Monday, January 12, 2009

Target #45: Cornered (1945, Edward Dmytryk)

Directed by: Edward Dmytryk
Written by: John Wexley (story & adaptation), John Paxton (screenplay), Ben Hecht (uncredited)
Starring: Dick Powell, Walter Slezak, Micheline Cheirel, Nina Vale, Morris Carnovsky, Edgar Barrier, Steven Geray

If it was post-war disillusionment that fuelled the booming film noir movement of the 1940s, then Cornered (1945) might just be the most bitter, disillusioned noir of them all. Though I can't claim to be Edward Dmytryk's greatest fan, I enjoyed Murder, my Sweet (1944) because of its evocative atmosphere and Dick Powell's cocky, swaggering Philip Marlowe. This film gets the atmosphere angle right, but is so utterly devoid of humour that there's little entertainment to be found through watching it. Powell, in his second and final film for the director, seems to be taking the role so seriously that he's almost bored with the material. His exceedingly grim performance has shades of the sleepy-eyed austerity that Robert Mitchum did so well – unfortunately, only Mitchum could ever pull it off correctly. Nevertheless, the shadowy photography of Harry J. Wild {who has many noirs to his credit, including The Woman on the Beach (1947), They Won't Believe Me (1947) and Macao (1952)} is predictably gorgeous and enigmatic, re-enforcing the murky themes at the film's heart.

When Canadian pilot Laurence Gerard (Powell) is released from captivity at the end of WWII, he is understandably grief-stricken to learn that his wife has been executed by Nazi conspirators. Though the man responsible, Marcel Jarnac, is presumed dead by authorities, Gerard suspects deception, and travels down to Beunos Aires to uncover the truth. What Gerard encounters is a party of dubious Frenchmen, whose continued loyalty to greed and corruption are keeping the Nazi spirit well-and-truly alive. Our hero's approach is not the most subtle of tactics – he never bothers to hide his true intentions, and so deliberately places his own life in constant jeopardy, rushing determinedly into danger without ever considering the possibility that he's walking straight into a trap. Is Jarnac's beautiful wife (Micheline Cheirel) really as innocent as she claims to be? Is the city's leading "tour guide" (Walter Slezak, in another terrific role) an impartial operator who can be trusted with secret information? Is the German collaborator Jarnac right before Gerard's very nose?

I've always found Dmytryk to be a very workman-like filmmaker, though there's little doubt that his 1940s noirs constitute the creative peak of his career. Clever stylistic touches, like the climactic bashing that slides out of focus in an adrenalin-charged delirium, complement the narrative nicely, and Wild's cinematography can do nothing but enhance the film's merits. However, the story itself dwells too long in gloomy territory, such that there's little of the usual entertainment or invigoration to be derived even from the richly-crafted atmosphere. Only in the blood-soaked climax is Dmytryk able to build up some degree of momentum, and Luther Adler's enigmatic cameo role is certainly memorable; he has a strong, deep voice that occasionally suggests that it is Satan himself speaking diabolically from the shadows. Cornered is a worthwhile film noir, with solid craftsmanship throughout, but the unrepentantly dark tone makes for somewhat empty, unsatisfying viewing. Just like the story it depicts, I suppose. Once the adrenaline of war has worn off, there's nothing left but sadness, regret… and shadows where our loved ones once stood.

Currently my #8 film of 1945:
1) The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder) *
2) Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock) *
3) Brief Encounter (David Lean)
4) 'I Know Where I'm Going!' (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
5) Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl) *
6) Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang) *
7) And Then There Were None (René Clair)
8) Cornered (Edward Dmytryk) *
9) Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi {The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail} (Akira Kurosawa)

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