Friday, May 27, 2011

THE DARK CORNER: You Picked a Fine Time to Meet Me, Lucille

Watch your step—you might trip over a spoiler or two!

At times, 20th Century-Fox’s 1946 thriller The Dark Corner (TDC) plays like a greatest-hits collection of classic ’40s suspense films, but to me, that’s part of its charm. The talents involved include: co-star Clifton Webb, again playing a witty, urbane, snobbish Manhattanite fascinated by a beautiful brunette and her portrait like Laura; The Glass Key’s co-star William Bendix, who’s always fun to watch whether he’s playing a lovable mug or, in this case, a hissable thug; and Laura’s co-screenwriter Jay Dratler, along with Bernard C. Schoenfeld and Leo Rosten of The Joy of Yiddish fame! Indeed, the versatile Rosten wrote TDC’s original 1945 Good Housekeeping serial under the nom de plume Leonard Q. Ross. Ever prolific, Rosten also wrote many other stories, novels, and movie scripts, including two of my favorites, All Through the Night (1941) and Mystery Street (1950). Even the film’s Gershwin-esque opening theme music, a piece by Alfred Newman titled "Manhattan Street Scene," had been used before, in Fox’s first neo-noir thriller I Wake up Screaming (1941). (Fun Fact: Newman's Oscar-winning family of composers includes nephew Randy Newman, another of our household faves!)

TDC’s engaging cast, sharp dialogue, and compelling plot elements work wonderfully under Henry Hathaway’s direction.Critics and audiences agreed that Lucille Ball shines in this early dramatic role of hers, long before I Love Lucy made her a comedy icon. According to both the TCM Web site and the entertaining DVD commentary by film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini, Hathaway was such a tough taskmaster that Ball had a nervous breakdown during the filming. It doesn’t show onscreen in her assured, appealing portrayal of smart, loyal secretary Kathleen Stewart, originally Kathleen Conley in the Good Housekeeping serial (in fact, the DVD’s package copy mistakenly identifies Kathleen’s last name in the film as Conley, not Stewart). Kathleen's falling in love with her P.I. boss, Bradford Galt (no relation to John Galt), and the feeling is mutual.

As Brad, Mark Stevens makes a fine Dick Powell-like transition from musicals to tough-guy parts. Brad’s starting out fresh in New York City after being framed for manslaughter and nearly killed in California by his corrupt ex-partner, lawyer Tony Jardine. As a favor to his Cali colleagues, local cop Lt. Reeves is keeping tabs on Galt to make sure the “impulsive youth” stays out of trouble. In the role of Reeves, fans of the March of Time newsreels will recognize Reed Hadley’s commanding speaking voice; he’s got great screen presence and a formidable air of authority. Nevertheless, it seems Brad’s past is coming back to haunt him. When Brad catches a big lug (Bendix) on his tail wearing a white suit (who does he think he is, Roy Scheider in Last Embrace?), he’s shocked when the guy claims Tony Jardine hired him. The plot thickens as vulnerable but determined Brad sets out to see if Tony’s aiming to finish what he started out west.

"Working conditions are certainly looking up around here." And how!
Meanwhile, on the swankier side of the city, art dealer/collector Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb) drums up business for his posh art gallery and celebrates his third wedding anniversary at an elegant party for about a hundred of his closest friends and loved ones, including his beautiful young wife, Mari (Cathy Downs, who played the title role in My Darling Clementine and became the future wife of The Amazing Colossal Man). Hardy jokes that as a couple, Mari and Hardy are “the perfect picture of Beauty and the Beast,” though Mari charmingly disagrees. A close friend of the Cathcarts joins the celebration—none other than Tony Jardine himself (Kurt Kreuger, who excelled at playing smooth-talking Nazis and other shady Continental types), who’s apparently moved his law practice to The Big Apple! But Tony himself is still a bad apple, seducing and blackmailing vulnerable women of means.

