The Dark Corner offers three elements of film noir – striking black and white cinematography, edgy patter and an inventive plot – and throws in Lucille Ball as a bonus.
A San Francisco private eye moves to New York for a fresh start, and hires a hot secretary. He needs to reinvent himself because he was framed for a California manslaughter that he didn’t commit and just finished serving his sentence. But he finds out that the guy who set him up (his blackmailing former partner) is out to get him in New York, too. As he tracks him down, he is framed for another crime – and it turns out that both the private detective and the blackmailer are pawns in someone else’s master scheme. Along the way, the detective is helped by his loyal secretary, who turns out to be surprisingly tough and resourceful.
Lucille Ball got top billing as the secretary. At age 35, she was still a shapely hottie. In The Dark Corner, she uses some of the same qualities – her physical fluidity and gift for quick talking – that later emerged in her comic masterpieces.
Other than the stony lead Mark Stevens, the rest of the cast is excellent. Clifton Webb is witty and devious in a role similar to his great performance in Laura. Veteran heavy William Bendix was always his best in film noir. Deep-voiced Reed Hadley plays the cop; (he also narrated eleven movies and played Jesse in Sam Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James). The handsome and strapping Kurt Krueger must have been delighted to play the sleazy blackmailer; this was the blonde German-born Krueger’s 26th movie, but only the third time that he didn’t play a Nazi.
Director Henry Hathaway was mostly known for his big Westerns (True Grit, The Sons of Katie Elder), spy movies and swashbucklers. But he made The Dark Corner in a period that also included the fine noirs Kiss of Death, Call Northside 777 and Niagara (a noir shot uncharacteristically in Technicolor).
The best thing about The Dark Corner may be its look. Sharp shadows dominate every scene, and faces move in and out of shadow. We even see the shadows of lace curtains against the adjoining wall. The Dark Corner was shot by Joe MacDonald, whose film noir resume includes Hathaway’s Call Northside 777 and Niagara, Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street and House of Bamboo and Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets.
The Dark Corner’s other noir highlight is its dialogue. Every character is acerbic and sarcastic. The snappy detective movie banter includes such gems as “I’m as clean as a peeled egg.” Bad guy Bendix asks for $200 to leave town this way: “I need two yards, powder money”.
The Dark Corner is available on DVD from Netflix and occasionally plays on Turner Classic Movies.