Cornered (1945) brings Dick Powell back to the noir screen, and opens with him being refused a passport between London and France. Undeterred, Powell slams his hands in his pockets, storms out of the passport office, and promptly swims the English Channel. It’s that spirit that dominates Cornered (1945, Edward Dmytryk starring Dick Powell, Walter Slezak, Micheline Cheirel and Nina Vale.)
The war had only been done a matter of minutes before the noir canon kicked off a whole new epoch in cinema — a time of uncertainty, deceit and men whose identities were always up for grabs. Generally these guys were suckered by deceitful women, but often they didn’t know which way to wear their pants to begin with. Either way, the post war male was wholly bruised and confused. Who exactly was he fighting?
Who indeed? As soon as the war was out and the heroes were home, noir started producing anti-heroes. Noir is the home of complex transmutations — and one of its greatest is the disillusioned veteran, whose return to American society is a return to criminal conspiracy. How did the war hero slip so easily into the thriller mode?
Perhaps, then, this civilian is taking up the role of the police — indeed, the police are usually seen in noir as ineffective, and it’s the weary war hero that finds his way through the maze of crime to the conclusion. In Cornered, it’s not just the police who are useless in both France and Argentina, but the British passport office too. Genre films in particular are said by one critic to ‘reflect society more in the manner of a funhouse mirror, with all its peculiar aberrations of size and perspective.’ (Michael Selig, Film Reader No. 6, 1985) and everything is exaggerated in Cornered — more likely to fit the conveniences of the plot — but also because that’s how grotesques are shipped.
Dick Powell, naked without a hat.
Cornered is an international globe-trotting noir. It is also a leading light of the sub-genre of ‘investigative veteran’ thrillers, along with The Blue Dahlia and The Reckoning. All of these movies throw in some excessive violence, trademark as it is to the war, and this violence becomes an aspect of the law-making at play. The hero too, should also be beaten up a few times, and there is no shortage of casual violence in Cornered — it stinks of it. Casual violence however is the worst sort. As an example — folks give Driller Killer (1979) a wide berth, because the effect of the violence is much more extreme, patterned as it is with psychology and randomness. These are not entertaining motives, but actually pertain to real violence, which is both psychologically motivated and always seems random. Compare this to Taken (2008), which is considered a masterpiece of entertainment because Liam Neeson kills, with his bare hands, a different foreigner every 2 minutes, and does so with the thickly plastered motive of ‘protecting his family’. In recent times, Taken is the most casually violent film I’ve seen. There is violence in every situation, it solves every situation, and concludes every plot point. It’s a gift to film producers.
With its sophisticated conspiracy plot, Cornered has more in common with the high-intrigue Hitchcock movies of the era, although it doesn’t punch with their weight. What Cornered does instead is displace post-war American society to somewhere else — South America in this case. There isn’t anything going on here then, that doesn’t speak for America, and isn’t in fact portraying America, even though only one of the characters is actually supposed to be an American. Frankly, they are all American, despite the occasional change of accent or name — and the same is to be said of the scenery, which is hotels, subways and streets — aspects of the American noir landscape.
It's both America, and not America.
Dick Powell’s hero is reckless, forceful, and embarks on a quest for revenge for the death of a wife that we never see, and hear very little about. He doesn’t care for the intrigue he uncovers, which is a shame, because it’s a sizeable international plot involving the rise of neo-Nazism, spearheaded by some French collaborators in Argentina. In a strange way, Dick Powell reminds me of Bruce Willis. Here you have an actor whose initial speciality is a frothy sort of comedy, switching to an action hero role, as Dick Powell did in Murder, My Sweet — with the results being a phenomenal success. After Murder, My Sweet, Dick Powell and (his studio) capitalised on this, and he continued to make more tough guy films, although somewhere underneath, you still feel there’s actor ready to burst into song, or tell a joke at any moment. The result is something viewers have always enjoyed — a disarming cynicism.
The plot of Cornered is less convincing however, because Dick Powell’s character doesn’t get involved in the post-War mix of politics and conspiracy. He just pushes his way forward, like an automaton, shoving from scene to scene, only once resorting to guile over force. It is a strange mix. If the hero doesn’t care for the conspiracy at play, then the viewer tends to be less involved too. It’s interesting that as soon as 1946, Hollywood was dealing with the subject of traitors fleeing Europe for South America, a rich item of contemporary truth telling in the pictures.
Yes: "Driver, follow that car!"
Cornered isn’t really about the escape of Nazi collaborators to South America then, and the clue is in the title, which is purest noir — a noir title of the first water. Cornered brings to mind those other noir thrillers with titles suggestive of fatalism, or somehow containing a mood of anguish or despair. Consider:
They Won’t Believe Me (1947), I Walk Alone (1948), Blind Alley (1939), Criss-Cross (1949), Desperate (1947) and Fear (1946)! Yes, they’re like a script of their own.
Another sap gets slugged
As in other noir, the violence is an essential rite of passage. There are times when the hero blacks out and misses a bit of the story, and he’s usually slugged out. The ramifications of being hurt are not shown, and presumed not necessary. Think of John Payne in The Crooked Way (1947) — beaten by three guys then thrown down a fire escape. He picks himself up — and he’s learned a few more important plot points. In Cornered there are few post-War slices of Nazi philosophy, but Dick Powell isn’t in the mood for arguing. He speaks for everyone in this exchange:
(Freedom fighter) — Today there is no organisation — just the right side and a wrong side.
(Dick Powell) — All right, fine — we’re on the right side. And we drink a lot of coffee. But I haven’t heard anything yet!
When the Nazi-hunters give a speech about why fascist must be caught and stamped out, Dick Powell has a flashback to the war. It’s not usual in the war noir to get any details of a veteran’s campaign, but this is noir with a heart — and while criminality can be glamorised on screen, fascism certainly cannot.
As for Dick Powell swimming the English Channel — come on. It’s a level of license we really need to question. Powell leaps into the water between England and France as casually as if it’s a river crossing he has to make. But the English Channel isn’t like that guys — it’s twenty five miles hard swimming in the busiest shipping lane in the world. And he does it in his suit.
Proof if ever it was requested, that noir is about male fantasy, in most cases tinged with a male sense of loss or confusion.
A hat and a gun, c'est noir.
A Man Bent on Revenge - the new Dick Powell. Rougher, Tougher than in "Murder My Sweet" In a Thrilling New Dangerous Adventure!