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"Mrs. Kirk Bennett – so you're the one he left sitting at home. Some guys are never satisfied."
"I had to see you."
"Why? Because I had a wife who needed killing, and you had a husband who took care of it?"
They say that an innocent man doesn't run. And while the motives of Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) in visiting singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling) were surely anything but innocent, he didn't murder her. We know that, yes, but Kirk never got around to finishing that phone call to the police, interrupted by clatter in the other room. He left his fingerprints all over the crime scene. Startled by Mavis' returning secretary, he darted down a stairwell in a failed attempt to flee. Detectives check out his story, but nothing else sticks. Before you have time to blink twice, a jury has sentenced him to the electric chair.
Nick's wife Catherine (June Vincent) is dead certain that he isn't guilty. She sets out on her own investigation, which brings her to the door of Mavis' estranged husband, pianist and songwriter Martin Blair (Dan Duryea). Nevermind that Catherine confronted Marty in the hopes of revealing this unhinged, heartbroken alcoholic as the true killer; they're soon partners. They know that if they can find Mavis' heart-shaped brooch that was stolen from her apartment, they'll have unveiled her murderer. The two of them can't shake the feeling that sleazy nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre) is somehow wrapped up in this, and to get closer to him – and whatever's locked in his safe – Catherine and Marty sign on as the club's new musical act. The closer the two of them inch towards the truth, the closer they come to being discovered.
The story goes that Cornell Woolrich hated this adaptation of his 1943 novel of – give or take an article – the same name. I can't say that Black Angel inspired such a strong reaction one way or the other from me. The murder mystery itself isn't terribly involving, as Catherine and Marty aim their sights squarely at a single suspect once they've joined forces. Along the way, there aren't any fistfights in shadowy back alleys or threats of gunplay; the primary menace is instead the growing attraction between the pianist and his newfound singer. The sparks between them are in stark contrast to their mission, with Martin having so brutally lost the noxious woman he believed to be the love of his life, while Catherine strives to free her husband from an untimely, undeserved end. Starcrossed, they can't be together yet can't be apart. Worse still, one of them feels far more passionately about this than the other.
The ticking clock of Nick's execution does ratchet up the intensity and urgency of Black Angel. There's a particularly suspenseful sequence with Catherine skulking about Marko's office, searching for some clue as to his connection with Mavis while Nick keeps a watchful eye below as best he can, perched at his piano. And while the killer's true identity comes as no great shock, the twist isn't really the point; it's about convincing the right people as to what really happened that night before they flip the switch. That seemingly futile desperation makes for some of Black Angel's most powerful moments.
Though I wouldn't argue that Black Angel has long been an underappreciated noir – if pressed, I don't think I'd classify it as noir at all, to whatever extent such a label matters – it's hardly without its strengths. The film benefits from a marvelous cast, including Dan Duryea playing rather against type as a sympathetic lead who finds a redemption he didn't think he deserved, Constance Dowling as a venomous heartbreaker who makes a hell of a lasting impression despite her limited screentime, and June Vincent's transformation into an investigative chanteuse, along with the always reliable likes of Peter Lorre and Broderick Crawford. The film features several incredibly memorable songs by Edgar Fairchild and Jack Brooks. And though Black Angel would be the last film directed by the hyper-prolific Roy William Neill, a visual eye this stylish ensures that he went out on a high note. An early shot with the camera soaring up the brick exterior of the Wilshire House, through the blinds, and into Mavis' ritzy apartment in particular is nothing less than dazzling. What could've been just another B-murder/mystery in lesser hands is instead elevated into something worth seeking out. Recommended.
With as fine-grained and richly detailed as this presentation of Black Angel so often is, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that it's been pieced together from two different elements – neither of which is the OCN – and scanned at "just" 2K. This Blu-ray release frequently impresses more than some 4K scans of comparable elements that I've come across from other labels. I can't help but marvel at the clarity and detail showcased in the screenshot below, for instance, particularly the exceptionally fine patterns in the leads' clothing:
I'm not left with any concerns about Black Angel's AVC encode, which effectively gets one of the layers of this BD-50 disc all to itself, and whatever wear or damage remained in Universal's scans have been skillfully addressed during Arrow Academy's remastering.
The first pressing of Black Angel was presented at the rather unconventional aspect ratio of 1.28:1, leaving the image pinched somewhere to the tune of 6.5%. The distortion was so mild that I honestly didn't notice during my initial viewing, only realizing the error when capturing screenshots. It's very much to Arrow Academy's credit that a replacement program was swiftly announced, and the images throughout this review have since been updated accordingly. For anyone curious how the revised presentation fares by comparison:
If you bought Black Angel in its early days of release, Arrow Academy has information on their website about requesting a replacement.
Black Angel's 24-bit, uncompressed monaural audio more or less hits the marks I'd hoped to hear, devoid of any particularly intrusive flaws. What hiss is lurking in the background is readily shrugged off. There aren't any issues whatsoever with discerning dialogue, however edgy it may sound at times. The musical numbers uniformly acquit themselves well, and Black Angel's sound effects – even something as minor as Marko lightly swatting Lucky's shoulder – are reproduced brilliantly. I've recorded one brief sample below in case anyone's aching for a taste:
Perfectly respectable. No complaints or concerns worth noting. Also included are an audio commentary and a set of English (SDH) subtitles.
- Audio Commentary: Far and away the greatest aspect of Arrow Academy's Blu-ray release – perhaps even more than the film itself – is this exceptional audio commentary by noir historian Alan K. Rode. Among the many topics of conversation are Black Angel's similarities to the then-recent adaptation of Woolrich's Phantom Lady, Dan Duryea actually learning to play five pieces on the piano for the film, Ava Gardner being considered for the role that ultimately went to June Vincent, the revelation about who actually provided Mavis Marlowe's voice for "Heartbreak", the painfully noir-ish later years of Cornell Woolrich, and dispelling a number of the myths swirling around about director Roy William Neill, many of which Neill himself perpetuated. Easily one of the best commentaries I've heard in a good, long while.
- A Fitting End (21 min.; HD): I have to admit that I would've enjoyed Neil Sinyard's appreciation of Black Angel much more if I hadn't just finished listening to the disc's audio commentary. As engaging a presence as Sinyard is, much of the same ground is tread here, including the tumultuous life and career of Cornell Woolrich, how much of Woolrich can be seen in Dan Duryea's portrayal of Martin Blair, the strength of its cast overall, as well as its score, cinematography, and screenplay. "A Fitting End" is essential viewing for those without the time or inclination for an audio commentary, but it is rather difficult to make a case for experiencing both in this instance.
- Original Trailer (2 min.; SD): Also included is an upconverted theatrical trailer.
- Image Galleries (HD): Some 110 images are divided across Black Angel's pair of galleries. Production stills comprise the overwhelming majority of them, and these immaculate, high resolution, high contrast images are indeed a sight to behold. The second gallery includes sixteen posters and lobby cards, among them one foreign language poster.
Original poster art is showcased on the flipside of this reversible cover. The sizeable booklet features Philip Kemp's "Black Angel: Swansong of a Neglected Filmmaker" alongside three contemporaneous reviews. Though the primary focus of Kemp's essay is the life and career of director Roy William Neill, Black Angel is still discussed at some length, in particular offering the most detailed look at the differences between Woolrich's novel and this film adaptation.
The Final Word
Though its murder mystery isn't as remarkable as I would've preferred to have seen, Black Angel is heightened by such a terrific cast, stylish direction, and memorable musical numbers that it remains very much worth seeking out for devotees of '40s crime pictures. Recommended.