"Beauty" Mari & "Beast" Hardy celebrate their 3rd anniversary. Tradition says leather is the gift of choice. Who'd have thought the Cathcarts were into leather?
We also find that Hardy’s burning love for Mari is like his passion for his paintings; he sees her and everything in his lavish home as treasured possessions. “I never want you to grow up,” Hardy coos to Mari as they waltz at the party. “You should remain ageless, like a Madonna, who lives and breathes and smiles, and belongs to me.” How’s that for an unsettling bit of sweet talk? Later, Hardy proudly unveils his newest acquisition, a painting he’s been obsessed with for years: a 19th-century portrait of a woman who bears a striking resemblance to Mari. It’s no coincidence: Hardy admits that when he met Mari after coveting the portrait for so long, “I felt as if I had always known her—and wanted her.” Although Hardy keeps Mari in the lap of luxury, the novelty of this marriage-cum-ownership is wearing off for his restless young wife. She and Hardy even have separate bedrooms (what did she expect with Clifton Webb and the Production Code?). No wonder Mari has the hots for Tony, unaware he’s a blackmailing gigolo. The script and Downs’s portrayal show Mari in a sympathetic light throughout TDC.  At a rendezvous with Tony at his luxe bachelor pad, Mari tells him, “Tony, I tried. I made a bad bargain, and I tried to stick it out with him, but I just keep sitting, listening to his paintings crack with age.” With the conflicting emotions flitting across Tony’s face as Mari gets more insistent that they run away together, we viewers can almost hear him thinking, “What about my career? How will I keep my seduction-and-extortion racket going after she dumps her rich husband to marry me?”  But that’s the least of their problems when these worlds of high society and low crime finally collide, as Hardy uses trickery and White Suit’s strong-arm tactics to fit Brad for a frame and Tony for a pine box.

To complicate matters further, Brad can be his own worst enemy at times, especially since Tony’s near-fatal double-cross shook Brad’s confidence in himself, leaving him prone to drinking and despair. Good thing Kathleen always thinks on her feet when trouble rears its nasty head. She has a knack for dragging Brad out of his periodic pity parties and helping him focus on clearing himself while also rebuilding his shattered confidence. If you ask me, Kathleen is underpaid! The chemistry between Ball and Stevens deliciously blends banter, tenderness, and sexual smolder. Though Kathleen deftly keeps Brad from going all the way because she “plays for keeps,” the lovebirds still get into some pretty hot kissing, especially in a great scene showing the couple reflected in a mirror as they embrace.

A murder frame-up is no laughing matter to Lucille Ball and Mark Stevens

I like the whole “haves” vs. “have-nots” element running through TDC, with little details like the running gag about Brad scoring nylon stockings for Kathleen, and the crucial clue Brad gets from the slide-whistle-playing urchin (the uncredited Colleen Alpaugh) in White Suit’s building. Keep an eye out for two other uncredited but memorable character actors: Minerva Urecal, best known to Team Bartilucci as Mother in the 1960 season of TV's Peter Gunn and the harridan who gets briefly turned to stone in The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), playing one of Brad’s clients; and Douglas Spencer of The Thing from Another World as one of several deli customers gawking as Brad almost becomes a hit-and-run victim. In one scene between Hardy and White Suit, there’s this highbrow-to-lowbrow translation that always cracks me up as Hardy instructs White Suit to phone Brad and trick him into a deadly rendezvous:
Hardy (whispering to White Suit):
“Tell him you need two-hundred dollars to leave town.”

White Suit (to Brad on phone):

“I need two yards, powder money!”
Getting back to clues, I love that something as prosaic as dry cleaning helps our heroes crack the case!  Another nice bit: Brad is dropping Kathleen off at the movies near his apartment, where he’s going to face off with White Suit. Worried, Kathleen pouts, “I never thought I’d have to beg you to take me up to your apartment.” Brad replies, with a grin, “You’ve been there...” The box office gal (Mary Field from Dark Passage, another uncredited scene-stealer) has the most priceless look on her face as she strains to hear the rest of the conversation!
TDC has plenty of superb writing and acting woven skillfully through the film noir tropes. I particularly liked this wonderful emotional scene between Hardy and Mari a little over an hour into the film, in which the couple talks around their marital situation in that “friend of a friend” way. Hardy reveals that Tony (who’s been murdered by now, unbeknownst to Mari, who’d planned to run off with Tony that very night), has been dallying with rich women, including Lucy Wilding (Molly Lamont from The Awful Truth and Scared to Death), who we (but not Mari) saw Tony blackmailing earlier. Mari doesn’t want to hear it:

Mari (near tears): “It’s not true! He’s always loathed her.”
“He loathed her rather intimately, I’m afraid.”
“But he couldn’t! I mean, she’s too old for him.”
The distraught Mari rushes off to her bed, her figure shown off lusciously yet tastefully by the light shining through her filmy negligee (thanks to ace Director of Photography Joe MacDonald, amping up the moody film noir feel with his beautifully stark use of shadows and light) as she slips under the covers. Hardy’s expression is both cold and wounded. “Love is not the exclusive province of adolescents, my dear,” he says quietly. “It’s a heart ailment that strikes all age groups, like my love for you. My love for you is the only malady I’ve contracted since the usual childhood diseases—and it’s incurable.”

