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Black Angel

Black Angel
Universal Home Video
1946 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 81 min. / Street Date July 6, 2004 / 14.98
Starring Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre, Broderick Crawford, Constance Dowling, Wallace Ford
Cinematography Paul Ivano
Art Direction Martin Obzina, Jack Otterson
Film Editor Saul A. Goodkind
Original Music Frank Skinner
Written by Roy Chanslor from the novel by Cornell Woolrich
Produced by Tom McKnight, Roy William Neill
Directed by Roy William Neill

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 Conflict.

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 Criss Cross.

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 +
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
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

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