The Dark Corner‘s Depth of Frame

The Dark Corner is a gritty and unforgiving noir, directed by Henry Hathaway, and starring Mark Stevens, Lucille Ball and Clifton Webb. Wonderful acting all around, and I loved the living-breathing feeling of New York City that pulsates through the film, even though most of it was filmed on a soundstage. In almost every scene, you hear street noises outside. Traffic, car horns, the rattle of the elevated train, the regular everyday jostle and jangle of a giant city. Anyone who lives in New York knows that almost supersonic buzz of energy and noise. It’s a low dull roar, of cars, and humanity. As Mark Stevens and Lucille Ball talk and maneuver in a highly stylized corner-office, which is clearly a set, the windows show buildings opposite, with trains rattling by. Obviously a projection, but it gives that office such a seedy aspect, and a reality. You can smell the stale cigarette smoke, the musty air, the dank hallway outside. The set direction is superb, and the production design is detailed. Every space is designed with depth. It’s like a stage set, where if you open a door into an interior room, you at least have to some aspect of that interior room visible: the door can’t just open to the cavernous backstage area. Even a glimpse of wallpaper can add to the sense of reality of any given artificial space. The Dark Corner‘s look and feel is never static. Hathaway is always looking for depth, not just in characterization (although that is there, too: every character here has a serious backstory, even the thug trailing Mark Stevens), but in atmosphere. The corner office has huge windows, set perpendicularly to one another. Out one side you can see the office building across the street, but in between the buildings is also the elevated train track, and occasionally a giant train will rattle by in the background. The space is always complex, always moving. The shots are beautiful and atmospheric, full of seedy glamour and nighttime mystery. New York is as palpable here, as dirty and chaotic, as it is in Taxi Driver, and it is all done through suggestion.

I love a detailed frame.

Look how far back the space goes in every shot. It’s endless. Life is out there, unknowable and uncontrollable.

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2 Responses to The Dark Corner‘s Depth of Frame

  1. george says:

    Amazing. It’s possible to see the movie, as I have, and not to see ALL of it. It has all the elements of dark, light, shadow, expected in a noir and yet there is all that depth and more than that, there’s ‘stuff’, which I hadn’t noticed until now, all over the place. It’s like noir you don’t just visit, but live in. Great eye.

    • sheila says:

      Yes – so much depth! And the background MOVES – trains go by, it’s not just a static background. It’s unsettling. But so real, too: New York is like that.

      Funny story: when I drove to Tupelo on New Years’ Day morning to visit Elvis’ birthplace, I went to the town square. It was 8 or 9 in the morning. The park was empty. I sat on a bench and had coffee. No cars went by. I saw no one. And it occurred to me: “This is emptier than any space in New York City has EVER been.” Even in a quiet corner of Central Park, you cannot escape the feeling that you are surrounded by a huge mass of humanity!

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