What wonders the pungent nastiness of film noir could do to flavorless craftsmen. Future Sound of Music helmer Robert Wise terrorized a shrill snitch around a beachfront in 1947’s Born to Kill, the same year Henry Hathaway sent a wheelchair-bound granny down a flight of stairs in Kiss of Death. Though the latter was overpraised for its location shooting and vivid brutality, Hathaway had already delved into the genre more interestingly the previous year with the less well-known The Dark Corner, made in between contributions to Fox’s faddish interest in urban neorealism (The House on 92nd Street, 13 Rue Madeleine). Indeed, the first shot has the same self-conscious “documentary” look, with an elevated train rattling over a decidedly deglamorized New York City. As soon as the camera tilts down from the credits to locate mug William Bendix decked in an incongruously immaculate white suit, however, it’s obvious that realism takes a back seat to the studio world of heavy shadows and gumshoe smoke, the better to show off cinematographer Joe MacDonald’s ominous lighting grids projected onto the amoral characters.
More than the studio’s faux-documentary ventures, the spirit hovering around The Dark Corner is Fox’s noir hit Laura, all but openly referenced by the presence of Clifton Webb as a villainous art collector, bringing along with him some of that earlier picture’s atmosphere of perfumed perversion and bitchy, poison-candy dialogue (“The enjoyment of art is the only remaining ecstasy that is neither illegal nor immoral”). Unfortunately, the main character is the shamus played by fourth-billed Mark Stevens, whose defeatist streak becomes wider and whinier as the narrative’s intrigue tightens around him. “You keep your heart in a steel safe,” his secretary-girlfriend (Lucille Ball) tells him, but, as played by Stevens, the detective is less brooding than morose, so that setting him up for the murder of the Eurotrash gigolo (Kurt Kreuger) who’s been hitting on Webb’s trophy wife (Cathy Downs) proves to be a cinch. While Stevens mumbles about the dark corners of destiny, Ball is wiping the blood off the fireplace poker planted on his hand and scrambling to figure out the truth, with the actress providing a solid, welcome contrast to both her more famous brand of frantic comedy and the genre’s parade of alluring, walking man-traps.
No less than other noir classics, The Dark Corner is full of sadistic bits of business (an early encounter between Stevens and Bendix’s hired muscle anticipates the sudden, offhand brutality of Robert Aldrich’s seminal Kiss Me Deadly), though the film’s seediness is curiously antiseptic; a solid but unexceptional director, Hathaway is neither an obsessive neurotic like Mann nor a saturnine surveyor like Preminger, much less a master moralist like Lang, and the obligatory genre elements are touched upon with impersonal efficiency. Hathaway’s most successful aspect, interestingly, lies in bringing to the fore the class issues normally hidden underneath the gloom and doom of noir. In fact, the film’s emphasis on contrasts (fairgrounds versus art galleries, dilapidated tenements versus spacious mansions) can be read as an outright prole/bourgeois juxtaposition, with Stevens and Webb as totems on opposite sides of both the law and the economic spectrum, and Bendix traveling from one side to the other, carrying elements of both. That Hathaway unambiguously sides with the working-class hero allows for the picture’s funniest and most telling gag, involving a ludicrously out-of-place Stevens in a museum, a pricey Donatello on a pedestal, and the director’s gloved comment on his own refusal, for better or for worse, to push his raw materials beyond genre exercises and into personal art.