Classic film noir — deceitful people at work — a private dick with a dicky past — a murderous art dealer with an obsession about a woman in a painting — sluggings in the dark — frame ups — a cheating wife — crosses — and double crosses.
The Dark Corner (1946) presents full on film noir in the shape of an ex-con detective willing to bend the rules at every point, with the most wholesome role going to an angelic Lucille Ball — though even dear sweet Lucille is up to her elbows in blood, lying, is complicit in conspiracy to conceal evidence, washing murder weapons and immediately opting to cover up a crime rather than report it . . .
You don’t always find the most compelling actor playing the lead in film noirs, sometimes because the leads are losers, heels or are dramatically disadvantaged in some other way. In the case of Mark Stevens as private investigator Bradford Galt — how do they come up with these names? I am guessing there was a formula locked in a Burbank drawer — we’re led to believe he has a criminal past, but we don’t linger on that, as that would detract from his status as overall good guy.
Then there’s the fact that most of these noir pictures were never headline movies, but always appeared as second features. It sometimes, as in The Dark Corner, lends an overall sloppiness to the production, leaving loose ends, incomplete character portrayals and unbelievable leaps of disbelief which tacitly assuming that half of the audience is on their way to the john or the popcorn concession.
Like so many others who claw their way into an acting job in Hollywood, Mark Stevens in The Dark Corner made many forgettable films, but noir fans can at least see him in The Street with No Name, two years later. What was Mark Stevens looking forward to? Pretty much the same as every other wise-guy actor of the era — appearances in Murder, She Wrote and Magnum P.I. before a dignified death in the late 1980s.
The Dark Corner is a B-picture, and is made to be as thrilling and mysterious as it could be, with a heap of hoods, turns and deceits packed into its 90 minute run. Unlike other more procedural crime films, The Dark Corner elevates itself with a screwy plot that keeps in unfolding, unlikely and complex as it may be. This may not sound very noir at all, but The Dark Corner was based on a story which appeared first in Good Housekeeping, and written by Leo Rosten, who started off his career with several noirish films and tales, and turned to writing comic books, including the immortal, invaluable, and ever-hilarious The Joys of Yiddish.
Like most B-pictures of the era — or any era for that matter — the plot doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. But we ain’t here to scrutinise the story, because if we did that then we’d not be watching any movies ever again. Remember that regardless of whether it was crime, western, or comedy, every movie before 1960 and just about every movie after it, winds up with a guy getting a gal. It’s good at least in The Dark Corner, that the gal is Lucille Ball, who has comic quality in spades — an unusual but welcome attribute in any film noir crime thriller.
One of the best turns in The Dark Corner is William Bendix, who plays a mysterious tough guy. He brings a whole lot of mischief to the picture, and manages to be believable in the role as does Clifton Webb, who also appears in Laura and The Razor’s Edge. Clifton Webb has this great high class criminality about him, that as soon as he appears you know you're in for fun. There is a some great lighting, such as the scene in which Mark Stevens as private eye Bradford Galt forces Bendix to give up information in his office. The room is lit by a single light and it looks great, in a classic-noir kind of way — but it is not just this lighting effect, as well as the little-referred to title of The Dark Corner, that allows this waspish B-flick to qualify as noir. No, it's the strange mixture of violence, paranoia and at times even comedy, presented by a bizarre cast of criminals and cheats, with the odd inteliigent touch thrown in, almost it would seem by accident.
Former VOGUE model Cathy Downs in The Dark Corner (1946)
Sour and surly to the core, Mark Stevens plays the archetypical dick well, and other fine touches include the casual murders that take place throughout — they are sudden and violent and occur as if killing was as straightforward as wiping your nose. Then there is the lack of background music, which tends to tighten things up no end, and does mean that the attention span never drifts.
Attention can barely drift anyway, with Lucille Ball on the screen. Along with Mark Stevens, she satisfies one of the strange tropes of the era, the idea that a man has a secretary either to flirt with or to directly have an affair with. This idea was in fact so endearing to producers and audiences at the time that it has stuck, and no amount of feminism has been able to shift it — the notion seems to still appear in movies and television on a daily basis. The guy doesn’t have to be powerful, but compared to her, he always is — but it’s a purely strange set-up — she is there to assist, to tend to him, to cater for him, to fact-check for him — and at the same time she’s supposed to look up to him and care for him in some way. Lucille Ball (top-billed in The Dark Corner) gets away with this for numerous reasons, but it still points to an age-old film noir truth — that adventure is never to be found at home, but lies in wait in a dark dream across the office desk.