Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Summer of Darkness: Cornered(1945)

So here we are with another brain addled hero thrust into a plot that would be complex even to someone completely control of their faculties. Dick Powell dipped into this arena for a few sequences in Murder, My Sweet, but here he's left adrift for the entire movie, suffering from a brain injury that's causing frequent headaches, confusion, and, it's implied, increased hostility.

A lot of noir films were inspired by the tumult of WWII, but Cornered addresses this worldwide crisis of conscience more directly than most, dealing specifically with post-war France and the hunt for Nazi war criminals. The opening acts of the film take place in the grimy bombed out ruins of postwar France, while the bulk of the story takes place in the more tropical and civilized-seeming climes of South America, where many Nazis have emigrated to hide out.

Dick Powell, recently discharged from the military for medical reasons(the aforementioned head injury) sneaks back into France with the intention of finding his wife's murderer. She was a French resistance fighter, one of many executed and left in a mass grave. His search puts him on the trail of Jarnac, a mysterious man whom few have seen, and that official documents say is dead. Powell believes otherwise and coerces his resistance contacts into helping him track Jarnac to Brazil.

Dick Powell is presented as a man so damaged by the war, physically & mentally, that he only has room in his mind for one idea; to kill Jarnac. He's a bull in a china shop that's already been devastated. His quest threatens to destroy whatever might still be standing in a world that's already fallen apart. In France his old resistance comrades are wary of helping him, or at the very least do not have the time to spare. Their fight has moved from the literal battlegrounds of the war to the less glamorous bureaucratic arena of nation building. He wants to kill one man as revenge for his wife's murder, his old allies are concerned with infrastructure and squabbles over livestock, the day to day business of returning a sense of normalcy. The latter half of the film follows Powell as he tries to ferret out the mysterious Jarnac in South American high society. His presence in South America is just as much of a disruption as it was in France, as his quest disrupts not only glitzy parties, but the more organized attempts of officials to bring Nazis to justice. The officials desperately need Jarnac alive, to lead them to the countless other Nazis in hiding, while Powell merely wants him dead.

And therein lies the radical message within Cornered; that your instinct for revenge is wrong. Powell's satisfaction comes at the cost of finding justice for thousands of others, many of whom have suffered worse than he has. In fact, the moment of revenge goes unnoticed by Powell, who, in a shockingly brutal scene, slips into a fugue state while pummeling Jarnac's face. As he comes to, he doesn't realize what he's done, is convinced he merely knocked Jarnac unconscious. There is a quickly discovered happy ending to the film, as an alternate route to Jarnac's comrades is found, but this doesn't quite obscure the message; revenge is a hollow pursuit, even when the crime is as great as it was in WWII. Justice is much harder, but an overall healthier choice. It's a lesson Powell learns too late, but one that, the film hopes, the world will take to heart.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Summer of Darkness: This Gun For Hire(1942)

All I can say after watching This Gun For Hire is 'wow, that was entirely unexpected.' This film belongs to a genre that, before today, I believed to be a more modern invention; that of the stoic, lonesome, highly professional killer with his own strong code of ethics. Alan Ladd in this film belongs to the same class of criminal as Alain Delon in Le Samourai, Jean Reno in The Professional, or even Ryan Gosling in Drive. Men who do their jobs with a minimum of fuss, speak almost never, and live fastidious, carefully constructed private lives. Made a half decade later, I could see Michael Mann having a field day with this material.

This Gun For Hire takes that archetype and drops him unsuspecting into a plot involving a corrupt millionaire selling poison gas to the Japanese, a nightclub performer hired by a US senator to spy on her boss, and a payroll robbery of thousands in $10 bills. It sounds like a lot to keep track of, but the movie itself flows smoothly from scene to scene. As complex as the plot sounds on paper, it remains easy to understand in execution. Many subplots will disappear from the film for long stretches of time, leading to several thrilling scenes where the various threads meet up suddenly and then drift apart. There are a lot of moving parts, and This Gun For Hire keeps track of them in an admirably clear and concise manner.

The film isn't so much about the various plot machinations, anyway. Most of them turn out to be McGuffins, anyway, existing primarily to put the plot in motion and make sure various characters are in the right place at the right time. Instead, the film is more about the strains both mental and physical that the jobs of subterfuge and murder place on people. The characters in This Gun For Hire are all compromised and damaged, more by the lies they are forced to tell than by the bullets that frequently fly by. Veronica Lake risks her life and, more importantly, her love by what she has to do in the name of national security. Alan Ladd gives a speech late in the film that explains how a man could kill people for a living, but it's an unnecessary scene. The speech exists primarily for Verona Lake's benefit, to give her a reason to sympathize with the man. We the audience could tell by his actions, his closed off, suspicious, hostile-yet-sorrowful demeanor that someone got to him and hurt him at a very young age.

This Gun For Hire is not really a noir film, at least not in the way we normally think of the genre. It's more like a spy film seen through a noir-ish filter. There are plenty of signifiers held in common with noir. It's no coincidence that many scenes, including a long, defining standoff where Ladd tells Lake his story, is set within a train yard. Those tracks pop up again and again in noir films, always offering the illusion of escape while providing nothing but a preordained trip to your final destination. As Ladd determinedly seeks for revenge on his employer, he finds himself barrelling towards a familiar nihilistic end.