DirectorRoy William Neill
Release Date(s)1946 (January 28, 2020)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Arrow Academy)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: A
Black Angel (1946), based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, is a slick mystery thriller featuring Dan Duryea in his first starring role. The film departs from typical noir elements and is one of the lesser known B pictures of the 1940s.
Duryea plays Martin Blair, a songwriter who joins forces with housewife Catherine Bennett (June Vincent) to solve the murder of Martin’s ex-wife, singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling). Catherine’s husband Kirk (John Phillips) was having an affair with Mavis and was seen entering her apartment just before her death. That same night Martin, hoping to win Mavis back, turns up at her building in an alcoholic frenzy but is turned away by the doorman.
The cops arrest Kirk for Mavis’ murder. Catherine, convinced Kirk is incapable of murder, goes to Martin thinking he knows something that will clear her husband. A jury finds Kirk guilty and he’s sentenced to death. Time is vital as Martin and Catherine attempt to discover the real killer before Kirk is executed. A police captain (Broderick Crawford, foreshadowing his later TV role on Highway Patrol) pops up from time to time to follow leads given to him by Martin and Catherine but, since Kirk has already been tried and convicted, he doesn’t put in a lot of effort.
One clue takes Catherine and Martin to a nightclub run by the shady mobster Marko (Peter Lorre), who has ties to Mavis. To get closer to Marko and observe him, they audition for Marko as a professional cabaret act—he a piano player, she a singer. They get the gig and Catherine charms her way into Marko’s confidence.
In its brief running time of 81 minutes, the film bogs down during Catherine’s less-than-exciting singing but otherwise moves briskly. Director Roy William Neill, best known for a series of Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone, combines elements of whodunit with noir. Black Angel lacks the shadowy, gritty look of typical film noir, but Neill does include some noir-style settings, particularly the dingy boarding house where Martin lives and a high-angle, heavily shadowed shot of an interrogation room. A time-saving montage takes us through Kirk’s trial and conviction in seconds. The femme fatale is dispensed with early on, though Mavis sets the whole plot in motion. The story keeps us involved through the film’s twist ending.
Duryea plays against type in a sympathetic lead. Dowling is memorable as a vindictive seductress and it’s a shame she doesn’t have more screen time. With her fiery personality and knock-em-dead looks, she disappears too quickly. Crawford adds his no-nonsense, business-only cop persona, and Lorre provides an aura of danger and menace. June Vincent is the film’s weak link. She’s rather bland throughout, even when she transforms from the mousy wife of the man who done her wrong to a glamorous chanteuse. The chemistry between her and Duryea fails to set off sparks.
Author Woolrich didn’t like the movie because it departed a great deal from his 1943 novel. The film does, however, retain the book’s surprise ending. But it never achieves the heights of the best noirs, probably because it’s a more traditional whodunit with occasional touches of noir.
The Blu-ray release from Arrow Academy is a new restoration from original film elements. Featuring 1080p resolution, the film is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. An original nitrate combined 35-millimeter fine grain positive and a dupe negative were scanned in 2K resolution. The film was restored using a combination of these two scanned elements. Picture quality is sharp with few of the deeply shadowed shots of other noir films of the period. Paul Ivano’s cinematography contains a nice balance of grays, and blacks are lustrous and deep. An opening shot stands out with the camera moving rapidly up a tall building stopping at a lamp-lit window and making its way into Mavis’ apartment. The shot foreshadows the one that opens Hitchcock’s Psycho. There’s a later kaleidoscopic sequence emanating from Martin’s alcohol-induced, hallucinatory stupor.
The soundtrack is English mono LPCM. Optional English subtitles are included for the deaf and hard of hearing. Dialogue is distinct and precise throughout, even when Martin is drunk or recovering from a hangover. The songs performed by Catherine are supported by an orchestra that sounds much larger than the one depicted in the club. Sound is clear and well modulated. Frank Skinner’s score swells during dramatic peaks and sets the romantic mood in specific scenes between Martin and Catherine. His chords have a forbidding quality during suspenseful scenes, such as when Catherine enters Marko’s off-limits office.
Bonus materials on the Unrated Blu-ray release include an audio commentary by writer/film scholar Alan K. Rode; A Fitting End, a video appreciation by film historian Neil Sinyard; the original trailer; a gallery of original stills and promotional materials; an illustrated booklet containing a critical essay; and a reversible sleeve with the original and new artwork.
Audio Commentary – Writer and film scholar Alan K. Rode compares the structure of Black Angel to Phantom Lady, both based on novels by Cornell Woolrich. Both books feature a race against time to save a man wrongly accused of murder from the electric chair. In Black Angel, the Catherine character provides first-person narration and four people are listed in the murdered woman’s address book. Dan Duryea was hired as an outside contractor for a salary of $45,000, the highest in the cast. He actually learned the five piano selections Martin plays. Duryea played piano and June Vincent actually sang. The film had a 35-day production schedule. Director Roy William Neill’s “stylistic flourishes” are evidenced in the opening shot, in which the camera looks up as it goes up a tall building, stops at a window, and enters the apartment of Mavis Marlowe. Background career information is provided for the leading players as well as the supporting cast. The four songs heard in the movie were written by Jack Brooks and Edgar Fairchild. Black Angel had a budget of $600,000, “which was lavish for Universal in 1946.” The book’s subplots were eliminated and its darker parts made more “salable” to 1940s audiences. The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street were noirs that featured Duryea as a “sociopathic dandy.” Rode discusses the genesis of the film with its options, rights, and development. Director Neill’s career went back to the silent period. He freelanced at many studios and was known as a methodical director who worked his actors far into the night. Black Angel was Neill’s final film. Woolrich was not great at tying plot strings together. The final part of the movie contains expository dialogue so that what follows will make sense. Frank Skinner’s score added a “lot of heft.” The final scene is dragged out to “milk suspense” and, additionally, to increase running time. Reviews were mixed. Black Angel remains one of the lesser known noir films.
A Fitting End – Film historian Neil Sinyard discusses Black Angel as clips from the film are shown along with posters from various noir movies. Black Angel is not an iconic noir like Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, or The Big Heat. Woolrich is not as well known as Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but he was prolific. Twelve films were made from his stories between 1942 and 1950. Woolrich didn’t like the film version of Black Angel, though it reflects the kind of person he was. In the 1930s, Woolrich turned to thrillers to “indulge the morbidity of his personality.” Both Mavis and Catherine are singers, which connects them to Martin. They provide dramatic conflict—the virtuous wife and the femme fatale. Martin is essentially a loner, but he is also a sensitive, creative artist. Detailed cast overviews are provided, but most duplicate information presented in the audio commentary. It is noted that the film is perfectly cast, from the leads to the supporting cast. The score by Frank Skinner, “one of Universal’s mainstays for many years,” contributes mood and parallels the emotional relationships of the main narrative.
Gallery – The image gallery is divided into two sections. The production stills section contains studio-posed photos and pictures taken during the actual filming. The studio shots are deeply shadowed and atmospheric and are far more dramatic than the movie’s actual cinematography. The promotional materials section contains reproductions of posters and lobby cards.
Booklet – The 28-page booklet contains a critical essay by Philip Kemp, 8 black-and-white stills, 3 full-color poster reproductions, a listing of cast and key crew, and details about the restoration.
Reversible Sleeve – Two covers are available: the original poster art in full color or the newer version, featuring a blue-tinted studio-posed photo of Dan Duryea, June Vincent, and Peter Lorre along with their names and the film’s title in bold white letters.
– Dennis Seuling