After the end of World War II, a former P.O.W., Canadian RCAF flyer Laurence Gerard (Powell), returns to France to discover who ordered the killing of his bride of only 20 days, a member of the French Resistance. His father-in-law Étienne Rougon identifies Vichy collaborator Marcel Jarnac. He supposedly died in 1943, but Rougon has strong doubts. Jarnac was so careful about maintaining his anonymity, the police have no description of him. But his own associate compiled a dossier on him; Gerard finds a burned fragment of it, and an envelope addressed to Madame Jarnac. From this he manages to track the widow to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
When he arrives, Gerard is met by Melchior Incza (Walter Slezak), a stranger who appears to know all too much about him. The suspicious Canadian initially rejects Incza's offer of help, but cannot turn down his invitation to a party hosted Mme Jarnac's associate, wealthy businessman Tomas Camargo (Steven Geray) for the opportunity to mingle with their social set. There he meets Camargo's uncle, lawyer Manuel Santana (Morris Carnovsky), and the widow herself (Micheline Cheirel).
When Gerard later questions Mme Jarnac in her hotel room, she refuses to cooperate, so he starts openly following her. Santana asks him to desist, but will not say why. Later, Gerard finds a valet, Diego (Jack La Rue), tidying up his hotel room at an odd hour.
Eventually, Mme Jarnac agrees to provide him with the information he desires. A note is delivered to Gerard informing him that Jarnac is leaving the country that night under the name of Ernest Dubois, and giving his address; but it is a forgery. Gerard is only stopped from shooting the wrong man in cold blood by the timely intervention of Santana and Diego. Dubois (Edgar Barrier) is actually their associate; it turns out that they are after not only Jarnac, but his secret Nazi organization as well. Mme Jarnac is an innocent woman paid to act as the wife of a man she has never seen.
To stir things up, Gerard tricks Incza into believing he has the full dossier on Jarnac. Incza breaks into the hotel safe, but it is not there. Gerard is sent to Camargo's room, where Camargo's wife (Nina Vale) keeps him busy by trying to seduce him into her life of luxury and easy vice. Gerard kisses her, but rejects her advance; he still loves his wife, although "Her teeth were crooked and she was too thin". He tells the senora he is "bored" and cannot wait any longer for Camargo.
Meanwhile, Incza has been searching Gerard's room and realizes there is no dossier. When the "valet" Diego interrupts, Incza kills him. Gerard returns and is detained as a murder suspect, but a waiter confirms his alibi. Still, Gerard is given 48 hours to leave the country.
When Incza tells him that Jarnac will be seeing Camargo at his "old office", Gerard decides to stake out a bar Mme Jarnac recalls was once their meeting place. It is a trap. Gerard is captured, and Jarnac (Luther Adler) finally makes his appearance. While they wait for Incza to arrive with the dossier, Jarnac makes a political speech, on how America's failure to see that their injustice across the world and the resulting poverty of nations (as happened in Germany after World War I) means that there will always be people like him.
Incza attempts to betray Jarnac to Camargo, before realizing Jarnac is there. Hoping to regain Jarnac's trust, he reveals that there is no dossier. Jarnac kills him. Gerard is to die as well, with Camargo as a witness that the two men shot each other. Camargo objects, but Jarnac threatens him with a paper in his possession. Gerard seizes the distraction to overpower Jarnac. He punches Jarnac over and over until Santana and Dubois arrive. To their disappointment, Jarnac is dead, but Gerard shows them the paper detailing Jarnac's connection to Camargo. As Santana now tells the police, this should be sufficient to expose the entire organization.Dick Powell as Laurence Gerard
Walter Slezak as Melchior Incza
Micheline Cheirel as Mme. Madeleine Jarnac (Laurent)
Nina Vale as Señora Camargo
Morris Carnovsky as Manuel Santana
Edgar Barrier as DuBois, insurance agent
Steven Geray as Señor Tomas Camargo
Jack La Rue as Diego
Gregory Gaye as Perchon, Belgian banker and Jarnac's accomplice
Luther Adler as Marcel Jarnac
The film production involved four men associated with the film who would later be blacklisted in the 1950s: Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott, Morris Carnovsky, and Luther Adler. The political argument against Fascism, which reflected the idealistic political views of the four blacklisted filmmakers, is an important part of the film.
The film made a profit of $413,000.
Film critic Bosley Crowther lauded the film and the acting, writing,
Cornered is a drama of smoldering vengeance and political scheming which builds purposefully and with graduating tension to a violent climax, a committing of murder that is as thrilling and brutal as any you are likely to encounter in a month of movie-going. The story, which wanders through England, France and Switzerland, eventually centers in Buenos Aires, where apparently all Europe's escaped Fascists are quietly plotting a return to power. Although the narrative is a bit too obviously contrived. Edward Dmytryk, the director, has squeezed every ounce of suspense and excitement out of the material at hand. All of the players are in there pitching with great zest, and Walter Slezak is especially noteworthy as the ruthless and unscrupulous gent around whose flabby bulk most of the intrigue is spun. Micheline Cheirel brings a wistful charm to the role of the mysterious lady who poses as the supposedly deceased collaborationist's wife, and lesser roles are well done by Morris Carnovsky, Jack LaRue and Luther Adler. Cornered may not be perfect, but it still is a satisfying entertainment.
In a review of the film, Channel 4 wrote, "Consolidating his transformation from soft tenor to hard-boiled private eye in Dmytryk's Murder My Sweet the year before, Powell is even more dour as a tough, cynical loner in search of the man who killed his French wife during the Second World War...The noir atmosphere is sustained well throughout."
The Classic Film Guide calls the film a mess in their review, "The plot is so confusing, with so many twists and turns, you'll get whiplash trying to keep up, if you're even interested enough to try. Plus, if you've ever read a Robert Ludlum novel (particularly The Rhinemann Exchange), you'll be sorely disappointed in the intelligence (and one-dimensional nature) of Powell's character, and the route he takes to enact his revenge."
Warner Bros. released the film on DVD on July 13, 2010, in its Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5.