Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Dark Corner is a great film noir tale that goes easy on hardboiled clichés to present a detective hero involved in a problem that takes on existential overtones. Framed for murder by a pair of conniving uptown sharpies, Bradford Galt is given the single most Kafkaesque line of dialogue in the noir canon: "There goes my last lead. I feel all dead inside. I'm backed up in a dark corner and I don't know who's hitting me."
Of special note is top-billed Lucille Ball, doing excellent duty in a completely straight role as Galt's secretary and romantic interest. Also credited above the hero are Clifton Webb as a portrait-worshipping Waldo Lydecker type, and William Bendix slightly against expectations as an easily roughed-up thug ... initially.
Private detective Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens) has just set up shop in NYC when he's visited by police detective Frank Reeves (Reed Hadley), who suspects him of bad intentions after an episode in San Francisco that ended in a prison term. With the help of his loyal and affectionate secretary Kathleen (Lucille Ball) Brad determines that his old nemesis, lawyer Anthony Jardine (Kurt Kreuger) is still trying to frame him, but he misinterprets the reason that he's being shadowed by thuggish gumshoe Fred Foss (William Bendix). The real reason involves the wealthy Hardy Cathcart, a fine art dealer in league with Jardine in various shady enterprises. When a murder is committed implicating Brad, only Kathleen keeps the thoroughly rattled detective on task - there are no clues and the ones they find lead to ded ends.
The Dark Corner is the perfect noir to attract spouses uninterested in moody stories picturing women as deadly dames. Women are fascinated to see Lucille Ball play a likeable, loyal Girl Friday who stands by her man no matter how deeply he becomes entangled in a web of intrigue. Slightly weak as a leading man, Mark Stevens' Galt trades sexy baseball chat with her (her dad was an umpire) but also drinks on duty and has a fatalistic streak a mile wide. He's already been the patsy of Kurt Krueger's crooked lawyer and the police are leaning heavy on him. He knows he's being put "into a frame" but can't get to the truth. Galt uses all of his skills yet comes off as weak until he finally gets a handle on the source of his troubles. But he has the support of Ball's Kathleen, an assist not enjoyed by the villains who deceive their romantic interest and are deceived by her.
Mari (Cathy Downs, Clementine Carter in My Darling Clementine) hates her effete husband Hardy Cathcart, a rich art connoisseur who neglects her emotionally while worshipping a masterpiece portrait she resembles. She's instead drawn to the high-toned conman Jardine, the man who framed Galt back in San Francisco. Jardine blackmails society women and clearly is after Mari for her money. This is the real drama in The Dark Corner and Bradford Galt is merely an ancillary victim. The truth behind his persecution is twice removed from his only lead, William Bendix's cheap thug Fred Foss. Galt can't know that Foss is only playing stupid to sucker Galt into a new murder conspiracy.
The Dark Corner uses familiar noir conventions. Wealth and culture are associated with depravity and avarice. Anthony Jardine is a venal predator and Hardy Cathcart a supercilious aesthete who brokers Donatello sculptures but can push a man out of a 30th floor window without batting an eye, hitting a high in casual brutality not topped until the next year's Kiss of Death. Cathcart is given deliciously cynical toss-off lines like, "I hate the dawn. The grass always looks as though it's been left out all night."
Kathleen and Galt are poor, friendless and in trouble, and the film sides with them completely. Ball asks for and gets a pair of nylon stockings, and proves her loyalty to Galt not by sleeping with him but by sticking by him even when he tells her to run for cover. She trusts Galt even when she finds him in suspicious circumstances with a dead body in his apartment. Keeping up the baseball banter, Kathleen says she plays for keeps, not for score.
Bradford Galt perseveres until he can get free of the 'dark corner' and is eventually saved by the same unrelated romantic conflict that got him in trouble in the first place. The difference between him and Detour's Al Roberts is Galt is sustained by his trusting relationship with Kathleen. The movie is dominated by complex low-key lighting and deterministic shadows, but fate intervenes to finally allow Galt to fight back. The deceptively simple plot is unusually satisfying - we don't get the idea that Hollywood types are slumming to create a sordid story. And we're given a shot of Lucille Ball's camera-perfect legs, too! Interestingly, we realize after this movie why Lucy never made it as a leading dramatic actress - her changing looks tend to remind us of several other (beautiful) actresses. One moment she looks like Ann Sothern, and the next, a sleepy Carole Lombard.
Fox's DVD of The Dark Corner is an excellent B&W transfer of this influential murder thriller. The nuances of Joe McDonald's photography are beautifully rendered. The only music in the movie is the Street Scene theme cue that accompanies many Fox noirs of the late forties.
Alain Silver and Jim Ursini provide an excellent commentary, going beyond the usual observations to reveal new meanings in the film. Some film theory is involved but the main thrust of their arguments amounts to fine literary-styled analysis. They point out the main difference between this film and other hardboiled detective noirs - we aren't limited to Bradford Galt's perspective and watch him struggle helplessly while knowing much more about the frame around him than he does.
An original trailer is also included. This is the tenth disc in the Fox Film Noir series and Savant has to say that he really enjoys the clever cover art that uses the films' original posters as a main design element.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Dark Corner rates:
Supplements: Commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 28, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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