Black Angel (Cert 12)
1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Arrow Academy) Running Time: 81 minutes approx.
Innocent until proven guilty – isn’t that the maxim applied to a case where the culpability regarding a serious act or a crime is concerned? That’s the idea anyway. Of course, one has to hope that the police have done a thorough job with their investigation otherwise, a wrong conviction could be problematic.
Late one night, singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling) leaves strict instructions with the doorman not to let her estranged husband Martin Blair (Dan Duryea) in. Nightclub owner Mr. Marko (Peter Lorre) arrives and goes up, while Martin hits the bars to drown his sorrows. Later, Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) goes to see Mavis, finding her dead from strangulation and goes to call the police when he hears a noise, noticing a brooch she wearing has now gone.
Spotted by Mavis’ maid, Bennett is arrested, charged with murder, and after a court trial, sentenced to death, though the evidence is only circumstantial. Bennett’s wife Catherine (June Vincent) refuses to believe her husband is guilty and begins her own investigation into the Mavis and the missing brooch to clear her husband’s name. Her first lead takes to Martin’s door where she convinces him to help, starting with looking into Marko.
Having directed most of the Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone, Roy William Neill sounds like the perfect choice to direct this adaptation of the novel The Black Angel by Cornell Woolrich. The lack of deductive skills from our intrepid wannabe detectives may not up to the same level as everyone’s favourite sleuth but Neill employs some of the techniques from those films to add some suspense and tension here.
Film Noir is a subgenre that demands its template is adhered to and Neill makes sure to honour this yet is aware that the sinuous, subversive nature of the story – it begins with the femme fatale character being killed – means not all rules will apply. This is not to sell it short, as there is plenty of other facets about this film that compensate for only going half noir, as it were.
But first, we have to acknowledge the one flaw in the story, partly due to the brisk run time which necessitates some expedience, and that is the shocking job the homicide police, under the leadership of Captain Flood (Broderick Crawford), do in thoroughly investigating the murder. We can only surmise that in 1946, when the film was made, audiences were less fussy about such detail whereas today, this flimsiness just wouldn’t fly.
Therefore, modern audiences will have to suspend disbelief and accept that Flood and his men could decide so easily Bennett was guilty and his story doesn’t wash without doing the simplest of forensic checks, like dusting for fingerprints, footprints in the carpet, interviewing Mavis’ friends, associates and acquaintances, checking her personal history, etc. although, for the last one, this is part of the mystery as it is revealed Mavis was not nice people.
After sobering Martin up by revealing Mavis was playing her recording of the song he wrote for her, Heartbreak, when she died Catherine immediately makes more headway in five minutes than the police did in weeks, by discovering a phone number written on a book of matches. The number was for the Rio club, which is owned by one Mr. Marko, whom Martin recognises from the night of the murder.
Posing as a musical duo they are hired as part of Marko’s entertainment to get closer to his office, where there are intrigued by the contents of Marko’s safe. Marko is a wealthy man – he has a personal barber’s salon in his office – and doesn’t speak with a loose tongue, preferring to say only what needs to, making everything about him cagey and suspicious. But is he capable of murder? If not him what about his hulking bodyguard Lucky (Freddie Steele)?
So many questions, so little time to find the answers. The great thing about the story is that after a protracted set-up period that follows the noir blueprint the last act throws every twist possible at us ahead of a desperate, time sensitive sprint to the finale. Yes, it is rushed but Neil ends it at a very strategic point that sits between hoping the best while teasing the worst, very bold for1940’s Hollywood.
It is also very dark and rather melancholic once the revelations come, and thematically proves quite hard hitting in forcing us to consider our own powers of observation, though in hindsight some clues were there all along. This doesn’t make it predictable, and we are temporarily disturbed by the way certain people in a position of power are resolute in relying too much on the circumstantial as is laid before them rather than the nuance of the facts.
This tonally bleak final act sits almost askew to the rest of the film, hitherto aesthetically dazzling with its typically glamorous presentation of the Rio club, the teased romance between Catherine and Martin, and the obligatory cinematic use of shadows. This might have been deliberate by way of a subtle allusion on Neill’s part in illustrating how we are blinded by what we want to see and not what we should be looking at.
Of the cast, I must confess I only knew Peter Lorre, whose distinctive looks make him an inspired choice as the dubious Marko, his famous big eyes and European accent adding much to the profile. Dan Duryea was known for playing villains, which seems plausible as seen in the darker side to Martin, whilst June Vincent is competent in making Catherine easy to root for, though she does seem to have been given the Veronica Lake makeover but lacks Lake’s innate sultry charisma.
Black Angel is one of many entries into the expansive noir catalogue of 1940’s Hollywood which has likely been forgotten over time, but this Blu-ray release should help bring it to the attention of modern film fans looking to discover something new.
English Language Mono 1.0 PCM
English HOH Subtitles
Audio Commentary with Alan K. Rode
A Fitting End – with film historian Neil Sinyard
First Pressing only: Illustrated Collector’s Booklet
Rating – *** ½
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