Thursday, April 26, 2012

Doing more harm than good

Dick Powell started his Hollywood career as a singer/dancer in light-weight musical comedies. So it was something of a shock in 1944 when he played hard-boiled private eye Phillip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet and did it extremely well.

Powell played off his newly-won hard-boiled cred for the rest of his career, both in film and on radio. In fact, a year after Murder, My Sweet, he re-joined director Edward Dymtryk to star in a superb film noir titled Cornered.

Powell is a Canadian named Laurence Gerard just released from a POW camp as the war ends, collecting a small fortune in back pay. But instead of heading home, he returns to France. His French wife had been executed at the order of a Vichy French official. And when Powell finds that official, he's going to have his revenge.

The official--named Jarnoc--is supposedly dead. To make things even harder, there's no picture or description of him. But Gerard manages to dig up a clue that takes him from France to Argentina, where he's soon hip-deep in a subculture of fascists and collaborators. But not all the villains he meets are necessarily villains and he may end up undercutting attempts to break up the local fascist organization.

Cornered has a exceptionally well-constructed plot--everything that happens follows a perfectly logical pattern. And, like all good film noir, it's full of interesting supporting characters. Most notable is a "professional guide" played by Walter Slezak, who may be working for the fascists or working for himself, depending on what day of the week it is.

Slezak specialized in playing sleazy villains and giving them believable personalities. He does his typical great job with this role.

Powell is right on target as Gerard, playing the role with barely contained anger seething just below the surface.Also, Gerard is suffering from what today we would call Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and given to brief but intense panic attacks.

What makes the film particularly interesting is that Powell, though the protagonist, isn't presented as automatically in the right. His desire for revenge rather than justice and his heavy-handed investigative technique (he's not, after all, a professional P.I. this time around) soon start to interfere with another set of good guys who are also trying to smoke out the collaborators.

It all leads up to a climax in a deserted waterfront bar, where Gerard seems to be hopelessly trapped unless the fact that the bad guys no longer completely trust each other changes the situation drastically.

Cornered is a textbook example of the strengths of of film noir: black-and-white photography that makes great use of light and shadow; interesting supporting characters; strong and logical story line and a flawed but sympathetic protagonist.

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