Monday, June 14, 2010

Dick Powell Portrays a Man Consumed by Vengeance in the Film Noir Classic "Cornered"

Warning: This review contains plot spoilers.

This sharp, downbeat post-World War II revenge tale reteamed director Edward Dmytryk and star Dick Powell, who had scored a hit with the previous year's better-known Murder, My Sweet. That film, adapted from Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely, transformed Powell from a musical-comedy leading man into a wisecracking, cynical private detective. While that film evolved into a genre classic, the lesser-known Cornered has garnered the attention of film noir fans who recognized it a thematic predecessor to lavishly-praised movies like The Third Man.

Powell plays another world-weary character on the trail of a murderer in Cornered. As Lieutenant Laurence Gerard, he provides an intense portrait of an unstable man whose war scars and pent-up grief have eaten away the normalcy in his life. The only thing that keeps him alive is his obsession to avenge his wife's death.

The opening scenes are filled with background information. We quickly learn that pilot Gerard was shot down over France during the war. After being rescued by Resistance fighters, he married a local girl named Celeste. The couple was forced to part after 20 days of happiness--he subsequently became a prisoner of war and she was executed by a French fascist leader named Marcel Jarnac (Luther Adler).

After the war, the discharged Gerard returns to the ruins of his wife's village. Celeste's father tells Gerard that Jarnac is officially listed as deceased. But he believes that the ruthless killer, whom none of the villagers ever saw, staged his death and escaped. Gerard, his emotional emptiness temporarily replaced with vengeance, begins his relentless quest for Jarnac.

He ingeniously tracks the "dead" man's widow to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and finds a city populated by opportunists, European castaways, war criminals, and a handful of people seeking to expose the lingering threat of fascism. This latter group tries to get Gerard to join them in exposing Jarnac, but he insists on setting his own trap. Unfortunately, Gerard's plans backfire and he finds himself at the opposite end of the fascist leader's pistol in an abandoned dock warehouse. But before Jarnac can kill his adversary, Gerard attacks him and beats him viciously. When the anti-fascist group arrives at the scene, it finds a disoriented Gerard rambling about how he could have killed Jarnac, but didn't. However, a quick examination of the body reveals that Gerard literally beat Jarnac to death with his bare hands. The anti-fascists encourage Gerard to escape, but he chooses to face criminal charges and provide the means for exposing other war criminals in Argentina.

The brutality of the ending is unexpected for an American film of the 1940s. After all, Gerard executes Jarnac without a trial by punching him repeatedly in the head. Screenwriter John Paxton tries to justify Gerard's act by showing Jarnac's ruthlessness in the same scene. After killing a former accomplice, Jarnac shoots the man six more times and remarks casually: "That face will be difficult to recognize now." Dmytryk also softens the impact of Gerard's brutality by dissolving from the beating to a shot of the emotionally-unbalanced Gerard holding his head in his hands--completely unaware of the deadly nature of his act of violence.

Writer Paxton and actor Powell create a convincing character in Gerard, although the occasional wisecracks seem more appropriate for a private eye than a revenge-minded husband. Still, for the most part, the script provides Powell with strong material. When an attractive woman shows an unsubtle interest in Gerard, he tells her about his wife: "I can't remember exactly what she looked like. War does something to your memory. You forget the way people look and remember the important things. That kind of remembering keeps you warm on cold nights."

Powell receives excellent support from Walter Slezak, perfectly cast as Melchoir Incza, who introduces himself as a "professional guide" (though he adds: "Not a tourist guide in the strictest sense"). Slezak employs craftiness and charm to keep the true nature of his opportunistic character unknown for most of his screen time.

Cornered holds up surprisingly well today, working as both a tense revengeful tale and a reminder of the painful healing which was necessary following World War II (making it similar, in that sense, to The Third Man). It's a shame that Powell, Slezak and Dmytryk did not team up for another film. But just two years later, Dmytryk was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and branded as one of the "Hollywood Ten"--a label which caused him to flee the U.S. for Great Britain. Ironically, that same year, he received an Oscar nomination for directing Crossfire.

5 comments:

  1. Nice review, Rick. I have never seen this noir, but it sounds familiar and reminds me of a film I can't put a name to right now. Dick Powell's emergence into the crime drama/noir really helped sustain his career for a number of years.

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  2. Rick, this is a wonderful review, and it deserves more time at the top today. You stepped in and saved me from being too ill to post my review, due Monday morning, and I appreciate it so much. I have never seen "Cornered" but it sounds like one that I should see. Your assessment of it as as theme predecessor to The Third Man is right on. Despite the film-maker's attempt to soften the brutality of what Powell did, the ending really violated the part of the code that said the bad guy has to die or at least pay completely for his sins. Perhaps the character did after all, though, because he had to live with what he had done. This movie may have been one that signalled the beginning of the end for the Hayes code. Excellent write-up, Rick.

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  3. Sorry, Rick, but I also have not seen this movie. Your review is topnotch, and I'm definitely interested in seeing a flick that reteams the director/actor duo of MURDER, MY SWEET. I checked online for availability, and CORNERED is part of the 5th volume of the "Film Noir Classic Collection" on DVD. So if you're on Netflix or another online rental program, you can rent it (which is what I plan to do!). Thanks, Rick, for another splendid review and entry in the Film Noir Festival.

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  4. Rick, Awesome review!! I also have not seen this film noir, Cornered. I'm a huge Powell fan. So, I know it must be a wonderful movie.

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  5. Rick, this is an excellent review of a fascinating film. Dick Powell gives a remarkably different performance in "Cornered" from his previous light-hearted fare. I was truly surprised with his character but thought his work was top notch. It has been quite a while since I have seen "Cornered" but am truly glad to see it receive an outstanding profile at the Cafe.

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