Monday, March 8, 2010
Director: Roy William Neill
Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968) was an American author who after writing several unsuccessful literary novels in the 1920s and 30s turned to genre writing and, sometimes publishing under the pseudonyms William Irish and George Hopley, became a prolific writer in the thriller and mystery genres. His eerie, convoluted tales, whose surprise endings were often based on far-fetched psychological premises, proved to be ideal fodder for the movies of the 1940s and early 50s, and according to Wikipedia more screenplays for films noirs (apparently using a pretty broad definition of the term) were adapted from his works than from those of any other writer. As a failed writer of serious literature, he reportedly had little respect for these commercial novels and short stories, considering them little more than potboilers. But he was unquestionably successful at producing them and earned a comfortable living from their sale. Robert Siodmak's early film noir The Phantom Lady was based on one of his novels as was The Leopard Man, one of the Val Lewton horror films. In the late 1960s François Truffaut made two movies adapted from his work, The Bride Wore Black and Mississippi Mermaid. Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window was an elaboration on Woolrich's short story "It Had to Be Murder."
In 1946 Universal released a nifty little psychological noir called Black Angel, based on Woolrich's 1943 novel of the same title. The film is essentially a murder mystery that centers on the killing of a blackmailing floozie named Mavis Marlowe. The two main characters of the film are a former nightclub singer, Cathy Bennett (June Vincent)—whose husband, Mavis's former lover and one of her blackmail victims, is arrested for the murder, then convicted on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to die—and Mavis's ex-husband, the alcoholic songwriter Martin Blair (Dan Duryea). Cathy is convinced that her husband, whom she still loves even though he was cheating on her with Mavis, is innocent and persuades Martin to join forces with her to find the real murderer. As the execution date draws nearer, the two locate intriguing clues that at first seem to be drawing them closer to the real killer but always end up leading them down blind alleys.
The most promising clues have to do with the shady owner of a nightclub, Marko (Peter Lorre), another of Mavis's blackmail victims. To get more information about Marko, Cathy and Martin audition for, and get, a job performing at Marko's club as a singer and piano accompanist. A great deal of the action takes place at the club, and highlights include their humorous audition—a bizarre touch of black comedy in an otherwise somber movie—a couple of good song performances, some imaginative camera work in the eye-poppingly elaborate nightclub set, and a very suspenseful sequence with Cathy trying to burgle the safe in Marko's private office before he returns.
The cast is uniformly good. The attractive, sweet-natured Vincent is a bit lacking in charisma but still makes a determined heroine and is quite a good singer too. This was the biggest movie role she ever got, but she did a great deal of work in television in the 1950s and 60s. Lorre, of course, is a reliably sinister presence. Broderick Crawford, in one of his first roles after military service in WW II, plays the detective investigating the murder, and his performance is a revelation. He acts with uncharacteristic restraint, giving the quietest, most controlled, and most sympathetic performance I've ever seen by him. This movie makes it clear that Crawford's physique and vocal timbre resulted in typecasting that severely limited the range of characters he was allowed to play. Best of all is Duryea, whose atypically introspective performance is quite affecting. Duryea made a career of playing despicable rats in movies like Scarlet Street and Winchester '73, and he was great in those roles. But this film makes it clear that, like Crawford, he was capable of much more. He succinctly underplays his part and convincingly comes off as a nice guy. He is in a sense the real victim of the movie—a hapless loser whose creativity is stifled by his alcoholism, a man in love first with a woman who despises and exploits him, then as he falls in love with Cathy, with a woman who cannot return his affection.
This was the last film directed by Roy William Neill (he died in 1946), best known for Universal's Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone. Like the best of those movies, Black Angel shows him as a craftsman-like director capable of finding and revealing the strengths and subtleties in his material and especially suited to atmospheric stories of crime and suspense. If he had lived longer, he might well have become one of the more dependable directors of the American noir movement of the late 1940s.