In an online discussion about Henry Hathaway, on which I held forth, another participant said, somewhat annoyed, "You are not really saying that Hathaway is a better director than Hawks?" (Maybe not those exact words but something like it.) I responded with a "No." because that discussion felt like a distraction at the time. But how does one measure these things? While Howard Hawks made remarkably great films that are better than anything Hathaway ever did, even though Hathaway made many more films in total, that in itself does not prove that Hawks is a better director. There are so many aspects to filmmaking which are unrelated to the art of directing on the set. There are scenes and sequences in Hathaway's oeuvre that are as good as anything Hawks ever made, even though there is no film by Hathaway that is as good as the best of Hawks's films. I have previously discussed, briefly, Hathaway vs. John Huston, which I think are two directors more alike than Hathaway and Hawks, so such comparisons are valid, and I would like to look deeper into comparing Hathaway and Huston at some point. But this article will focus on Hathaway's The Dark Corner (1946). Here is Hathaway's own ad in The Hollywood Reporter.
There are many angles from which to engage with The Dark Corner: its place in relation to Lucille Ball's career; as an example of film noir; its relation to its director and his oeuvre at large; an example of how good even a relatively forgotten film from this period in American cinema can be; as an example of the actors and style of the studio that produced it, 20th Century Fox; as an example of a film from the year 1946, the first year after the war and for that reason alone a year of significance; and so on and so forth. Whichever angle you pursue will to some extent control your analysis and understanding of the film. The Dark Corner is not special in this regard, this is true for most films, but sometimes it is more difficult than other times to choose your angle. Hence this meta discussion.
Something I find puzzling is when people argue over which genre a certain film belongs to, or when people struggle with defining it and are upset by this failure. Some see this as a strength of the film, and others see their failure to label the film with a specific genre as a failure of the film. Yet there are plenty of films, maybe the majority, that cannot be neatly put into a certain genre. That is not particularly interesting, and it is not in itself a sign of superior or inferior quality. It is only normal. Which genre does The Dark Corner belong to? None in particular would be my answer. Some would of course say film noir, but film noir never was a genre. I know that many claim that it was/is, but never without contradicting themselves. Beyond that, genres are too big, amorphous, unstable, subjective, and evolving to be something you can be definitive about in general. Genre definitions are almost always a negotiation between you, the genre in question, and whichever films you want to claim as being of that genre. (I have disucssed this point and other genre-related problems in more detail here.) You might argue about whether The Dark Corner is a thriller, melodrama, film noir, detective story, or whatever, if you find value in doing so, but I prefer not to get engaged. It is worth pointing out however that at the time, 1946, critics and the marketing department usually referred to The Dark Corner as a melodrama.
Discussing it in relationship to Laura (1944) was also common. Many reviews of 1946 made the connection, and this is primarily because of the presence of Clifton Webb in both films and because they are about crime, class, and aestheticism. (Jay Dratler was co-writer on both Laura and The Dark Corner.) It can also be discussed as part of a longer tradition of films, whether noir or not, in which painting/paintings haunt the events that are taking place. In The Dark Corner, the main villain, Hardy Cathcart, has his own art gallery, one of New York's most prominent ones, and it is filled with famous paintings. Below you can see Vermeer's The Girl with a Pearl Earring for example. Hathaway himself was also an art collector, so maybe he used some
paintings from his own collection to hang in Cathcart's gallery. The Vermeer however is most likely a replica as the Dutch original has been hanging in a gallery in The Hague since 1902. But it is another painting, which resembles Cathcart's wife, that forms the first clue to his unstable mind. "I found the portrait long before I met Mari. And I worshipped it. When I
did meet her, it was as if I'd always known her... and wanted her." he says. And this obsession with his art, and he considers his wife as part of his art collection, is what is the cause of the events and killings that take place in the film.
Clifton Webb plays Cathcart, and he has top billing in the film, but he does not play the lead. Mark Stevens does that, who is forgotten today but he was at the time somebody 20th Century Fox and Darryl F. Zanuck were trying to make into a leading man, a new star for Fox. In this they failed, despite him doing well in The Dark Corner and despite an aggressive marketing campaign. Below is a full-page ad in Variety:
Stevens did some additional films for Fox, such as the relatively successful biopic I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now (1947), the fine thriller The Street with No Name (1948), and the harrowing drama about mental illness, The Snake Pit (1948). But the last one is Olivia de Havilland's film, and none of the films he made after it are remembered today, and they do not seem to have been especially successful at the time either. I have seen only one of the later films, Target Unknown (1951), directed by George Sherman, and I like it. Stevens later did some TV and directed some films, which I have not seen.
