Douglas Sirk of all people. She was also great in the just-okay “The Big Street” and “Easy Living.”
At one point, Kathleen mentions “The Thin Man” film series to Galt (like any private dick worth his salt, he never goes to the movies) and at the end of the film I found myself wanting the two characters to continue on in more films. If it’s good enough for Marlowe, amiright?
“The Dark Corner” is one of the most underrated films noir I’ve seen so far on this Odyssey. From script to direction to acting, and everything in between, it’s aces… always deeper, more resonant, better than it needs to be.