Dick Powell – that’s him in the picture above – died young, at the age of 58. In 1956, seven years earlier, he directed The Conqueror, which implausibly starred John Wayne as the Mongolian warrior Ghenghis Khan. Filming took place downwind of atomic tests that were being carried out in Utah, which were taking place above ground, and a total of 91 members of the film’s 220-strong cast and crew developed some form of cancer by 1981. Of these, 46 people – including Powell and Wayne – had died of cancer by that year, a rate three times higher than would normally be expected in a group of that size.
Powell’s death unfortunately curtailed a career that had already been through several distinct periods. He began as a romantic crooner in Busby Berkeley musicals, re-invented himself as a tough leading man in the 1940s and even founded a TV production company with David Niven before ending up in the director’s chair.
By the mid-1930s Powell had grown tired of the youthful, romantic roles that made his name, and he decided longevity in showbusiness would only be achieved if he expanded his range. However the studio that had him under contract at the time, Warner Bros, refused to allow him to branch out from his normal type of role. Ten years later he had finally had enough, and argued that he was too old to play romantic leading men. He tried for the lead part in Double Indemnity but lost out to Fred MacMurray, who had also been typecast as a ‘nice guy’ throughout the 1930s and early-1940s. MacMurray’s success convinced Powell to pursue similar projects, and in 1944 he appeared in his first film noir, playing Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (Powell was the first actor to play Marlowe on screen). A year later he teamed up again with the director of that film, Edward Dmytryk, and the pair made another tough noir called Cornered.
Powell stars as Canadian RCAF pilot Laurence Gerard, who finds himself in England at the end of World War II. Gerard, a former POW, returns to France to find out who is responsible for the death of his bride, a member of the French Resistance who was killed just 20 days after their marriage. His investigations uncover the name of a Vichy collaborator by the name of Marcel Jarnac (Luther Adler), who has apparently vanished. Insurance documents lead Gerard to Switzerland and then on to Argentina, where he suspects Jarnac is part of a group of former Nazi collaborators and party members hiding out in Buenos Aires.
Powell must have enjoyed playing the hard-boiled Marlowe a year earlier, as here he takes things even further: his character is about as dour and as cynical as they come, dismissing just about everyone that he meets during the course of the film whether they are trying to help him or – as in most cases – do him harm. He delivers a string of sarcastic and insolent lines, makes stubborn and stupid decisions, and does everything in his power to remain alone, accompanied for the most part (in true noir style) only by his shadow. His work here paved the way for many similar performances by other leading men in the years that followed, and there are plenty of angry, weary protagonists within the genre that have more than a little Laurence Gerard in them.
Though his anger is understandable, Gerard is a difficult character to warm to, so it’s just as well that there is a succession of loathsome, slimy rats fulfilling the bad guy quota. As well as Jarnac there’s Melchior Incza (Walter Slezak), a mysterious stranger who meets Gerard at the airport and who may as well have been standing at arrivals holding a sign reading “I’m going to double cross you”. He’s a similar character to Sydney Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, but there’s also a businessman by the name of Tomas Camargo (Steven Geray) to contend with and his wife, Senora Camargo (Nina Vale), Cornered’s principal femme fatale. Throw into the mix a shadowy Belgian banker by the name of Perchon (Gregory Gaye) and the question mark hovering over Jarnac’s widow Madeleine (Micheline Cheirel) and there’s a clear impression that Buenos Aires in 1945 was a real nest of vipers.
Unfortunately the array of characters – good and bad – means that the story has a few too many twists and turns, especially in the first two acts where it’s often not clear who Gerard is tracking, how his information is leading him to certain people or how he is getting from one place to another while in possession of a lapsed passport. Perhaps a second watch might be more rewarding, but once it settles down in Argentina and concentrates on the manhunt at hand, Cornered improves considerably, and the traditional attempt to frame the innocent hero two thirds of the way through works well.
The film has a well-realised dark atmosphere, and with its cynical worldview the movie helped to define the tone of many noir efforts that followed, good and bad. Most of it is set at night, which means there’s very little light here to balance all the shade. Cornered is a hard-edged, hard-nosed crime film and a fairly depressing post-war message is expressed about the state of fascism in the world. Detractors might argue that it could do with a little humour but I liked the bleak outlook and paranoia here. (Director Dmytryk was disappointed by the way the movie turned out, unfortunately, and would later find himself blacklisted as part of the Hollywood Ten.)
Though the violence in the movie is infrequent, it’s pretty strong by mid-1940s standards. The final showdown between Gerard and Jarnac is brutal, and there’s no sense of triumph to be found when their meeting is resolved; a fleeting sense of justice being done, perhaps, but the manner in which Gerard avenges his wife’s death is quite numbing.
Technically, there’s much to admire in Cornered’s mise-en-scène. It is well lit, with the shadow of Gerard in his mac and hat appearing regularly on the edges of the frame, passing along walls and hovering over the shoulders of the characters he meets and talks to. The camerawork is good, and the costume and set design is also solid, even though there is a reliance on standard-looking hotel rooms when the action shifts to Argentina (most of the film is studio-based, as was the norm).
While it is hampered at times by its convoluted plot, Dmytryk and writers John Paxton and John Wexley gets things right in the final act and increase the dramatic tension well before the finale. It’s an important film in terms of what came after it, but Cornered is primarily worth seeing for Powell’s performance as the downbeat, poker-faced depressed hero. It’s not quite Bogart, or Cary Grant, but he’s a pretty cool actor, all told, and the decision to leave the musicals behind was a good one. It’s a shame his life was cut short.
Directed by: Edward Dmytryk
Written by: Ben Hecht, John Paxton, John Wexley
Starring: Dick Powell, Walter Slezak, Micheline Cheirel, Nina Vale
Running Time: 102 minutes