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Black Angel
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by Jay Seaver

"A strange way to get into show business."
4 stars

Both times I have seen "Black Angel", it's been as part of a double feature with "Phantom Lady", which makes one ponder for a moment or two whether pulp writer Cornell Woolrich had other stories in him than variations on a good woman attempting to exonerate the man she loves of killing an unpleasant wife or lover. He does, of course, but the evidence says that he's pretty good at this one, especially when it's adapted to film by good collaborators.

In this case, the unpleasant woman is Mavis Marlowe (Constance Darling), a former singer who has moved into a swanky apartment by switching her focus to seduction and blackmail. The prime suspect when she is beaten to death is Kirk Bennett (John Phillips), although his story has another, unseen man in the room. Kirk's wife Catherine (June Vincent) believes it although she can't convince the homicide squad's Captain Flood (Broderick Crawford). So she decides to investigate on her own, with the trail quickly leading to Mavis's husband, songwriter Martin Blair (Dan Duryea). Martin's alibi is worrying but solid - when he gets this drunk, his landlord locks him into his apartment with a latch on the outside of the door - and he soon decide to investigate another fellow Mavis had something on, shifty ex-con Marko (Peter Lorre), by going undercover in his club as the new floor act.

Black Angel is a fun little mystery that occupies a space between what we now call film noir and a more traditional mystery story, although it's the kind of story that could be played both a lot lighter or darker than it is and still make for an interesting movie, and it might be fun to see what different filmmakers would do with Woolrich's novel. This middle ground is pretty good, although it might have been interesting if the focus wasn't quite so much on Duryea's Martin Blair compared to Vincent's Catherine Bennett. There's fun angles to play with her; such as how far she would go with the character she is playing on this quest fueled by devotion to her husband, or whether the life she is leading could prove seductive. On the other hand, one does kind of have to admire the restraint and devotion screenwriter Roy Chanslor and director Roy William Neill show by not going there much: This is a whodunit, and those storylines don't resolve murder mysteries.

Kind of a shame; Duryea and Vincent have great chemistry together, and it would be fun to see if she can play certain morally ambiguous notes as well and as often as he did. She's still well worth watching, because for as happily domestic as Catherine seems to be, there's always a part of her that's enjoying it even if it's behind the dedication. Duryea, meanwhile, doesn't completely play against his villainous type, making Martin an abrasive, unpleasant drunk at the start and not quite being tortured as he finds himself falling for Catherine as the picture goes on - the character may be a romantic, but he's the self-destructive variety, and Duryea captures the tragedy and danger of that well.

It doesn't hurt that they have Peter Lorre as a prime suspect, and he plays an oily gangster-type as only he can. Marko is a funny character, but also sinister, and Lorre's asides as he seems to find the running a legitimate nightclub boring sparkle - especially as he bounces them off former prizefighter Freddie Steele as amusing muscle. There's an archness to the character that shifts to rage at unexpected times, adding a great deal of energy that keeps the film from feeling quite as steady as it could be.

It's still plenty entertaining, though. Like a lot of the pictures of the time, it can stop pretty completely to feature a song that the studio owns the publishing rights to, although the plot allows director Roy William Neill (making the last film before his death after spending much of the 1940s cranking out Universal's Sherlock Holmes series) to keep it moving in spite of that. He and his cast and crew take a story that spends a lot of time treading water, using it to build up Catherine and Martin without pushing the murder mystery completely to the back, and mostly not stumbling at the end, letting the twist breathe and giving the audience just enough time to react emotionally.

I'm not sure that ending is quite so satisfying as that of "Phantom Lady", so I'll have to watch it on its own sometime to see how it hits me without the obvious comparison. The film still does pretty well even in those circumstances, so I don't figure to be disappointed.

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originally posted: 12/10/15 12:31:35
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  DVD: 06-Jul-2004



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