How the Hidden 1940s Noir Gem ‘The Dark Corner’ Parallels Richard Linklater’s Use of Time in ‘Hit Man’

[Editor’s note: The following essay contains spoilers for both “Hit Man” and “The Dark Corner”]

It’s always been clear from watching Richard Linklater films that the auteur — who rose to fame during the independent film movement of the ‘90s and stands as one of the modern masters of American cinema — is fascinated by time. Not just the practical application of it, nor just the passage, but the true essence of it. How does one capture childhood? What about the teen years and college? What does it look like to compress these into one vs. focusing in on one moment? These are questions Linklater has answered, but a question the audience should be asking in return is why does Linklater use his films to make these studies?

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I believe the answer lies in the history of film itself and what it has given Linklater, in terms of inspiration and influence, but also in terms of how the art form of cinema acts as a time machine, bringing viewers back to periods in a diegetic sense, as well as — since the invention of the camera — moments that actually existed but have long since passed. How does this apply to Linklater’s latest outing, “Hit Man?” Best to answer using another movie, a noir from long ago called “The Dark Corner.”

Directed by Henry Hathaway, of “Niagara” (1953) and “True Grit” (1969) fame, and starring Lucille Ball (pre-“I Love Lucy”), Clifton Webb, Mark Stevens, and William Bendix, “The Dark Corner” starts as your standard pulp crime thriller with the shady P.I. and his bawdy secretary being pulled into a case, but quickly spins itself in directions unexpected and engaging. Stevens plays the P.I., Galt, who’s troubled past resurfaces when a former partner sends a heavy to tail him. Truth is though, the heavy is working for another fella with interests in killing Galt’s former partner and using Galt to do the deed.

Though “Hit Man” ultimately shifts into romantic comedy territory, its plot and characters certainly have roots in noir, with Glen Powell playing professor/informant Gary Johnson not as a cop, but a servant of justice who understands the law’s malleability. In watching, I was reminded of “The Dark Corner” and how film can capture what’s changed and what’s stayed the same, often at the same time. Looking at Galt and Gary side-by-side, certain similarities start to appear as well. Both are figures marred by their histories, putting up defenses by going after others, trying to make a new identity for themselves while holding onto their generally good natures.

What also makes “The Dark Corner” stand out in relation to “Hit Man” is how they both use female characters to draw their male figures out of the shadows and towards a brighter place in their lives. Ball plays Galt’s secretary, Kathleen, an able assistant and partner, but with romantic interests that motivate her to help keep her boss alive. She’s not the femme fatale figure of “The Dark Corner” — though there is one for sure — but rather, Kathleen exists to remind Galt of what’s possible once he’s finally able to stop looking over his shoulder. She’s a motivator, much like how Adria Arjona’s Madison plays in “Hit Man.”

Introduced as an abused wife wishing to kill her husband, Madison is set up to be Gary’s femme fatale, but ends up becoming his alter ego Ron’s new girlfriend. When Madison’s husband eventually does end up murdered and Madison admits to Gary/Ron that she did it upon what she thought were his instructions, Gary ends up becoming un homme fatale in his own right. The desire to present women in a more nuanced way within a genre that has stereotypically painted them as calculated and cruel is something that binds “The Dark Corner” and “Hit Man” despite being made 78 years apart and further illustrates how cinema can be viewed as echoes through time.

The last comparison to be made is in how both films use antagonistic foils to draw moral and ethical quandaries that appear complex, but end up being rather simple. In “The Dark Corner,” Galt’s foil is not his former partner, but the heavy in a white suit (perhaps ironically so) sent to tail him. Like Galt, the heavy is used to getting his hands dirty, but unlike him, actually seems to enjoy it. In the same respect, Gary’s police counterpart, Jasper — a man given the authority of the law, but who flagrantly abuses it — serves to remind Gary that there are good and bad people in all places and so long as you tip the scale in the right direction, most bad actions can be written off for the benefit of all. This is a philosophical conversation only an observer like Linklater can draw out of the noir genre and one he handles directly within the film, bucking the tradition of a tragic conclusion for one of hope and possibility.

Did Richard Linklater watch “The Dark Corner” before making “Hit Man?” Probably not. Quality copies of the film are hard to find, though a shabby one may or may not be found on YouTube (you didn’t hear it here). However, Linklater has, without a doubt, viewed other noir films of that era and transmuting their lessons into his own work seems likely based on how the film is structured and tone it takes on. In fact, early on, the film references earlier films that developed the idea of the “hit man” in the public eye despite the job not really being as common as it’s portrayed. In this way, again, film history allowed for the whole concept of Linklater’s entry into the noir genre to take place. Perhaps others should take his lead with a trip back in time and a viewing of “The Dark Corner.”

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