Thursday, March 23, 2006

Art noir?: The Dark Corner

"The enjoyment of art remains the only ecstacy that is neither immoral nor illegal." Thus sayeth Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb), an aging, effete but dangerous gallery owner in The Dark Corner (1946), a solid example of film noir. My colleague Larry the movie guy (who else?) lent this to me after he told me that Lucille Ball(!) stars in it. Who wouldn't be curious to see her in a dramatic role? I frankly wasn't expecting much. But Ball is quite good in it, reminding me a little in her delivery of Lauren Bacall, though she's not as scorchingly sexy as Bacall. I also thought that Joseph MacDonald's cinematography, especially interior shots, was quite good: some of those scenes would have made Edward Hopper smile.

The film's plot is classic noir fare: private eye with a checkered past (Brad Galt, played by Mark Stevens) thinks he's being hassled by someone from that past (Jardine, played by Kurt Kreuger), when in fact Galt is the unwitting means to Cathcart's end of doing away with Jardine, Galt's lawyer. Jardine, it seems, is having an affair with Cathcart's very lovely, very young wife, Mari (Cathy Downs). Ball plays Kathleen, Galt's secretary, who loyally aids him in extracting himself from this mess and, of course, ends up falling for him.

The reason I'm posting about this film, though, is its fascinating use of art and its appreciation (not to mention the potentially corrupting influence of that appreciation) as a solid subtext for the plot. Or, as Galt puts it as he becomes aware that he's being set up, "I can be framed easier than Whistler's Mother."

It's ironic that Cathcart says what he says about art. In a crucial scene in the film, he invites some gallery guests down into a vault to show off a portrait he's recently acquired but has wanted to own for decades. It is on a wall behind some drapes, and when he reveals it, one of the guests notes that the woman in the portrait looks more than a little like Mari. He acknowledges that fact, saying that his meeting Mari had felt like destiny given his love of the portrait, and then draws the curtain again. As the guests leave the vault, Mari and Jardine stay behind to plot their leaving together the following night; they kiss, and Cathcart sees this via their shadows on the floor (the physics don't work, but never mind that). If you are thinking, "My Last Duchess", I can't blame you. As for this film's version of that story, let's just say screenwriters Jay Dratler and Bernard Schoenfeld engage in a bit of proto-feminist rewriting of Browning's poem. But that poem's theme--the story of a man who could not control in life what he sought to control in art--remains intact here. Cathcart is aging and hates reminders of that fact--he hates mornings, especially the dew on the grass, he says, because it makes the grass look like it's been left out all night. Art is static and, thus, timeless.

It is also the realm of the effete among us, the dried up, the used up, and the corrupt. Jardine accepts a Van Gogh painting from a woman in exchange for some incriminating letters in his possession; but, he tells her, he would have preferred cash. Or consider this: in the film's funniest moment, Galt feigns interest in a Donatello sculpture1 in Cathcart's gallery as a way of gaining entrance into his office, then says to the salesperson, "Wrap it up!" and asks if the base comes with it. Frankly, it's hard to determine whether the joke is on Galt or on a piece of sculpture being talked about as though it were a fish filet. And in the film's final scene, two beat cops are looking at the same Donatello and one says to the other, "Believe it or not, some people think that's art!" In that single line, not just the piece itself but a whole set of cultural and societal values and presumptions get dissed. What, after all, has the collecting, the buying and selling of this sort of art, to their mind, led to but unnatural desires, corrupted value systems, murder? Why, there's not a Rockwell in the bunch.

1Donatello or not, it's truly awful. Most of the works in Cathcart's gallery, whether older or more contemporary, fall into that category. They are meant to resemble the styles of Painters You've Heard Of. Intriguingly, though, one painting clearly intended not merely to resemble a famous work but actually BE that work is Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring.

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Aunty Marianne said...

"The enjoyment of art remains the only ecstacy that is neither immoral nor illegal."

OK. Where does this leave us on Jeff Koons' rather twee pornographic photograph and sculpture series of him and his wife La Cicciolina? It would certainly be illegal in several countries and does the fact they were married make it morally acceptable for them to parade their sex lives so uber-kitschly before us?

And should we let him make any more giant dogs out of flowers?

John B. said...

I think the key word in the quote is "enjoyment." As opposed to "making" or, as the film makes clear, "covetous owning." We don't HAVE to "enjoy" everything that someone tells us is "Art;" I don't especially adore the Mona Lisa. So, then, in response to your questions about Koons, I just sort of shrug my shoulders and say, "Snakes on a Plane."