Blackmailer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling) has been strangled, and Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) is quickly convicted of the murder; he had the misfortune to find the body. Bennett's wife Catherine (June Vincent) is adamant that her husband is innocent, but tired Detective Flood (Broderick Crawford) says there's nothing more he can do. Bennett will soon be sent to the electric chair.
Cathy teams with Mavis's alcoholic husband, Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), in an attempt to find the real killer. Marty and Cathy get a job as pianist and singer in a nightclub owned by Marko (Peter Lorre), their chief suspect. The plot twists and turns until reaching a conclusion that is somewhat unexpected...unless the viewer has recently watched HANGOVER SQUARE (1945). But that's all I'll say on the subject!
The overarching theme of BLACK ANGEL is the tragedy of an alcoholic (the charismatic Duryea) who briefly glimpses the possibility of love and a normal life with a good, loyal woman (Vincent), then realizes it cannot be. However, the film is so fast-paced and interesting that it prevents the film from becoming bogged down in pathos. Duryea is excellent in a role that could be quite annoying; his growing longing for Cathy is palpable and quite romantic.
Leading lady June Vincent is one of the keys to the film succeeding as it does. I'd previously seen her in Deanna Durbin's CAN'T HELP SINGING (1944), though I can't say I remember her offhand; otherwise I don't believe I'd seen any of her films. Vincent is a believable and appealing fresh screen face as the young wife determined to prove her husband's innocence. IMDb asserts that Vincent's singing was dubbed, while at least one other source credits Vincent with doing her own singing; regardless, she puts over the numbers effectively.
Another major plus for the film is the superb cinematography by Paul Ivano. The staging of the opening sequence by Ivano and director Roy William Neill is classic, beginning with the shots establishing the action on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, with the camera taking note of Duryea standing on the street, then tracking up into Mavis's apartment. It's a beauty.
This was the last film directed by Neill, a veteran of Basil Rathbone's SHERLOCK Holmes series; he died in England, at the age of 59, the same year BLACK ANGEL was released.
BLACK ANGEL was based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, whose work also inspired minor noir classics such as PHANTOM LADY (1944), DEADLINE AT DAWN (1946), and NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948), as well as Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW (1954).
There are some reoccurring themes in Woolrich's stories, such as the trusting woman determined to prove a man didn't commit a murder; besides BLACK ANGEL'S Cathy, there's the devoted secretary (Ella Raines) fighting for her boss's life in PHANTOM LADY and the dance hall girl (Susan Hayward) trying to protect an innocent young sailor in DEADLINE AT DAWN. The evil that men do in the dark of night is another theme repeated throughout the Woolrich-based films.
The supporting cast includes Wallace Ford, Hobart Cavanaugh, and Freddie Steele. Mary Field appears as -- what else? -- a maid. She most recently popped up as a maid in my viewing in THE CRYSTAL BALL (1943), seen last month. Field had over 180 screen credits, the vast majority in movies.
The set design and decoration are also noteworthy, including Cathy's sunny, neatly kept little house and the sleek nightclub, Rio's. I especially appreciated the large windows in Marko's nightclub office.
BLACK ANGEL has been released on VHS and DVD; the DVD is part of the Universal Noir Collection. The DVD is available for rental from Netflix.
April 2012 Update: I had another great experience viewing this film as part of a Cornell Woolrich trilogy at the Noir City Film Festival.