This unassuming noir classic can boast a strong creative pedigree and an unusual ending… which I’ll not spoil. Dan Duryea is the confused pianist helping June Vincent clear her husband of a murder charge, by infiltrating the nightclub of suspicious Peter Lorre. The outline sticks close to Cornell Woolrich’s story source, and Roy William Neill contributes a classy job of direction.
1946 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 81 min. / Street Date January 28, 2020 / 39.95
Starring: Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre, Broderick Crawford, Constance Dowling, Wallace Ford, Hobart Cavanaugh, Ben Bard, Freddie Steele, John Phillips.
Cinematography: Raoul Ivano
Film Editor: Saul A. Goodkind
Special effects: David S. Horsley
Original Music: Frank Skinner
Written by Roy Chanslor from a novel by Cornell Woolrich
Produced by Roy William Neill, Tom McKnight
Directed by Roy William Neill
The many movies made from Cornell Woolrich’s novels and stories can be a chore to sort out — he used other names for some of his books, and so many of the titles were changed that one needs a reference to see which film came from which story. The remarkable noir Black Angel is an exception that credits Woolrich and uses his original title, just dropping a ‘The’ up front. By 1946 a ‘fad’ for hardboiled, pessimistic crime stories had finally morphed into a popular film style, with thrillers that experimented with visuals, tone and story structure. At first glance Black Angel’s story may seem rather generic, but revisiting it on Arrow’s Blu-ray reminds us of how superior a Woolrich adaptation it is. It’s a narrative masterpiece compared to the same year’s The Chase, a confused and compromised tale of amnesia and murder that barely makes sense. Black Angel is much more satisfying.
The show at first seems a permutation of another Woolrich tale. 1944’s Phantom Lady uses the same story basis of a woman racing to clear a man of a murder charge before he’s executed in the gas chamber. The two films immediately diverge. This time around the man is a philandering husband, a minor character. The leading role is not the wife but the husband of the murder victim. The film is rich in character and in associations with its author, and it’s directed with uncommon style and taste by Roy William Neill, who is now known mostly as a genre specialist. The extras on Arrow’s disc include an Alan K. Rode commentary that offers in-depth backstories about the cast and crew.
Role-typed as a cowardly, woman-hating villain, star Dan Duryea plays Martin Blair, a songwriter with a serious drinking problem. Martin has an alibi for the murder of his ritzy estranged wife Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling of GOG), because his caretaker-friend Joe (Wallace Ford) had locked him in his room to dry out from a drunk. Police Captain Flood (Broderick Crawford) instead pins the murder on Kirk Bennett (John Phillips), a philandering husband. Martin was turned away from Mavis’s apartment by the doorman, but both Kirk and the shady nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre) were admitted to her rooms on the night she was murdered. When Kirk is sentenced to die, his wife Catherine (June Vincent) enlists Martin in trying to find the real killer. Attracted to Catherine and impressed by her loyalty to her husband, Martin joins with her to audition as a singer-piano team at Marko’s nightclub. They hope to find out if Marko has a missing brooch associated with Mavis’s slaying.
Everything about Black Angel bespeaks extra effort to do a good job. Duryea reportedly learned to play the piano for the musical sequences, and June Vincent does her own singing. It’s a special assignment for both — Vincent makes her one starring appearance in a solid vehicle, and Duryea gets a chance to play a positive, warm character. Director Neill and cameraman Paul Ivano’s expressive visuals emphasize fluid trucking shots and creative camera angles, and include some impressive directorial touches. With the help of optical whiz David S. Horsley, the camera swoops up from street level to peer into a window in a tall building. An entire memory reveal flashback is processed with a ‘wavy distortion’ optical, giving the impression of an indistinct dream.
There’s even a startling substitution of actresses at one point, a brief subjective accent similar to effects in Roger Corman’s stylish horror film Tomb of Ligeia. The improved HD image really helps in the appreciation of these details.
The film’s surprise finish was fresh in 1946, although it soon became a gimmick — I believe Humphrey Bogart undergoes the same self-realization character arc in 1945’s Conflict… or was it The Two Mrs. Carrolls? The twist works in Black Angel because it retains the overall alienation and disorientation of the Cornell Woolrich original. The mystery author was noted for unexpected narrative digressions that may or may not have a bearing on the story’s outcome. The characters here are so interesting that we don’t care that a good half-hour is spent pursuing a thread that doesn’t pan out.
