Fade to Noir

Two '40s movies new to DVD recall a time of war, mistrust and tension between classes and sexes.

By Leo Charney
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 14, 2005

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Kiss of Death
B
Includes: Commentary track, stills gallery, theatrical trailer.
You'll Like It If You Like: Film noir, crime dramas, classic villains.

The Dark Corner
C+
Includes: Commentary track, theatrical trailer.
You'll Like It If You Like: Film noir, crime dramas, class-conflict stories, Lucille Ball.

The Best Noirs on DVD
Chinatown (1974), Double Indemnity (1944), The Last Seduction (1994), The Maltese Falcon (1941).

I got a feeling something's closing in on me. I don't know what it is," says Brad Galt in The Dark Corner. No kidding, dude-you're in a film noir. The heroes of these dark, urban 1940s crime movies feel menaced by forces they can't control-usually because they are.

"You're never safe," film historian James Ursini explains in the movie's excellent commentary track. "Anything can happen to you at any time." That's as true for the lost souls in these movies as it was for many Americans in the '40s, with a war going on.

The genre captures that paranoid moment in American life when the world could blow up at any moment and relations between men and women were newly up for grabs. Men were staggering back from the war physically and emotionally crippled, while women went to work-then had to deal with taking care of their husbands all over again.

The Dark Corner and Kiss of Death, both new to DVD, were made in consecutive years by Henry Hathaway, who shot them in real New York locations in his unique "docu-noir" style. When Kiss of Death opens with a jewelry heist in the Chrysler Building, it's really the Chrysler Building, and the hoods are riding down in a real elevator. The same is true when they go to prison, take the train or hide out in Astoria.

Beyond that twist-which gives the movies (and the acting) an unusual amount of realism for their time-these two noirs stand out mostly for two performances: Richard Widmark's Oscar-nominated turn as a giddy gangster in Death, and the lead performance of, yes, Lucille Ball in Corner. Lacking a star detective (like Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep), the movies focus instead on regular guys who wander into trouble.

In 1946's Corner, the weaker of the two films, aggressively ordinary Galt gets mixed up in a meandering art scheme involving a pudgy enforcer and a snobby rich guy. 1947's Death, remade in 1995 with Nicolas Cage and David Caruso, tries to focus on its noble, boring hero (played by noble, boring Victor Mature), but its real center of gravity is Widmark's Tommy Udo, a classic movie villain.

Anticipating weird thespians like Cage and Johnny Depp, Widmark puts on a funny voice and a maniacal giggle that barely mask Udo's ferocity. "Rip his eye out!" he gleefully yells during a boxing match. "Tear it out of his head!"

Feral yet silly, Udo calls everyone a "squirt" (pronounced "squit") because, of course, he fears squirthood himself. He's so insanely ruthless that, in the movie's most famous scene, he throws an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs. It's an aggressively strange performance for 1946, though Widmark lost the Oscar-imagine that-to Edmund Gwenn's twinkly Santa in Miracle on 34th Street.

Udo functions like an evil twin of the movie's main character, stoically suffering Christlike hero Nick Bianco, who's out of prison with two girls to raise after his wife kills herself. Trying to get his life together as an informant, he keeps crossing Udo's path-just like Corner's Galt, who bumps into his own white-suited doppelganger on every street corner.

In Corner's first scenes, Galt, dressed in black, is shadowed everywhere by an anonymous man all in white. As the movie goes along, this obvious doubling gives way to an odder and more distinctive theme: a class double, the snooty, unlucky-in-love art dealer Hardy Cathcart (played by the inimitably snooty Clifton Webb), who, like Citizen Kane, has all the money but can't buy his wife's love.

Galt, on the other hand, has Lucille Ball in his corner, and who could ask for anything more? She's the secretary who's loyal and up for fun, yet not ready to let her boss come upstairs at the end of the night. The contrast between good-values Lucy and Cathcart's cheating wife couldn't be clearer. But to make sure we don't miss the point, Hathaway cuts straight from Cathcart's lonely, empty mansion to Galt's homey working-class apartment-horns honking outside, wholesome gal inside.

The movie's focus on class comes out of nowhere, leading to some bizarre comedy in the last scene when, just as the story's wrapping up, we pause for two Brooklynesque cops to muse in an art gallery, "Do you suppose anybody in his right mind ever buys a piece of junk like that?"

"Sure they do," answers the other sarcastically. "That is art."

These digressions make the movie feel like it's being made up as it goes along. At a time when studios needed lots of movies to fill their double bills, sometimes they had to crank one out just to crank one out, and The Dark Corner often feels like it's wandering around without any real story or direction.

Kiss of Death comes off better, mostly because of Widmark's nutty Udo. In any case, both movies have exemplary commentary tracks from film noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini, who are often more interesting than the movies they discuss. (They're earning their pay on The Dark Corner.)

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