There’s a bracing street feeling to TDC’s periodic outbursts of brutal-for-the-era violence. None of this Marquis of Queensbury rules stuff—the combatants really clobber each other! Even Hardy commits a murder so sudden and shocking that I gasped in spite of myself. White Suit’s ambush in Brad’s apartment even has a touch of (unintentional?) humor; watch William Bendix’s head, and you'll see his toupee come loose, hanging onto his scalp by a thread!

The film was shot in both NYC and L.A., but it all looks convincingly like Manhattan. The NYC second-unit work is especially good, including shots of the Third Avenue El and an exciting car chase. In addition to the nifty commentary track, the DVD’s extras include swell vintage trailers for TDC and other Fox crime flicks. If you love films noir but don't have time to sit down and give all your favorites your undivided attention, watching TDC is the next best thing!


  1. If you love THE DARK CORNER and old-time radio, check out the OLD TIME RADIO HOUR's Lux Radio Theater's 1947 broadcast with Lucille Ball and Mark Stevens!

  2. Another marvelous review (the home Team has been on a roll recently)! THE DARK CORNER is a favorite with noir fans for the reasons you pointed out. I'm always surprised that it hasn't achieved more mainstream attention. I didn't know about Lucy's breakdown, but it doesn't surprise me given Hathaway's rep. As always, your quotes and links enhance your pithy insights and well-written plot summary.

  3. Rick, thank you kindly for your compliments! My dear hubby and frequent partner-in-blogging Vinnie are both delighted that you enjoy our quotes and links; finding these little factoids are a big part of the fun we get from creating TotED.

  4. Like so many bloggers lately, my pal Michael Wolff wanted to post a comment on TotED, but Internet snafus are preventing him. He had this to say about THE DARK CORNER:

    "I was mildly surprised to hear that a pro such as Lucille Ball was driven to a nervous breakdown by director Henry Hathaway. Despite her comedic persona, Ball always struck me as being one of the toughest eggs ever boiled. Then again, the movie was made back in 1946. And I remind myself that it was no less an authority than William Frawley who remembered Ball as a 'star struck kid from RKO.' Perhaps Lucy hadn't quite yet completely grown her outer shell. Then again, Hathaway wasn't no pussycat either (I seem to be the only one who halfway liked his Circus World), so it might've been a case of irresistible force meeting immovable object." Thanks for weighing in, Michael!

  5. Hi Dorian! Want you to know I've really been enjoying gradually working my way through your older reviews. I really enjoyed THE DARK CORNER last year -- in fact, looking it up I discovered I watched it exactly one year ago today! -- and your excellent review made me remember why. The movie has so many good elements, including the sizzling Stevens-Ball chemistry and a good background score. (I remember that Silver & Ursini, whose commentary tracks are always so good, were mixed up about the composer and mistakenly credited Alex North for "Street Scene," BTW...) I loved the way Kathleen dealt with her boss. You're right, she was underpaid! Also love Reed Hadley -- it's fun when he actually shows up on screen!

    Thanks for a most enjoyable blog!

    Best wishes,

  6. In a 1973 oral history interview with Polly Platt, Henry Hathaway had an interesting story about that "nervous breakdown" of Lucille Ball's. I paraphrase: On the first day of shooting, Hathaway wanted to rehearse a tracking shot with Lucy and Mark Stevens for timing, and Lucy was holding her script; she didn't have her lines at all. Hathaway said you're no good to me this way, go to your dressing room and come back when you've got the lines. A couple of hours later they tried again and Lucy still didn't know her lines, and Hathaway blew up, sent her off and said not to come back till she was ready to work. Later that day he gets a call from the producer: What's all this? Look, Hathaway says, I know you used to date her and she needs the work right now, but I won't work with people who aren't ready. If that's how it has to be you can take me off the picture, but I expect people to come to the set prepared.