Ball, unexpectedly for such a film, plays the female lead in The Dark Corner and she shares the top billing with Webb. This was a challenging time for her, personally and professionally. She was unhappy and stressed over her career, and her relationship with Desi Arnaz was strained, partly because he was away most of the time and partly because he was unfaithful, sleeping around a lot. Professionally, she was at the end of her contract with MGM, and she did not want to renew it.
She also fired her agent, Arthur S. Lyons. It seems she was still under contract
with MGM when she made The Dark Corner, but 20th Century Fox loaned
her. (Some books claim she had already left MGM, but that is wrong.) Fred Kohlmar was the producer of The Dark Corner and as he was an old friend of Ball, he wanted to help her out with a good part while her career was stuck. But she
was so fragile, she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. This led her to forget her lines, and Hathaway was not a person to take that in
his stride. Instead, he yelled at her, as was his custom in general during
shooting, and this made her even more nervous and the breakdown that had been
brewing for some time finally happened. She was bedridden, and although she
managed to finish the film, afterwards she spent several weeks recovering in
her house, attended to by a doctor. Arnaz was not there, but finally Kurt
Frings, the agent for Ball's friends Olivia de Havilland and Edward G.
Robinson, intervened to help her get back on her feet. She had begun to stutter
due to her psychological illness, but the director for her next film, William
A. Seiter, coached her, and helped her regain her strength and ability to speak.
This and the experience of making his film, Lover Come Back (1946), managed to
restore her confidence. The next year she did another thriller, Lured, directed by Douglas Sirk. Otherwise, it was light comedies that was her thing, and soon she would become the major TV star of the 1950s, and owner of her own production company and television studio. (Different books about Ball give slightly different versions of
what exactly happened during 1945 and 1946, so what I have written here is an interpretation.) But despite Ball's problems, they do not show in The Dark Corner. She seems secure of herself, a combination of playfulness and steely resolve when needed. Without her character's forcefulness and imagination, the killer would not have been found. But at the same time, she is not ideal. She rarely registers the gravity of what is happening. Sometimes it seems like she and Stevens are not in the same film.
Webb had a
much better time during the film and enjoyed the making of it, and working with Hathaway, even though Webb disliked violence in films. (Light comedy was otherwise his area too.) As is often the case with Hathaway, The Dark Corner is brutal at times. Enough for the Swedish censors to ban it completely.
The first 20 minutes are the best part of the film, where we are thrown face to face with four characters: the police detective Reeves, the brute Foss/Stauffer, the P.I. Bradford Galt (Stevens's character), and his secretary Kathleen Stewart (Ball's character). This is a film populated entirely with side characters. No one here is a conventionally speaking star, or leading actor, and it helps to give the film a freshness and unusual ambiance. The film is plotted in such a way that we are as much in the dark as the characters of what is happening, and why, but we have clues. Galt has left California with a stain on his reputation and now wants to be a legitimate P.I. (Private Investigator) in New York. He is so newly established that a man is seen putting up the letters of his name on the office window in the opening scene. Stewart is mainly happy to have a job, although she does also like the look of Galt. Reeves knew Galt in California. Foss/Stauffer has a striking white suit and is harbouring resentment and a chip on his shoulder. Neither he nor Galt has had a pleasant life so far one might assume.
neighbourhood and the office spaces are seedy and spartan. We are among the working class, and this first section of the film is taking place in their world. The
sound is very good, the street noise always present when we are in Galt's office for example. Hathaway is famous for his series of 1940s true crime films, shot on location when possible, and while The Dark Corner is not based on a true story, the ambition to capture the natural world is still there.
But after about 18 minutes there is an abrupt cut and we are suddenly in a place of opulent wealth and sophistication, a world steeped in decadence. Whereas in the earlier sequence it was either dark or lit up with bare bulbs, now its bright and lit by chandeliers, and the evening gowns and the pearl necklaces are immaculate. No torn stockings here. But while their lives might be easier, they are corrupt and rotten. This is where we first met Cathcart, holding court, and acting like he was Oscar Wilde.
film is full of nice details and amusing side characters such as a cashier at a cinema who listens with a peculiar facial expression, as if
she is uncertain whether to be outraged or aroused, when Galt and
Stewart talk about her having been to his apartment. All these details
enhance the film, give it a richness and an atmosphere beyond what is
called for by the plot. And they often feel improvised, something
Hathaway thought of spontaneously. The look of the film is rough but elegantly lit, the cinematographer was Joseph MacDonald and I have written more about him here, and Hathaway stages the scenes with straightforward force and clarity.
