I noted in my last review how Shadows on the Stairs (1941) had a big twist ending, and then by coincidence watched another mystery with an even bigger twist, Dangerous Corner (1934). I’ll try not to spoil but the revelation in this one is deeper, less gimmicky and more a springboard for philosophical debates over the amount of truth people should dispense and consume in matters of love, life, scandal and death. It’s an elegant and serious drawing room mystery/melodrama crossed with an alternate reality “what-if” story that is fascinating to see this early in cinema.
Partners at a publishing house (Melvyn Douglas, Conrad Nagel, Henry Wadsworth, Ian Keith) hold the only keys to the company safe. A bond representing most of the firm’s assets disappears, and that night Keith commits suicide. The case seems neatly tied up, and life goes on. A year later the men and their female partners in life and work (Virginia Bruce, Erin O’Brien-Moore, Betty Furness) are having a pleasant cocktail party with a bestselling novelist (Doris Lloyd). As the ladies stand looking onto the terrace to catch a glimpse of the strange white night bird that’s been visiting, suddenly a shot rings out! That’s a false alarm, don’t get excited yet. The real fun begins when the radio blows a fuse, and with no replacement to keep the music and dancing going, the group fills the silence with conversation.
When a cigarette dispenser plays the wedding march, Bruce recalls seeing this same box at Keith’s the night he died. This shocks O’Brien-Moore, since she had just given the box to him. So begins the working out of everyone’s timing and whereabouts that night. When did the gift come, who saw or delivered it? In other words, who was the last to see Keith alive, and why did they all neglect to mention such things at the inquest? It gets increasingly uncomfortable as they start wondering about their roles in what may well have been a murder.
Douglas tries to apply the brakes, warning them all that telling nothing but the truth is as dangerous as skidding around a corner at high speed. Let sleeping dogs lie, is both the title of the writer’s upcoming novel, and a maxim these characters ignore. Nagel especially dislikes a mystery and conducts his own inquest right there. He’ll rue the pursuit later, saying he got more than he asked for. Truth comes out in dribs and drabs until the dam bursts with confessions about affairs and miserable marriages, gambling debts, implied drug addiction and unwanted advances, a scrap of clothing found at the scene and hidden by another character out of unrequited love. Blame, accusations and unpleasant facts flow as freely as the alcohol, and finally we learn the true circumstances of Keith’s death. By evening’s end, all the relationships and the company are torn apart and another suicide seems inevitable. No wonder Bruce says she feels she’s stuck in a dream, or in a car when the brakes are gone.
Furness is working on a puzzle when the evening begins, which gives a nice hint to the style of this mystery. Secrets and venom spill out randomly and need piecing together, yet the event maintains a fairly sporting, civilized atmosphere, with only the occasional outburst in all the theorizing and peeling away of motives, illusions and beliefs. Keith’s death starts to look like a symptom of this group’s problems, and he cast as big a shadow on their happiness when he was alive. When one character finally confesses to shooting him, we learn in flashback that Keith was a colossal jerk and even viewers would get in line to murder him.
This is a nice looking film, with everyone in slick cocktail attire most of the time and posing in some memorable images, like that of the ladies at the window or the closeup on Nagel as he gets the phone all about Keith’s death. On the limited set of the drawing room, the camera out and back to signal a transition, focus on the arrival of a new character with new clues, or mark a fresh issue under discussion.
Along with all this mystery and adult discussion you also get something unusual and fascinating: the concept of alternate and parallel realities. It’s long been a thing in comics and sci fi stories to have variant timelines that exist because someone stepped on a butterfly, assassinated a public figure or picked tuna instead of egg salad, causing lives to split off on endlessly varying but concurrent tracks. It’s seen a lot in modern movies and It’s a Wonderful Life is one classic example, but Dangerous Corner also goes there and comes back in a most interesting way.
When you think the story ends with a shot ringing out and a screen-filling cloud of smoke, that moment loops back to become the shot heard as the evening started, the ladies are watching for that bird on the terrace, and we begin the party again. When the radio fuse dies this time, we see where things branch off, but now Wadsworth finds a replacement fuse so the music and mirth go on. The cigarette box and the trigger observation happen, but the conversation sticks to lighter things, and all the reveals and wrecks never happen. Everyone keeps their secrets and we watch some of the same actions and lines repeated, and know what they really did and how they feel.
The neat trick is that none of this feels like a cheap gimmick, because the film prepared us for serious concepts. There’s even a title card that reads: “this is what might have happened…this is what did happen.” Now call me slow, but it was only then that I understood the message of the similarly worded card that appeared earlier. I like that this time you see a photo of Keith, sneering obnoxiously at them all, and now you know he’s wasn’t even worth all the turmoil and guilt. I also enjoyed how Bruce seems to have memory of living through the other timeline, since she makes different choices in this one, and softens to finally accepts the marriage proposal Douglas has been making for ages. It’s fun to be shown different outcomes of different decisions, and be presented a happier ending after a disastrous night, in the form of a whodunit having “let sleeping dogs lie” as the moral. Remember, always have extra fuses on hand for that radio, because anything might happen.
Dangerous Corner was based on the 1932 play by J.B. Priestley and directed by Phil Rosen.