A dark, morally ambiguous mission has Dick Powell ‘Cornered’ against evil
Directed by Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay by John Paxton, story by John Wexly
Of all the villains to have in a film, among the most popular are the Nazis. Cinema has always depicted the Nazis for what they were: very nasty people. Granted, some movies embellish the villainy of the organization to exaggerated heights, but given what history tells us of the party’s ideologies and how they went about putting said ideology into motion during their few years in power in the 1930s and 1940s, there is a strong case to support the notion that they do in fact make for pretty solid movie antagonists. Merely striking the Nazis in the European theatre is one thing, but hunting down those party members who fled Europe in order to find temporary hiding grounds across the globe is an altogether different matter, and possibly even more ripe for adventure and suspense. Director Edward Dmytryk and actor Dick Powell reunite after Murder, My Sweet and use that very idea in bringing viewers Cornered.
In the dying days of WWII, Canadian fighter pilot Laurence Gerard (Dick Powell) heads to France on a very personal matter: to discover the identity of the man who murdered his wife of French nationality who fought alongside the resistance during the years of the Nazi takeover. Scarred by history’s most costly war and a love lost, Gerard ferociously tracks down the clues to the whereabouts of his prey, Marcel Jarnac, which proves to be a complicated matter given how either people claim to know nothing of his physical appearances or claim him to have died in 1943. The trail leads him to Buenos Aires, where the murderer’s wife, Madeleine Jarnac (Micheline Cheirel) lives the high life, dancing around with the city’s rich elite. Upon his arrival in the Argentinian city, Gerard is accosted by one Melchior Incza (Walter Slezak), who claims to be a particularly knowledgeable tour guide, perhaps a little too knowledgeable given how he seems to already be privy to the purpose of Gerard’s stay in Latin America. Despite certain reservations, Gerard allows Incza to lead the former into a stunningly twisted web of conniving individuals, some good, such as Manuel Santana and Diego (Morris Carnovsky and Jack La Rue), who are also hunting down Nazi party members, while others less so, like Senora Camargo (Nina Vale) one of the antagonist’s many accomplices.
Notice in the above plot synopsis that no mention of the United States was made. That is one of the many qualities distinguishing Edward Dmytryk’s Cornered. Not one second of the action occurs on American soil nor is the protagonist himself an American, Laurence Gerard hailing from Montréal, Canada. Arguably the only perceivable American element in the picture is Dick Powell’s accent (no, he does not make any attempt to emulate the speech pattern of a French Canadian). Everybody else puts on either their best Hispanic or French accent. Readers who may be less familiar with the noir genre should be reminded that back in the 1940s and 1950s when these movies were being made, the filmmakers themselves were unaware of the fact they were creating movies which years later would be included, by historians and specialists, within one specific genre titled ‘film noir.’ Watching these films in the early 21st century provides the viewer with the benefit of hindsight, as well as decades of film literature and classes which have endlessly dissected these pictures. Heading into a movie like Cornered with the firmly planted idea that noir is very much an American film movement does, at first, make the movie currently under review stand apart in that its narrative offers no distinctive links to the U.S. Nonetheless, its mood, narrative and visual style very much fit comfortably into what most film buffs readily recognize as noir.
For anyone who has seen the more popular film director Dmytryk and actor Powell collaborated on, Murder, My Sweet, they already have a decent perception of what to expect from Cornered, although some of the ingredients are played around with a little bit. To begin with, much of the cinematography is sharp, detailed, and realized with tender care, with stylistic touches sprinkled throughout, producing some terrific visceral effects. Some are short in duration (Gerard getting knocked out cold late in the story permits Dmytryk to send the image into a acid-trip like tail spin just as he did in the previous film), but others allow the filmmakers to truly strut their stuff and show off, the best example being when Gerard, having finally arrived at the location where he believes his prey to be hiding, walks up a lonely, dark set of stairs with only a light at the top of the flight to guide him. The camera calmly rests just behind Powell’s head as he cautiously makes his way upwards. It is a beautiful moment, with the vivid tension imbued in the stunning images felt at a palpable level. For those who find pleasure in not merely plot but also creative, memorable black and white cinematography in film noir, Cornered makes a strong case as a ‘must see.’
Cornered also happens to be a rather bitter film. This is not only logical but perfectly understandable. The protagonist has been wronged in the most vile manner imaginable and seeks to punish the culprit any way he can. Coupled with the fact that he is not much of an investigator, his methods lack finesse, tact and control at various stages. When faced with somebody who may be Marcel, Gerard is perfectly willing to kill even though he lacks definitive proof. The point of the strategy is to eliminate anyone who might be his target and move on to the next if he must. Star Dick Powell gives a performances which only fleetingly reminds the viewer of his remarkable work in Murder, My Sweet. Some of the charm is there (he uses it whenever the benefits outweigh the risks associated with appearing vulnerable), but for the vast majority of the picture Powell is a sullen figure, hell bent on tracking down his target, barking requests and responses rather than saying them normally. The role does not ask as much from him as one would hope considering his talents as an actor.. He is good as Gerard, giving his character a fiery strength only a man dedicated to a mission as personal as this one could display, yet it feels one-dimensional after a while. There are a couple of supporting players who bring some light hearted wit, the standout being Incza, whose true allegiance is made unclear until the last stages of the plot but always engages Gerard in jovial manner, yet Powell is such a force that his presence nearly purges whatever amusement other characters try to inject. This characteristic is of interest given how in contemporary film the popularity of the revenge genre has grown exponentially. Cornered, a film which amounts to a revenge tale, was made many decades ago, during a different era of movie making. Despite this, it could easily have been made today given how similar it is to the revenge flicks which open in theatres multiple times a year. It is dour, sombre, gritty, and the conclusion leaves the protagonist in a state not much different from the one he lived in at the start.
Dmytryk’s film may in fact be a case for which the visual panache and tone lift the overall picture to heights it otherwise would never attain had it relied solely on its plot. This area is where the film falters more than anything. Rather than simplify things, the script features a stupendous amount of side characters, some of which appear only momentarily (and encourages the viewer to wonder what the purpose was of using them anyways), plenty of name referencing, flip-flop decision making and couple of twists too many for the story to remain fully comprehensible. Mystery abounds, but not always for the correct reason. There are stretches when the greatest mystery is ‘and why is Gerard going to meet so or so again?’ Near the end of the tale, once Gerard is finally faced with his enemy, their dialogue exchange is characterized by political and social issues which were prevalent at the time (Marcel is, after all, a fascist), but, ironically, because of that the cathartic ecstasy the scene should convey is attenuated.
Cornered is not the greatest noir, nor is it necessarily the most entertaining. Like its central figure, it is very much intent on embracing the dark side to provoke an effect among the viewers. Its lasting impression is one of a film that is gripping for its emotional intensity, if not always as focused as it should.