One of the more interesting aspects of Film Noir is to what extent the genre is reflective of a world shaped by World War II and its aftermath. On one level this is fairly obvious as the era for Film Noir ran from roughly the early 1940s to the late 1950s, an era defined by the War and the transition of the world in the years after it ended, particularly as it relates to the rise of the United States as the new premier economic and military power and the uneasy peace with the Soviet Union. It was an uneasy world, and Film Noir, with its tales of femme fatales, hard bitten detectives, and criminals laced in a world of intrigue is reflective of that world. Typically though, this is just subtext, as most Film Noir makes only passing reference to these events, thus allowing World War II and the post-War world to inform the background of the film if not the main story. Such is not the case with Cornered, a 1945 film from Edward Dmytryk that takes what often informs the background of a Film Noir into the foreground as the film essentially acts as an examination of the world after World War II, especially how it relates to the role of France in this new order, a country that was just coming to grips with the role so many French people played in the collaborationist Vichy government. In the film Dick Powell plays Laurence Gerard, a member of the RAF who returns to France to find his new bride. When he arrives he discovers that his bride has been murdered. Seeing as his wife was a French Resistance fighter, fascist collaborators are suspected, in particular Marcel Jarnac. Seeking justice for his wife, Laurence seeks out to find Marcel Jarnac, but this will not be an easy task as Jarnac is believed to be dead, but Powell, taking cues from his father-in-law is unconvinced and sets out to find Jarnac and bring him to justice.
As I said before, Cornered is one of the more interesting examples of Film Noir. I use my worlds very deliberately here as it is not one of the best Film Noirs, and I would not even go as far to call it a classic or great either. It is however a good film that borders on the very good. The final product ultimately suffers from being overly confusing and it probably goes on for a bit too long, but there is no denying the film gets a lot right. First and foremost among of what the film gets right is how it examines life in post-War France. France was of course an allied nation and many Frenchmen and Frenchwomen fought bravely against the German occupation. But there were also collaborators, and in France after the war, bridging this gab and coming to grips with what happened was the single biggest question facing French identity in the post-War era. Such a question was made even more difficult by the amount of collaborators who were doing everything they could to erase their actions, making themselves look like mere spectators. By making the central question of post-War French society an important point of the film, Cornered is able to create one of the more intriguing films of the post-War era. That the Allied victory is good is not questioned, but the film also is willing to ask questions on just how easy the new peace will be by looking at French society and the results are very strong.
By examining how French society will understand itself, Cornered is able to set itself apart. But there are other aspects of the film that help to further solidify the film. For one, as one expects out of the genre, the film looks gorgeous. Harry J. Wild’s cinematography is beautiful with its crisp, clean look that helps the black and white photography really stand out. The use of shadows and fog are also very good, giving the film a dark and foreboding feel that is very apt considering what this film is about. An early scene of Laurence searching through rubble is a particularly well photographed scene, largely thanks to its striking the balance between beauty (as seen in the film’s photography) and ugliness (as seen in its depiction of destruction). All in all it makes for a very well done movie in terms of its look.
The acting is quite good here. Dick Powell gives an engaging performance at least, and he is an easy guy to cheer for. After that there is a bunch of French people, with most of the cast giving able performances at least. And anchoring the film as a whole is director Edward Dmytryk. Now, Dmytryk is an interesting director who turned out many films before his career was, temporarily at least, destroyed when he refused to testify to HUAC about communist activity in Hollywood, thus becoming one of the “Hollywood Ten.” That aside, he does do a fine job here as he gives the film its strong narrative voice that really allows for some of the film’s idea concerning French collaborators to really come out and permeate the film without becoming overly preachy.
Still, this is not a perfect film. As already mentioned the film is confusing and really does go on for too long. I do not necessarily have a problem with a film being confusing, provided it feels like the film is working to some larger point. But in the case of Cornered, it does not feel as if this is the case, the film just feels like it is overwritten. A more straightforward narrative could have made for a meaner, meaner film that worked better as a whole instead of what Cornered currently feels like, which is a good film that is undermined by it trying to do too much. And drawing from this, yeah the film could have used some editing as scene feel at times as if they go on a bit too long, particularly towards the middle of the film.
Despite those few flaws, Cornered is a good film and often feels as if it will become very good. It never quite reaches that level, but the film is at very least interesting thanks to the film’s examination of French life in the years after the War, during a time when the question of collaborators were very much an important one. Still, this is a well-acted and photographed film that has actually managed to age rather well. Check it out!