    Fade out, fade in, it's "a couple of years ago" (as of '73). Hathaway and Lucy meet while both are dining at the Brown Derby; cordial greetings, and that's that. Twenty minutes later an arm slides around Hathaway's neck and shoulders from behind, and it's Lucy. She says to him, "You know, I was a real shit." He says "What?" Lucy: "You know what I mean. I learned a lot that time. People I work with now, I won't put up with what I pulled on you back then. I was a real shit and I'm sorry." Hathaway to Platt: "I thought that was real sweet of her, don't you? She didn't have to say anything. I think Lucy is one of the greats."

    Excellent post; thanks for it!

  7. Laura, I'm glad you enjoyed my take on THE DARK CORNER -- and I'm delighted to see you felt the same way in your own excellent TDC blog post from 2010! Our great minds think alike, movie-wise! :-) I'm also flattered and honored that you're enjoying my humble blog enough to check out previous posts. Thanks a million for your positive feedback, and keep your own awesome blogs coming!

    Hey, folks, if any of you reading this have yet to discover Laura's terrific blog LAURA'S MISCELLANEOUS MUSINGS, by all means check it out at this link:

  8. Jim, what a great anecdote about Lucille Ball in her DARK CORNER days! It sure explains a lot. My dear late mom, who was quite the glamour girl in her day, had once said Lucy had dated Pandro S. Berman for a time; was he the "producer that used to date her," by any chance? In any case, knowing that Lucy acknowledged her mistakes on the TDC set and was humble enough to apologize all those years later after learning from her mistakes, I must say I have a newfound respect for her. Thanks a million for sharing this with us here at TotED!

    By the way, everyone, I read Jim Lane's CINEDROME blog for the first time today, and I love it! If you're not already a fan, check it out; I'm betting you'll love it, too:

  9. Dorian, I happen to be travelling at the moment and don't have the Hathaway oral history book with me, so I recounted the anecdote from memory. My recollection is that Hathaway named the producer, but I don't think it was Pan Berman. When I get home I'll check and get back to you.

    And say, many thanks for your kind words about Cinedrome. I hope you'll drop by often; you'll always be welcome.

  10. "The Dark Corner" is just about everything you want in a 40s crime picture. It's for watching late at night with a drink that's more than warm milk.

    My mom is one of those gals who watches a movie once and says she's seen it. She doesn't really dig the watching favourites over and over gene that my sisters and I got from our dad. However, I did have to lend her my copy of "The Dark Corner". It seems she used to have a thing for Mark Stevens. You think you know somebody!

    A grand review, touching on important aspects of story presentation and background detail. You should whet folks' interest, Dorian.

  11. Thanks, Jim! Happy travels; when you have some free time, I'll look forward to your update, as well as reading CINEDROME regularly!

  12. Caftan Woman, I loved your assessment of TDC, especially your line "It's for watching late at night with a drink that's more than warm milk"! Your anecdote about your mom's crush on Mark Stevens put a smile on my face. For the record, my mom had crushes on Ronald Colman and Franco Nero. :-) Thanks so very much for your glowing praise!

  13. Home safe and sound, and I see in my book that the producer Hathaway identified was Freddy Kohlmar. Also, FYI, I'll e-mail you a transcript of Hathaway's exact words; it's too long to post here, though I got the essential details right.

  14. Jim, thanks for following up! From seeing Fred Kohlmar's name in the DARK CORNER credits, I should have figured he would be the producer Henry Hathaway was talking about. :-) Whenever it's convenient for you, I look forward to reading the transcript of Hathaway's discussion of the DARK CORNER drama on and off screen. Thanks again!

  15. Got a nice message from the delightful Dawn and her terrific blog NOIR AND CHICK FLICKS:

    "Dorian, I tried to leave you a comment on your Blog. About the 'Dark Corner' (1946)" movie review: This is a wonderful review to a wonderful film noir. I thought Lucille Ball gave a great performance, too bad she did not perform in more of these types of films. I loved the twist and turns of the film, which keeps you on your toes." Thanks, Dawn; I'm happy to hear you love TDC as much as I do! Thanks for going out of your way to catch up with me!

    Hey, everyone, go over to NOIR AND CHICK FLICKS now and read Dawn's review of IT HAPPENED TOMORROW; lovely photos, too!