A year before Henry Hathaway directed Kiss of Death (launching Richard Widmark into stardom), he backed Mark Stevens into The Dark Corner. Stevens plays hapless private eye Bradford Galt, a man framed for murder in this grim, mean little noir. Driven by strong casting, including Lucille Ball and Clifton Webb (Laura), The Dark Corner explores just what the title suggests: the darkest corners of the human psyche, the aspects that can steer a man to murder. The title also reflects the insane amount of darkness visually in the film. The whole shindig is one dark affair, dig?
As Bradford pursues his secretary Kathleen (Ball) into bed, he’s being pursued by a man in a white suit (William Bendix). He claims to be a fellow P.I., hired by a crooked lawyer named Tony Jardine, who used to be Bradford’s partner. The two had a heavy falling out when Jardine pilfered agency funds, and subsequently framed Bradford for a drunk driving manslaughter beef.
Talk about being born under a bad sign – Bradford can seriously never catch a break. He even mentions towards the end of the film about he can never, ever catch a freakin’ break.
It wouldn’t be film noir unless the plot was slightly convoluted, so it turns out Jardine is having an affair with the wife of a wealthy gallery owner, Hardy Cathcart, played by Clifton Webb, who infuses the character with hints of Waldo Lydecker from Laura. Cathcart gets wise to their extramarital affair and hires the man in the white suit to kill Jardine, and frame Bradford for it. The plan is very well orchestrated and like the luckless sap he is, Bradford takes on the toughest investigation of his life: proving himself innocent while the cops are relentless sniffing him out.
The P.I. protagonist is nothing new, but I thought it was pretty unique that Bradford is never actually hired for a case in the film. He’s just goofing off with his secretary at a penny arcade, then the next thing he knows there’s a dead body in his office. It makes for a pretty good take on the P.I. genre.
Visually this film is way darker than Kiss of Death the following year. Hathaway stages the film almost entirely at night, with the most brazen murder of the film taking place in broad daylight. In many scenes, characters are entirely consumed by shadows. Even Bradford’s office doesn’t offer solace from the pervasive darkness. No location in the film is safe from evil – a dentist’s office, the arcade, and especially not home. It’s a bleak landscape used effectively by Hathaway. Once you’re backed into the dark corner, it’s a bitch to get out.
One really playful touch in the film is a child who gives Bradford the only break of probably his entire life. We first see this child blowing a toy whistle as White Suit is talking to Cathcart on a payphone. He snaps at her for making a racket, so the next time he uses the phone, she stays quiet and listens to his conversation, soaking in the details. Then she blows the metaphorical whistle, which leads Bradford (finally) in the right direction.
If the idea of Lucille Ball as the leading lady in a gritty noir makes ya chuckle, know that she isn’t being funny here. Not once does she cram chocolates in her mouth or stomp grapes. Sorry, guys.
The Dark Corner is a tough tale with some fantastic performances. I haven’t seen a lot of Hathaway’s work yet, but it’s clear here that he’s a master craftsman. This one’s definitely worth a watch.