Readers aware of Woolrich’s chaotic personal life easily equate him with Dan Duryea’s Martin Blair as an artist with an acute drinking problem, who doesn’t play well with others. Blair may be Duryea’s most sensitive role, and he generates much more sympathy here than his other noirs. Blair’s cautious, delicate relationship with June Vincent’s Catherine is more subtle than we expect for a ‘gimmicky’ noir potboiler, and the way their musical teaming affects their feelings is completely credible. The story remains resolutely noir, however. On some level Martin seems aware that his relationship with Catherine isn’t going to work out, that the ultimate outcome is pre-set, and unavoidable.
Viewers will make note of June Vincent’s off-the-shoulder dress, which is distractingly low-cut for something approved by the Production Code (top image). Critics like to play up the supposedly homoerotic tension between Peter Lorre’s Marko and his aide and bouncer, Lucky (ex boxer Freddie Steele). Lorre performs his entire role with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, a feat admired by actors that have enough trouble saying their lines without such impediments. Marko is meant to dominate the confrontations in the club and its swanky office, but the screenplay doesn’t let him steal too many scenes. Unlike the overly stylized nightclubs in so many noirs, Marko’s Rio Club is a practical place, even with its regulation office commanding a view of the Sunset Strip.
Black Angel stays tight with the characters and avoids big emotional scenes, adding to its credibility factor. It’s one noir that relies on relationships and not violence to keep the story moving. Top moments include Martin and Catherine’s audition, a revelation at Marko’s safe, and Martin’s complex reaction when he finally solves the mystery, in a way that gives him no satisfaction whatsoever. Not all of Martin Blair’s love songs point to a bad ending, but his tune ‘Heartbreak’ fits the movie well. Nobody talks about fate but everything in Martin’s life has prepared him to accept bad news.
Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray of Black Angel is a handsomely remastered encoding performed by Arrow Films; it certainly looks better than the VHS-era transfers I last saw. Even the rear projection views of Wilshire and Sunset Blvds. look clean, and those ‘wavy glass’ dream-state opticals are flawless. The HD resolution shows us just how polished and glossy was Universal’s product immediately post-war, when TV was just getting started and movie attendance was at its peak.
I’m belatedly appreciating the artistry of Universal’s house composers, thanks to schoolings by David Schecter on other commentaries. Frank Skinner’s work for this show avoids clichés and underscores moods and emotions without garish stings. The music arrangements for the Rio Club are particularly adept — the movie doesn’t stop dead when the ‘music stuff’ begins, as do so many melodramas.
Arrow is an English outfit, although the release reviewed is distributed by a domestic wing. Brit critic Neil Sinyard gives us his analysis of this Hollywood product in a casual, entertaining video interview-lecture. But Arrow also taps noir expert Alan K. Rode, and his full commentary is one of his best. Alan knows his subject of course, but Black Angel has an unusually high number of sidebar angles associated with its cast and crew. Alan’s stories reveal director Roy William Neill as a Hollywood veteran with much more to his credit than his (very good) Sherlock Holmes films for Fox. Inside info gives us a close look at the great Dan Duryea and we’re given a pleasing, fair portrait of actress June Vincent. Alan must be saving his in-depth Constance Dowling stories for another occasion; he only briefly sketches her career detour to Italy, which involved a major artistic tragedy. Or maybe her story is just my obsession, not his. Finally, Alan uses his authoritative knowledge of the ‘world of noir’ circa ’46 to assess the film in fine detail. Dan Duryea did owe his popularity to a warped screen image, and fans assumed he was a slimeball who liked to hit women. Alan’s portrait presents Duryea as a working actor and family man who would indeed recognize Black Angel as an opportunity to broaden his screen persona. After the creeps he played in The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, Martin Blair comes off as a tragic good guy.
Nevertheless, the trailer (included) and the ads (in the still galleries) exploit Dan Duryea’s reputation as a sleazy villain. A handsome illustrated insert booklet contains a Philip Kemp essay about the interesting director Neill, whose last film this was.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by Alan K. Rode; video appraisal by Neil Sinyard, trailer, still galleries; insert pamphlet with essay by Philip Kemp.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: January 11, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson