wed 19/02/2020

Blu-ray: Black Angel | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Black Angel

Blu-ray: Black Angel

Dan Duryea stars as a sympathetic noir fall guy in director Roy William Neill's swansong

Dan Duryea, June Vincent, and Peter Lorre ponder a talismanic brooch in 'Black Angel'Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Waking at a pivotal moment in Black Angel, alcoholic songwriter-pianist Marty Blair (Dan Duryea) momentarily mistakes his new professional partner Catherine Bennett (June Vincent) for his estranged wife Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling). Each is a radiant blonde singer, but to Marty they are polar opposites: Catherine the madonna, Mavis the whore.

The shot that almost merges them indicates that Marty – his Oedipus Complex unresolved – turns every woman he loves into a femme fatale. This isn’t cod Hollywood psychologising but precise Freudianism, and it's deeply disturbing. 

Mavis is actually dead at this point in Roy William Neill’s superbly crafted LA noir. She starts out blackmailing her ex-lover Kirk, Catherine’s husband. Kirk discovers her body while trying to retrieve incriminating letters but he is wrongly convicted and lands on Death Row. Marty suspects the nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre) of strangling her.

Hoping to smoke out Marko, Marty forms a musical duo with Catherine and they become the club’s top act. Blind to Catherine’s devotion to the unworthy Kirk, Marty falls for her. Duryea’s sympathetic portrayal of this self-pitying loser in love – a far cry from his gaudy pimps in Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945) – makes Black Angel more riveting as a character study than as a murder mystery.

Black AngelWorking on his last film, the accomplished B-movie veteran Neill created an anxious mood befitting Marty's neurosis and the narrative’s race against time. Beginning with a boom shot that rises from the sidewalk, climbs the angled wall of Mavis’s apartment block (a model), and enters through her window, Paul Ivano’s camera roams restlessly throughout the film and brings it to a shuddering expressionistic climax.

Lorre, wonderfully jaded here, heads a top-notch supporting cast that includes Broderick Crawford, Wallace Ford, Hobart Cavanaugh, Mary Fields (the lovelorn diner owner in Out of the Past), Marion Martin, and former World Middleweight boxing champ Freddie Steele.

Black Angel was released in 1946, the year of The Big Sleep, Fallen Angel, Gilda, The Killers, Notorious and The Postman Always Twice. If not itself a canonical noir, it’s surpassed only by Robert Siodmak’s similarly plotted Phantom Lady (1944) as the best of the 11 thrillers adapted from a Cornell Woolrich novel or story during the classic noir era (roughly 1950-59).

On an accompanying video interview, film scholar Neil Sinyard notes that Woolrich didn’t like Black Angel, perhaps because the main screenwriter Roy Chanslor (crime novelist Dorothy Hughes went uncredited) changed too much, perhaps because Marty too closely mirrored the author in his fatalism and morbidity. Noir expert Alan K Rode contributes a detailed commentary and film historian Philp Kemp an essay for the booklet.

Dan Duryea’s sympathetic self-pitying loser in love is a far cry from his gaudy pimps

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters