December 25, 1945, release date
Directed by Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay by John Paxton and Ben Hecht
Based on a story by John Wexley
Music by Roy Webb and Paul Sawtell
Edited by Joseph Noriega
Cinematography by Harry J. Wild
Walter Slezak as Melchior Incza
Micheline Cheirel as Madame Madeleine Jarnac
Nina Vale as Señora Camargo
Morris Carnovsky as Manuel Santana
Edgar Barrier as DuBois, insurance agent
Steven Geray as Señor Tomas Camargo
Jack La Rue as Diego
Gregory Gaye as Perchon, Belgian banker and Jarnac's accomplice
Luther Adler as Marcel Jarnac
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Produced by RKO Radio Pictures
Watching a film noir is sometimes akin to getting a history lesson, and Cornered is one of those films noir—but, of course, in a good way! The film shows the destruction, confusion, and dislocation of the immediate postwar period and the continuing Nazi intrigue. It helps to know that this film was released in December 1945, just a few months after the end of World War II. I bet 1945 audiences had no trouble with the plot details; for them, the story was based on current events. The cast of characters that I list above may be relatively short, but the story is not short on the postwar confusion that it depicts so well. It is a bit difficult at times to keep track of what happened when and who is working with whom. But the characters’ interactions and their emotional portrayals are front and center, all told against the backdrop of current events for 1945 audiences and a history lesson for modern-day viewers.
The film opens with Laurence Gerard, played by Dick Powell, on the day of his discharge from the Royal Canadian Air Force in London. He receives his last wages: back pay, including pay for time spent as a prisoner of war, and travel back to his home in Montreal, Canada. But he has no plans to return to Canada right away. To settle his dead wife’s (Celeste’s) estate and avenge her death, and to avoid the bureaucratic nightmare of applying for a passport back to war-torn France, he rows partway across the English Channel and swims the rest of the way to France.
Laurence meets his father-in-law again in France, and the two argue about the circumstances surrounding Celeste’s death. His father-in-law wants to move on, but Laurence cannot. Someone must have betrayed Celeste, he is sure, because she was too careful. The implication is that Celeste, and the others with her who were murdered by the Vichy (Nazi collaborators), were working for the French Resistance. Some of them helped Laurence when he was wounded during the war and brought to safe haven in France. His love for Celeste and his gratitude to his friends for risking their lives to help him won’t let him forget.
(This blog post about Cornered contains spoilers.)
Laurence has a scar along one side of his skull, which lets viewers know that his war injuries were very serious. But he also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a recurring theme throughout the narrative. The first bout occurs when he and Celeste’s father visit her grave in the cave where she and the others are buried. His father-in-law lists some of the people, including Celeste, who were shot to death on the orders of Marcel Jarnac. In his mind, Laurence hears shots fired as Celeste’s father speaks the names.
A paper trail indicates that Jarnac is dead, and few are willing to question the flimsy evidence except for Laurence, who refuses to believe it. He tracks Madame Jarnac, the alleged widow, to Buenos Aires, where many Nazis fled after the war to avoid facing the responsibility of their war crimes. In Buenos Aires, Laurence meets Manuel Santana, a prominent lawyer in the city. He says to Laurence about the Nazi war criminals: “They are even more than war criminals fleeing a defeated nation. They do not consider themselves defeated. We must destroy not only the individuals, but their friends, their very means of existence . . . .” While Santana speaks, Laurence has another flashback, another episode of PTSD, and hears gunfire in his mind.
A subway station meeting between Gerard and Madame Jarnac was so well shot that the scene deserves special mention. Lighting and sound together give the impression of trains passing the two of them on the subway platform and interrupting their conversation a few times. This scene is also important because Madame Jarnac admits to accepting money to impersonate Madame Jarnac; she is really Madame Laurent. Laurence Gerard doesn’t know who he can trust, and the stress brings on another flashback for him in the subway station.
At one point, Laurence Gerard has been summoned to the Camargos’ hotel rooms to talk to Señor Tomas Camargo about finding Celeste’s killer. Manuel Santana is his uncle, and he suspects his nephew Tomas of being a postwar Nazi sympathizer. Señor Camargo isn’t in, but his wife is, and she invites Gerard into their rooms to wait until her husband returns. Here is part of the conversation between Laurence Gerard and Señora Camargo:
• Señora Camargo: “You’re an extraordinary man. Do you know why you interest me?”
• Laurence Gerard: “No. I’ve been wondering. What’s supposed to happen while I spend the evening with you?”
• Señora Camargo: “You might get to like me a little. Don’t you think you’re making yourself unnecessarily miserable by clinging to the memory of a girl you knew less than a month?”
• Laurence Gerard: “Somebody must be passing out copies of my biography.”
• Señora Camargo: “I’ve been trying to picture her. A girl who could do what she has done to you must have been extremely beautiful. Tell me about her. Try to make me see.”
• Laurence Gerard: “I’d be wasting my time.”
• Señora Camargo: “Oh, tell me, was she so much more attractive than I am?”
• Laurence Gerard: “Her teeth were crooked. She was too thin. She was too thin because she was squeezed in between a couple of wars. I don’t think she ever had the kind of food that goes into a good figure. I’m not sure, I can’t even remember exactly what she looked like. War does something to your memory. It gets sharper. You forget the way people looked and remember the important things. That kind of remembering keeps you warm on cold nights.”
• Señora Camargo: “Now that you’ve made your moral point, why don’t you relax and get comfortable? [Slight pause] Would you mind some advice? You’re wasting your youth here.”
• Laurence Gerard: “How do you fit into all this? What’s your function?”
• Señora Camargo: “Shall I be honest?”
• Laurence Gerard: “Don’t strain yourself.”
• Señora Camargo: “I have no function. Except to enjoy myself. I like the life. I like the money.”
• Laurence Gerard: “What do you use for morals?”
• Señora Camargo: “I think they’re a little overrated. Wouldn’t you like to kiss me?”
• Laurence Gerard: “Where’s your husband?”
• Señora Camargo: “He won’t be back. [Gerard pushes Señora Camargo back.] Don’t go. I could make you forget. [They kiss again.] I could make you forget.”
• Laurence Gerard: “But not for long and not enough. For that, you’d have to have a heart. [Gerard heads for the door.] Tell your husband I dropped around, but couldn’t wait. I got bored.”
I found the contradictions in this conversation fascinating. They seemed to sum up the general postwar mood, and not just the attitudes of Gerard and Señora Camargo. The entire conversation is deadly serious, but Gerard has some rather witty sarcastic lines: “Somebody must be passing out copies of my biography” “Don’t strain yourself.” He is the hero of the film, but he explains himself most completely to Señora Camargo, a temptress, a femme fatale, a supporting character who may also be a foil in her husband’s plot to get rid of Gerard. He says that war makes you forget, but then he explains that it makes you forget shallow and insignificant details and remember the important attributes of the people you love. Gerard’s life is full of purpose: He wants to find justice for his wife by finding his wife’s killer. Señora Camargo has no purpose, no function. She merely wants to enjoy life, and she doesn’t care how she does it. Gerard and Camargo never speak out of character, but they are talking about much larger issues that Americans—people around the world—faced squarely during and after the war.
The title of the film, Cornered, could apply to several characters. It describes Laurence Gerard in his quest to avenge his wife’s murder because, in some ways, he is backed into a corner as he scrambles to get his bearings immediately after his release from the Royal Canadian Air Force. He is cornered because he is driven to hunt for the man responsible for his wife’s death. And he is cornered by the continuing symptoms of his PTSD. The title of the film applies most clearly to his wife Celeste, the one character we never meet but is the sole focus of everything that Laurence does in the film. She and about fifty other French Resistance fighters were literally cornered in a cave in France and shot to death against a cave wall.
Cornered reflects the uncertainty of the immediate postwar period, when everything was still in turmoil. In this sense, the title reflects the continuing unrest, uncertainty, and dislocation that made so many feel trapped. The war and the fighting may have ended, but the violence and destruction had long-lasting effects. Much of Europe was in ruins after the war, and adapting to peacetime was another form of struggle that lasted several years.
Cornered may be set in another time period and in another country but, in many ways, it is really a simple story of perseverance in the face of adversity. I like Dick Powell, and I was impressed with his performance as Laurence Gerard. I thought Laurence Gerard’s story was uplifting, and Dick Powell, as usual, doesn’t disappoint in the lead role.