Another major strength of The Dark Corner is the dialogue, delivered in short sentences and with a trashy poetic quality to it. Clearly inspired by both Hemingway and Chandler, I half expected someone to say, "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." But there are two kinds of dialogue, the arrogant bon mots from Cathcart and the hardboiled agony and threats from Galt and Foss/Stauffer. Cathcart says things like "The enjoyment of art is the only remaining ecstasy that is neither immoral nor illegal." and "How I detest the dawn. The grass always looks like it has been left out all night." while Galt says things like "Why, for six bits you'd hang your mother on a meat hook" or "I'm clean as a peeled egg. No debts, no angry husbands, no payoffs... nothin'." or, the most famous line in the film, "I feel all dead inside. I'm backed up in a dark corner, and I don't know who's hitting me."
It takes about an hour into the film until the plot starts to become clear, and the last 30 minutes is about solving the mystery and tying up loose ends. This last part is a bit too neat and rushed, although the dialogue and style remain as appealing. The last scene though, the coda, is as if from another film. All the darkness and grimness are gone and instead there are jokes and laughter. This is a convention that you can see mostly in serials and TV-series, but some films as well, where the last minute provides comic relief, frequently the main characters having a laugh together. (I mentioned this before when I wrote about another of Hathaway's 1940s thrillers, Johnny Apollo (1940), which has the same kind of last scene.) I do not like it, but it does not diminish all that came before, or the appropriate ending to the criminal investigation. This is a film in which it is the women who make sure crimes are solved and justice is served.
Unfortunately, The Dark Corner did not do that well at the box office. Hathaway blamed Mark Stevens for this. "Too arrogant. Cocksure." is how he described Stevens. Maybe he was, but it does not mean the film is bad. The Dark Corner is not some forgotten masterpiece, or Hathaway's best or most interesting film, but it holds its own.
It is revealing to compare The Dark Corner with I Wake Up Screaming (1941), Laura, and The Big Sleep (1946) from the perspective of directing and artistic personality. I Wake Up Screaming and Laura because they are also Fox releases with some similarities in terms of story and themes, and The Big Sleep because it is another noir-release of 1946, about a P.I. getting lost in a convoluted story. Laura and The Big Sleep are the most famous ones, partly because they have star power from their actors. But they are also a lot more controlled by their respective director, Preminger and Hawks, who were also the producers. Because of this the films have more distinct personalities. I Wake Up Screaming, good as it is, feels more like the work of a committee, and its main power comes from Laird Cregar who plays an uncommonly sinister and slippery detective, and from a handful of striking lighting effects by the cinematographer Edward Cronjager. The Dark Corner is somewhere in between it and the other two films. But I might revise my position on I Wake Up Screaming if I study it and its director H. Bruce Humberstone more closely from that angle. As always, further research is warranted.
Ball's psychological comeback, Lover Come Back, was retitled Lucy Goes Wild when it was shown on TV in 1953, to cash in on the popularity of Ball's TV show I Love Lucy. It was later retitled again, as When Lovers Meet, probably due to the release of yet another film called Lover Come Back (1961), this one with Doris Day, Rock Hudson, and Tony Randall.
Regarding I Wake Up Screaming, with its visual style and complex
flashback stucture, it is absurd that it has been completely forgotten.
Notice the year. It was made and released simultaneously with The Maltese Falcon (1941), yet visually and structurally I Wake Up Screaming is the more striking film. The Maltese Falcon has a much better cast though. (Elisha Cook Jr. is in both films.) Early on Jean Renoir wanted to direct I Wake Up Screaming, after having read the script, but that did not pan out.
Lucy & Desi: The Legendary Love Story of Television's Most Famous Couple (1991) by Warren G. Harris.
Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball (1994) by Kathleen Brady.
Henry Hathaway: A Director's Guild of America Oral History (2001).
Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball (2003) by Stefan Kanfer.
Sitting Pretty: The Life and Times of Clifton Webb (2010) by Clifton Webb and David L. Smith.
Henry Hathaway: The Lives of a Hollywood Director (2016) by Harold N. Pomainville.
"Becoming Clifton Webb: a Queer Star in Mid-Century Hollywood" by Leonard Leff, Cinema Journal 47, #3 Spring 2008.
I have written a lot about Hathaway during the years. Here are the earlier pieces:
And the one about Joseph MacDonald: https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2017/02/joseph-macdonald.html