Cornered was director Edward Dmytryk’s second film to star Dick Powell. Powell was a boyish crooner and star of musical comedies who made a 180 degree turn into hard-boiled noir territory at the age of 39 when he played detective Philip Marlowe in Dmytryk’s film Murder, My Sweet (1944), an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely. Powell jumped into his new, hard-boiled persona with both feet. Between the two films, Powell started appearing every week on the Mutual Broadcasting System as private investigator Richard Rogue in the radio series Rogue’s Gallery. The series was mostly standard P.I. fare, but it featured one unique element; every time Rogue was knocked out (which was nearly every episode) he’d drift off to “Cloud Eight,” where his alter ego, a little white-bearded gnome named “Eugor,” would taunt him, occasionally dropping a clue for Rogue to pick up on later, when he’d regained consciousness.
Cornered has no fanciful elements like that one, and the devil-may-care charm Powell exhibited in Murder, My Sweet has been completely done away with. In Cornered he plays a broken man who will stop at nothing to exact vengeance.
When we first meet Flight Lieutenant Laurence Gerard (Powell), an RCAF pilot, he is in London, receiving £551 back pay for the time he spent as a P.O.W. His next stop is a passport office, where he seeks passage to France. He wants to settle his wife Celeste’s estate. She was a French citizen, and they were married during the German occupation. When Gerard is told that all passports to the continent require investigation, and that it will take at least a month to clear, he walks out of the office without saying another word. In the next scene, he is alone in a rowboat, crossing the English Channel. When he sees land, he chops a hole in the hull, sinks the boat, and swims to shore.
In a muddy French town that is mostly rubble, Gerard meets with Etienne (Louis Mercier), a former resistance leader, and Celeste’s father. Gerard demands to know who is responsible for her death, and who betrayed her. “If there was any betrayal, I betrayed her, by fathering her in a century of violence,” Etienne tells him. Gerard doesn’t accept this circumspect response, and vows to hunt down the Vichy collaborator Marcel Jarnac, who ordered the killing of Celeste and several other members of the resistance. Jarnac supposedly died in a fire, but Gerard refuses to believe he is dead. He sets out with a single goal; to kill Jarnac.
Gerard follows Jarnac’s trail to Buenos Aires, and it is there that most of the film takes place. As soon as Gerard steps off the plane, he is approached by a fat man in a white suit. This man, Melchior Incza (Walter Slezak), is an operator with no clear allegiances. Gerard is quickly drawn into a world where no one is what they seem. Former Nazis and their collaborators have fled to Buenos Aires, biding their time until the next great war, while a loose-knit, clandestine organization seeks to root them out. Incza introduces Gerard to Jarnac’s wife (or possibly widow), Mme. Madeleine Jarnac (Micheline Cheirel), and even her loyalties are unclear.
While it may sound like a globe-trotting adventure film, Cornered is really a claustrophobic film noir with healthy doses of paranoia and tension. The script, by John Paxton (with uncredited assistance from Ben Hecht), from a story by John Wexley, takes a run-of-the-mill manhunt plot and ratchets up the tension with crisp dialogue, excellent pacing, and a brutal finale. Harry J. Wild’s cinematography is classic film noir, with inky nighttime exteriors, close-quartered interiors, and actors’ shadows frequently preceding them into the frame.
Powell plays Gerard as a shell-shocked man who suffers from frequent headaches. He’s on a mission to avenge a woman to whom he was only married for 20 days. He’s an amateur doing the work of a detective, and while he’s clever enough to connect the dots, he’s still just one man at the mercy of forces beyond his comprehension. “You are sick with fear,” Mme. Jarnac tells him. “You’ve been hurt so deeply you cannot trust anyone but yourself.”
Is there a better description of the classic film noir protagonist?