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Cornered (1945)

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

A few days ago, I watched Cornered (1945) by Edward Dmytryk again  — I’ve seen it many times — and while it isn’t one of Dmytryk’s best films, it still has an honesty and a sincerity of purpose sadly missing from too many contemporary films designed simply to make a buck. The film’s plot is simple: at the end of World War II, Laurence Gerard (Dick Powell), a Canadian pilot who had served in the Royal Canadian Air Force with distinction until he was shot down and confined to a German prisoner of war camp, is discharged from the service with a large sum of back pay and reparations.

But Gerard has only one thing on his mind; finding the Vichy hoodlum who ordered the execution of his French wife of only 20 days, before Gerard was called up for service. The name of the person responsible is easily discovered; one Marcel Jarnac. But Jarnac is supposed to be dead, and there seems to be no evidence of his existence; no photos, no dossier, nothing at all. Gerard immediately, and reasonably, assumes that Jarnac has simply gone into hiding, and by following his widow, tracks him to Buenos Aires.

Falling in, much against his better judgment, with a sleazy “tour guide,” the rotund and loquacious Melchior Incza (Walter Slezak), who seems to have connections everywhere, Gerard goes on a no holds barred vendetta to track down Jarnac, despite the pleas of exiled members of the French Resistance to lighten up on his heavy-handed methods. Completely obsessed with his mission, Gerard ignores their advice, and plunges headlong into a whirlpool of double-crosses and deception, until, in the film’s final minutes, he comes to face with Jarnac — alive, well, and ready to start the Third Reich all over again, in ten or twenty years time.

An openly anti-fascist tract, Cornered sadly featured four men who only a few years later would become victims of the Hollywood blacklist; producer Adrian Scott, director Edward Dmytryk, and actors Morris Carnovsky and Luther Adler, who played the role of Jarnac. In an interesting bit of legerdemain, Adler is not listed in the film’s opening credits, and when he finally does appear in the film’s final minutes, he is seen only in the shadows, stepping into the light only for a few minutes before Cornered’s violent conclusion. He is, as he says in the film, “a man you have never seen, a man you don’t know,” and his actor’s credit is shown only at the end of the film.

Cornered is far from perfect, and for some viewers it hasn’t aged well — too complex, say some, though to me it seems absolutely direct and simplicity itself — but for me, the film’s sincerity, sense of purpose, and its resolute moral compass more than redeems the film. It’s a message picture, and Dmytryk made many such films; it would be nice if more such films were made today, with the same skill and concision.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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