I’ve reassessed The Dark Corner over the last couple of weeks. Most reviewers recognize this as just a good Film Noir and then go on to dismiss two of the leads, Mark Stevens and Lucille Ball, as being lightweights in their respective roles, I think their judgment is being jaded by the hard boiled performances of the likes of Bogart, Powell, Mitchum, Montgomery, and Meeker as tough PI’s and on the flip side by all the slinky sultry Femme Fatales that proved to be their banes. The critics are being way too harsh.
Third Avenue El at Grand St. (Its actually Bowery & Grand)
Directed masterfully by Henry Hathaway, written by New York City born screenwriters Jay Dratler and Bernard C. Shoenfield and based on a story by Leo Rosten. The film stars Lucille Ball, Clifton Webb, William Bendix, Mark Stevens, Cathy Downs and Kurt Kreguer.
This is Noir, New York Noir and PI Noir distilled to its essence. Under the artistry of director of photography Joe MacDonald (Street With No Name, Call Northside 777, Pickup on South Street) visually this film is stunning, we see contrasts of deep blacks with sharp highlights that evoke the chiaroscuro of crime scene photography and graphic novels, diagonals stabbing into the frame, single source lighting throwing shadows that advance the story, tendrils of omnipresent cigarette smoke clouding atmosphere.
NYC circa 1940's
The story is firmly anchored in a New York City that juxtaposes, high society art galleries with tenement flops. The New York City of the ‘40’s its canyons with its Els, its traffic, its jazz clubs, fire escapes, Times Square, neighborhood penny arcades filled with nickelodeons, mutoscopes, pinball and skee ball games, shooting galleries, and 5 cent mechanical fortune tellers.
This film does better what all the various New York based Mike Hammer classic era noirs (the ones that actually attempted to place the action in Manhattan) never came close to, it gives you a realistically gritty impression of New York City.
The visual component of the film is complimented by a smart, equally impressive, sound design that floods your senses with the lullaby of THE CITY. I don’t believe I’ve heard a better one in any contemporary noir set in NYC. You constantly hear the rattle of the El as it passes by the windows of Gault’s (Stevens) office or above your head when out on Third Avenue, you hear the honk and rumble of traffic on the street, you hear the cacophony of the arcade. There is even a sequence where Gault and Kathleen (Ball) are talking to a newspaper boy in a lunch counter who witnessed a near hit and run accident, after he leaves we even hear his news hawking faintly diminishing as a background to the conversation between Gault and Kathleen.
This constantly enveloping sound design ingeniously transitions seamlessly to diegetic and non diegetic music provided by various artists, Alfred Newman, Eddie Heywood and His Orchestra, Duke Ellington and others.
The honky-tonk piano and the street sounds smoothly transition to Duke Ellington's Mood Inigo as Bendix breaks into Gault's apartment in this video link:
The story goes like this, private detective Bradford Gault (Stevens) is looking to make a fresh start in New York City after a two year drunk driving manslaughter stint in California. He was framed by his ex partner Jardine (Kurt Kreuger) when he objected to Jardine’s blackmail scam.
Kreuger & Webb
Jardine, who has also relocated to New York is running the same blackmail scam again with the city’s high society. He is seducing society women and then blackmailing them with their own love letters. Hardy Cathcart (Webb) a wealthy gallery owner, suspects that Jardine is having an affair with his young bride Mari (Downs). Cathcart hires Stauffer (Bendix) to deal with Jardine by trying to escalate the Gault/Jardine animosity to a deadly finale.
Webb & Downs
Webb & Downs
Watch for the see-through eye candy in the top right bg of the above sequence as Downs goes back to the bed a removes her robe see detail below (she must have been 15 feet tall on an old movie palace screen)
Downs. Yes, they are all sisters under the mink
Kathleen (Ball) is good as Gault’s plucky new secretary who evolves into a combination love interest/partner. Lt Frank Reeves (Reed Hadley) is the NYPD officer keeping tabs on Gault.
The Kathleen/Gault side story is unobtrusively woven into the fabric of the plot. Gault, is no iconic Sam Spade, Marlowe or Hammer, he is, as played by Stevens a bit vulnerable more soft boiled than hard, the average everyday PI, he gets stressed, he gets drunk, he tries to score with Kathleen. Ball plays Kathleen as the virginal good girl who begins to fall for Gault and there are some nice situational humorous sequences where Ball’s virginity to onlookers and acquaintances is put doubt.
Cathy Downs plays the unfaithful wife of Cathcart and the films closest equivalent to a femme fatal. Clifton Webb is great as the possessive anal retentive Cathcart, but the really impressive performance is from Bendix. New York, (Manhattan) born and bred, Bendix plays a very convincing sleaze ball PI/muscle and the film is rife with some great sequences of Bendix interacting with Gault and Cathcart, and he has a very nice telephone monologue
Bendix, playing the softy
If this 20th Century Fox film had starred say Dana Andrews, or Tyrone Power as Gault, and Gene Tierney or Linda Darnell as Kathleen it would be up there unquestionably with all better known the top shelf films noir.