Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Black Angel (1946)

BLACK ANGEL is a very well-done film noir which benefits from interesting casting and creative, energetic staging. It's an absorbing movie which deserves to be better known.

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. (January 2020 Update: BLACK ANGEL will be released on Blu-ray this month by Arrow Academy. My February 2020 review of the Arrow Blu-ray is here.)

April 2012 Update: I had another great experience viewing this film as part of a Cornell Woolrich trilogy at the Noir City Film Festival.

May 2017 Update: BLACK ANGEL continues to be a favorite, as I enjoyed it once more at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs.


Blogger Kevin Deany said...

I've never seen this and just last week I found the DVD at a re-sale shop for only $3 so I picked it up. I haven't watched it yet so will wait to read your review until I do.

But I'm looking forward to it, not only for that cast but for the director.

I think Roy William Neill is one of the most underrated stylists of Hollywood's Golden Age. The Sherlock Holmes films are splendid, of course, and his "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" is pretty darn entertaining and the opening graveyard scenes of that movie are probably the spookiest of 1940s Universal horror.

11:49 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hope you'll enjoy it, Kevin, let me know! It's a very stylish production; I was quite impressed with the directing.

Best wishes,

11:58 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

As good as the movie is, and I think it is very good, the ending doesn't quite have the emotional impact of the novel. Duryea really should have had more leads.

9:30 PM  
Blogger DorianTB said...

As a fan of film noir in general and the work of Cornell Woolrich in particular, I loved BLACK ANGEL when I saw it many moons ago on TCM. Your excellent review brought the film and its performances (who knew Dan Duryea could be a nigh-tragic hero?) to life so palpably, I almost felt like I was watching it again. Now that it's on DVD, I'll get my mitts on it! Thanks for being a great source of great noir finds!

2:46 PM  
Blogger Vienna said...

I only became aware of June Vincent a couple of years ago - tall, blonde and elegant and perfectly capable of leading roles, June never made it into the big time. But we won't forget BLACK ANGEL. I've also seen her in SHED NO TEARS, a great little thriller in which she plays the murderous wife of Wallace Ford.
She was also good in the horror film, THE CREEPER .
The only other film I have seen her in is SECRETS OF MONTE CARLO.

7:16 AM  

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