Sunday, November 10, 2013

Cornered (1945)

Director: Edward Dmytryk                              Writers: John Paxton & Ben Hecht
Film Score: Roy Webb                                  Cinematography: Robert De Grasse
Starring: Dick Powell, Walter Slezak, Micheline Cheirel and Luther Adler

Ah, Dick Powell, the most unlikely noir tough guy you could imagine. Beginning in film as a singer and hoofer and screwball comedian, he somehow morphed into a noir protagonist in Murder, My Sweet and continued in that vein well into the forties. Cornered was his next film noir, this time playing a former prisoner of war during World War II. But as good as the former film was, Cornered is a rather tepid mystery that takes place primarily in Buenos Aires. Powell plays a Canadian pilot who makes his way back to France to find out who killed his French wife of three weeks. Her father, a prefect of police, puts him on to a man named Marcel Jarnac, who was supposedly responsible for his wife’s death. Jarnac is apparently dead, but his death was too convenient, so Powell follows his widow to Buenos Aries in order to see if he can find the man himself.

Once in Argentina, Walter Slezak gloms on to Powell and apparently wants to help him track down Jarnac. And he’s not the only one. Though Jarnac has never been seen, there are several men who want to bring him to justice, angry that the blundering Powell is playing havoc with their carefully laid plans. One of these men is Steven Geray, and when Powell is invited by Slezak to a party at his home where the widow Jarnac, Micheline Cheirel, will be in attendance, he can hardly refuse. When he finally gets her alone Powell tries to pump her for information but she gives him nothing. So, in his own ham-handed fashion, Powell decides to follow her everywhere she goes. Geray attempts to derail Powell’s detective work by having his wife, Nina Vale, seduce him, but that doesn’t work either. Finally, another member of the group, Jack La Rue, posing as a valet, sneaks into Powell’s room and discovers Slezak going through papers. Slezak kills him, thus framing Powell for the murder. And we’re not even half way into the film yet.

One of the knocks against the picture is that the plot is so convoluted it’s difficult to keep anything straight. This is especially challenging with a host of second-tier actors who are not as recognizable, a fate that befell The Unsuspected over at Warner Brothers a couple of years later. But the most challenging aspect that the film faces, and one it never overcomes, is Powell’s character. Though ostensibly he’s going through all of this to seek vengeance for his wife’s death, there’s never a sense that this will bring him any satisfaction. In fact, he is so embittered through the whole thing that it’s difficult to maintain any sympathy for him. Unlike Murder, My Sweet, where he played the wise-cracking detective Philip Marlowe, here he is simply angry and bitter and relentless. It’s great to see Walter Slezak, but even his character is far too obvious to be thoroughly enjoyable. Cornered has some nice directorial touches by Edward Dmytryk, and a subdued score by the great Roy Webb, but as a noir thriller it lacks punch and in the end is a disappointing entry in the genre.

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