The Dark Corner

| February 17, 2002

Spirited discussions about film noir often hinge on subjective applications of traditional categorizations such as “crime drama,” “suspense,” “mystery” and “melodrama.” Which crime dramas are film noirs? Aren’t some melodramas actually noirs? Are certain Alfred Hitchcock films actually noirs or suspense films? While this debate is often the equivalent of using cinematic algebra to square an elusive film noir circle, some movies clearly illustrate the distinctions between straight mysteries and films with a mystery theme possessing a darker hue. The Dark Corner is a case in point.
The Dark Corner takes the audience into the distraught world of Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens). The mystery is delineated for the audience to appreciate less than halfway through the film. The deeper experience is gleaned by watching Galt’s struggle through a twisted labyrinth in order to resolve who or what, in his words, has him “backed up in a dark corner…”
Private Investigator Brad Galt is a man on the edge. Shortly after opening a new office in the Big Apple and hiring a spirited Girl Friday named Kathleen (Lucille Ball), Lt. Frank Reeves NYPD (the robotic Reed Hadley) visits and warns Galt that he is keeping his eye on him. Kathleen quickly realizes that Galt has a past life story the size of a gorilla on his back and both her maternal and matrimonial instincts come to the fore. She’s interested in helping Galt, but can’t get him to open up. At length, they go on a cheap date to the penny arcade. Both of them immediately spot a mysterious stranger (William Bendix) shadowing them. The stranger, wearing a bright white suit and Panama hat, is as inconspicuous as Moby Dick. Galt gets the drop on White Suit, sweats him and finds out that his name is Fred Foss and he is working for Galt’s old partner, Tony Jardine (Kurt Kreuger).
Jardine and Galt formerly had a private eye partnership in San Francisco. Tony, a blond rake enamoured of wine, women and song, got sticky-fingered with clients’ cash and was caught by Galt. To cover his tracks, Jardine knocked out Galt, poured booze on him and put him behind the wheel of a moving car. The resultant two-year bid for manslaughter and relocation to New York with John Law still hovering does little to restore Galt’s sense of fair play. With Kathleen’s steadfast support, Galt becomes convinced that to make a fresh start and break with his past, he must settle with his bete noir, Jardine, once and for all.
Which is exactly what he is supposed to think. Tony Jardine, up to his ears in seducing and blackmailing society matrons, is in tight with the suave New York art gallery dealer, Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb). Jardine is also bedding Cathcart’s young and feral wife (Cathy Downs), on the side. What Jardine doesn’t realize is Cathcart’s awareness of his duplicity. The art dealer’s dyspeptic arrogance conceals a pathological possessiveness for his trophy bride. It was the cuckolded Hardy Cathcart who hired lowlife PI Stauffer, (Bendix) alias Fred Foss, to shadow Galt. The scheme was to have Stauffer be intentionally spotted and give up Jardine’s name to Galt while “under duress”. Cathcart intended to influence and aim the once-framed and bitter Galt to knock his ex-partner off, thereby ridding the aging swell of his young wife’s lover.
The orchestrated plot for Galt to kill Jardine flounders after an inconsequential confrontation between the former partners. Cathcart decides to raise the stakes to murder for hire with a customized frame job. Stauffer lures Jardine inside Galt’s apartment, bludgeons him to death, and then knocks out Galt after he walks through his front door. When Galt comes to, he finds Jardine’s body residing in his living room. Realizing he is being framed yet again, but clueless as to who is behind it, Galt laments to Kathleen that he has become “easier to frame than Whistler’s mother.” He decides to stash Jardine’s corpse under his bed for the cleaning woman (Ellen Corby) to find in a couple of days while he and Kathleen race around NYC to find the killer.
As Galt starts to close in, Cathcart tries to tie up loose ends. After assisting Stauffer out of a convenient skyscraper window, the art dealer appears to be well insulated against detection. In a nice twist, Cathcart’s eventual swan song is a tidy and appropriate denouement to this well-crafted film.
Director Henry Hathaway is frequently noted for his many Westerns but directed other notable film noirs, including The House on 92nd Street (1945), Kiss of Death (1947), Call Northside 777 (1948) and 23 Paces to Baker Street (1956). Hathaway used location shooting to great advantage in all of these films and the New York locale of The Dark Corner was especially distinctive. The pacing of the story, lighting and camera angles, particularly the scene of Stevens interrogating Bendix in his darkened office, possess the classic noir atmosphere and feel.
Hathaway also possessed a considerable reputation for abusive treatment of actors in his films. His predilection for deliberately creating tension on the set was confirmed by Lucille Ball. She reported that Hathaway accused her of drinking when she blew her lines and that the director offered only “coldness and hostility” instead of support. Ball further claimed that Hathaway’s treatment so unnerved her that she even stuttered at times. As history recorded, Lucy was made of much sterner stuff and moved on to make entertainment history on television with hubby Desi Arnaz, eventually owning what was formerly RKO Studios as Desilu Productions. I personally doubt that Henry Hathaway ever got an invitation to guest direct an I Love Lucy episode.
Perhaps there was a method to Hathaway’s madness. Ball’s performance and that of everyone in the film was first-rate. Mark Stevens was not a particularly strong screen presence, but he was well suited for this particular role in this particular film. His portrayal of the put-upon Galt as more of a confused victim than a crossed tough guy was right on the mark. William Bendix was thuggishly menacing as Stauffer/Foss. Clifton Webb’s elegant style and presence reminded me of a serrated blade knife that might be one shade duller than in Laura (1944), but still razor sharp.
The Dark Corner may not be a heavyweight champion of film noir, but it is definitely a ranked contender that is well-worth seeing.

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