Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Black Angel is the least of the latest Universal-Warner flood of wonderful films noir.
If not a classic, it's still a good picture that provided Dan Duryea with a chance at stardom,
for the first time playing the pivotal role instead of the colorful weasels of Wyler's
The Little Foxes, Fritz Lang's
The Woman in the Window and its similar followup Scarlet Street. It's also an
excellent opportunity to catch up with a quirky adaptation of a book by the popular mystery
writer Cornell Woolrich.
Housewife Catherine Bennett (June Vincent) has reason to be upset: Her husband
Kirk (John Phillips) is arrested and convicted for the murder of singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance
Dowling), an extra-marital golddigger who had been blackmailing him. In desperation, Catherine
finds Mavis' ex-husband Martin Blair (Dan Duryea) and begs his help in clearing Kirk. An alcoholic
songwriter, Martin isn't interested until he realizes that Kirk wasn't the 'mystery man' he saw
entering Mavis' apartment building on the evening of her murder. Together they set out to catch
the real murderer.
Phantom Lady had been a sleeper hit for Universal at the height of WW2, and in its basics
Black Angel plays like a return to the same formula. Both films are from original
stories by the prolific Cornell Woolrich, the man responsible for inspiring fare like
The Leopard Man, The Window, I Wouldn't Be In Your Shoes and Alfred
Hitchcock's Rear Window. 1
Black Angel starts with a style kicker, a startling animated crane shot up to Mavis Marlowe's
tenth floor window. That florish isn't typical of the balance of the film which plays out just
slowly enough for the seams to show in the tricky plot. The crisp direction is by Roy William Neill, a
veteran of Sherlock Holmes movies (and
Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man)
who had been directing since 1917. He died less than a year after completing this picture.
The direction doesn't hide the telegraphed information in the screenplay, or cover over some gaping
plot questions. To name just one, why wouldn't Martin Blair have been asked in the trial to identify
Kirk Bennett as the mystery man he saw at Mavis' apartment? Small details like the alibi-reinforcing
deadbolt that locks Martin into his room stand out rather strongly. Director Neil does a
fine job of leading us to the big revelation in the final reel, but we kind of suspect it all along.
At least the twist isn't as clumsy as in the bad Curtis Bernhardt-Humphrey Bogart picture
Films noir either have protagonists compromised by the dark and angst-ridden side of life, or like Dan
Duryea's Martin Blair they are unusually weak characters struggling against powers they don't
understand. Martin's lovesickness for the lost Mavis hangs from his neck like an albatross, and
helping Catherine seems to fend off his incipient alcoholism. Since Catherine used to be a singer,
they can team up as an undercover entertaining pair to penetrate the nightclub of the sinister
Marko (Peter Lorre), where they think they might find the real killer. Catherine and Martin
generate a nice tension when it becomes obvious that he's a better choice for her than her
two-timing husband. More detail might spoil the story.
Dan Duryea makes an excellent "weak" hero as he could go either way, either giving in to his inner
demons or finding hidden resources of strength. Critics liked his starring position, and when
leading man roles eluded him, he had the compensation of better-than-average supporting work in
excellent noirs like
Too Late for Tears and
June Vincent has an interesting look but never convinces as an ordinary housewife after we see
her gowned and singing in Peter Lorre's nightclub. Notable beauty Constance Dowling is the
duplicitous Mavis; after a go-nowhere career in America and Italy she starred in GOG and
then married its producer Ivan Tors. Fans hoping for a meaty Peter Lorre role won't find it here
as he strictly cruises through a stock part with no surprises. Familiar face Broderick Crawford
seems cramped in the role of the stooge detective; if he knew he'd have an Oscar in four years he
might not look so frustrated. Wallace Ford (Freaks) is
Martin's buddy and alcohol-enabler, and sinister Ben Bard of The Seventh Victim has a
bit as a bartender.
Universal's DVD of Black Angel starts with a grainy-looking logo (that wonderful 40s globe
with the glass stars) but the rest of the show is in fine shape, with excellent blacks. The
trailer included as an extras is loaded with great text, like "What do women see in a man like that?"
Universal's excellent package artwork design combines three different stills for an arresting
composition. A quote from Andrew Sarris says that he ranks the movie highly among screen
thrillers. That's generous but Black Angel is a good show.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Black Angel rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 7, 2004
1. I surely recommend
reading Woolrich, who also wrote under the name William Irish. His short stories are a good place
to start; some of them are masterpieces of suspense.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson