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Anthony Halton (Melvyn Douglas) is standing in a waiting room in a parlor in Paris, hoping the woman (Laura Hope Crews) that a friend has recommended him can show him a good time. The door opens, and in walks the most beautiful woman he's ever seen: a statuesque blonde with piercing eyes and a slight accent, who ultimately confesses she is not the woman that Halton was waiting for (the Grand Duchess Anna Dmitrievna), but refuses to disclose her own name and refuses to hear his, although not before setting up a 9 o'clock date. They spend a romantic night on the town, punctured only by Halton's insistent determination to ditch the charade and reveal their identities. Before he can win her over, she disappears in the middle of the night. He is still haunted by this mystery woman when he returns to Britain and runs into a war buddy-turned-diplomat, Sir Frederick Barker (Herbert Marshall). Halton tells Barker the story, and Barker finds it amusing, but neither man could predict the twist right around the corner: Barker's wife, Maria (Marlene Dietrich) is the Angel that Halton has been chasing.
Angel is a particularly droll entry into director Ernst Lubitsch's venerated catalog -- not exactly laugh-out-loud funny, as something like To Be or Not to Be, but still packed with both written and visual wit, and somehow light as a souffle even when the story takes on a heavy dramatic weight. The fact that the movie plays what could be sort of a screwball comedy as a more grounded and realistic exploration of marriage might be a sign that Angel is not an optimal jumping-off point for Lubitsch newcomers, but it's a finely-executed film, filled with surprisingly frank double-entendres, elegantly-handled twists, and impressive performances from all three of the film's leads.
When we first meet Angel, we know as little about her as Halton does, although we are privy to the fact that she checks into her Paris hotel under an alias. We are told, as he is, that she enjoys the mystery of not knowing who he is, and wishes that he would join her in the fantasy, accepting the beautiful evening for what it is. Halton, meanwhile, is upfront about his obsession, and tells her even then that he cannot promise to let her go. After she disappears, returning home to Barker, we see their home life: present, but sterile, with Barker more consumed by his duties as a diplomat than his beautiful wife. It is clear in the way that Maria talks to him that her love for him is deep and sincere, and yet Barker is slightly, perhaps fatally oblivious, breezing through a breakfast conversation about what they could possibly fight about as a married couple without picking up Maria's less-than-subtle hints.
The beauty of the film lies in Lubitsch's storytelling. He uses whip-smart dialogue (written by Samson Raphaelson based on a play by Melchior Lengyel, then adapted into English by Guy Bolton and Russell Medcraft) to dive into then-taboo subjects such as sex work (the details of the connection between Barker and Halton, or the specific nature of the parlor where Halton first encounters "Angel") and infidelity (a choice exchange: "Isn't that the one where the husband suspects his wife of singing with another man?" "Right in the middle of a beautiful duet."), which makes the film feel more honest and mature than some of its more sterilized counterparts. He chooses unexpected methods, such as an entire sequence that plays out not on the action, but on the face of an elderly Parisian flower saleswoman, or a joke about a tense dinner party that is illustrated not by the party itself, but afterward, as the Barker's manservants consider the differing states of Maria, Halton, and Barker's plates after a dinner. There's even an orchestral wink at one point, as the diegetic music of an opera beginning dramatically scores a moment of Maria's panic.
Underneath even that, though, is the precise way that Lubitsch plays the sympathies of the audience. Although Angel is more of a drama, it contains a story akin to a romantic comedy and follows a familiar rom-com structure, including the question as to which man Maria is going to end up with. It's a testament to Lubitsch that the answer is genuinely a bit of a mystery, even as he subtly and carefully draws the audience in one direction. The film itself carefully draws out the suspense of waiting for Halton to discover that the woman he's obsessed with his married to his friend, with Lubitsch denying the audience the expected payoff by cutting away when Halton finally spies Maria's portrait, turned away from him, in Barker's home, and goes over to turn it around. When we cut back, Barker and Halton sit on her right and left in profile, with Maria centered in the frame, with what feels like a heavenly column of light (or perhaps an interrogation-style spotlight) pointed down at her. The ultimate payoff is weaved carefully through the cast's performances, especially Marshall, who modulates his cluelessness in exactly the right way. Obviously, this review will not reveal who Maria chooses, but the answer is unveiled as stylishly as the rest of the film, in a silent but meaningful shot that tells the viewer everything they need to know.
The original poster art for Angel did something pretty clever: two posters, featuring Dietrich in an identical pose, over an identical red background, with a man leaning into the frame -- but of course, one poster features Herbert Marshall, and the other features Melvyn Douglas. Kino presents both posters on the cover of their Blu-ray edition using a reversible sleeve (it took me a moment before I noticed the seemingly identical art wasn't a printing error). The one-disc release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Angel gets a pretty heavenly release on Blu-ray, armed with a new 4K restoration, presented in 1.33:1 1080p AVC and featuring a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track. This is not a frame-by-frame restoration so little nicks and spots can be seen throughout if the viewer is looking for them, especially during optical transitions (which are also a bit darker, and the image naturally degrades a bit). Other than that, though, the black-and-white image is beautifully filmic, with a fine layer of film grain, outstanding depth, extremely impressive clarity, and nicely balanced contrast (so detailed enough to see a faint contrasting pattern in the fabric of Marshall's suit at one point). The sound is also wonderful, offering a sterling reproduction of the film's original soundtrack and dialogue without any age-based wear-and-tear. For a film approaching its' 90th birthday, Angel hardly appears to have aged at all. English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing are provided (I noticed one or two minor typos, but nothing serious).
There is one extra on this new edition of Angel is an audio commentary by film historian and author of "How Did Lubitsch Do It?", Joseph McBride. Given his resume, McBride is obviously quite knowledgeable about Lubitsch both as a person and as an artist, and he is also a nicely engaging speaker, laying down all sorts of biographical and historical information in a casual and entertaining way (I don't mind commentary tracks by scholars that are clearly pre-written and essentially read for the recording, but they do make a for a less relaxed listening experience). He speaks of Lubitsch's technique (especially when it comes to evading the censors), his style, his collaborations with various members of the cast and crew, and how Angel both fits in and stands out from other examples of Lubitsch's work in what would eventually be known as the romantic comedy genre. He also remains talkative throughout the track, pausing only once (although, he pauses so the viewer can hear the dialogue, and the dialogue is not raised to accompany this pause). Worth a look.
Trailers for The Blue Angel, The Song of Songs, The Flame of New Orleans, The Spoilers, Pittsburgh, A Foreign Affair, No Highway in the Sky, and Witness For the Prosecution are also available under the special features menu, although no trailer for Angel itself has been included.
Angel is a beautiful film in various senses of the word: beautifully written, beautifully directed, and now beautifully presented by Kino in a new Blu-ray edition. It might not be an ideal entry into Lubitsch's canon, but it is a worthy entry in it, deftly holding the audience in suspense, and paying it off with a beautiful flourish. Highly recommended..
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