Roy William Neill’s last film turns out to be Black Angel, a desolate and sordid tale of murder and blackmail based on the novel of the same name by Cornell Woolrich. Neill is mostly known for directing a fleet of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes pictures between 1943 and 1946, so his knowledge of murder is without question. Interestingly, Neill was producer Edward Black’s first pick to direct The Lady Vanishes.
With Black Angel, the Irish filmmaker steps into the seamy American side of noir and understands the inner workings of the genre. Together with cinematographer Paul Ivano, who shot Robert Siodmak’s 1944 picture The Suspect, Neill puts together a tale that didn’t exactly win the praises of Woolrich. The novelist didn’t like the adaptation, but this is still a succinct little B-movie.
The film opens on Martin Blair (Dan Duryea) as he’s trying to visit his wife Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling). She’s having none of it and tells her doorman not to let the gentleman through. He’s a composer and pianist, plus he drowns out his problems with booze. He goes on a bender after the rejection and by the time he goes back to see her, she’s dead. Really dead.
Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) is apparently one of many men “seeing” Mavis and he also finds her stiff as a board. Regrettably, he’s pinned for her murder. His wife Catherine (June Vincent) maintains his innocence and eventually pairs up with Martin to help get her spouse off death row. Things are further complicated by a dubious nightclub owner named Mr. Marko (Peter Lorre).
Right off the bat, Neill explores the ephemeral nature of film noir. He shows us the setting via the side of a bus and then has Ivano crane the lens all the way up the side of a building, past the dark brick and right into Mavis’ hole-in-the-wall. It’s a killer establishing shot, but things do simmer down aesthetically from there.
Duryea makes for one hell of a protagonist, especially as it becomes clear he’s a less than dependable fellow. His drinking is a substantial problem, but the presence of Catherine seems to make him straighten up for a spell. He even orders cola at the saloon, which can’t be easy given all the temptation lying around.
Duryea’s look is unique. He’s on the skinny side, especially in the face, and he somewhat resembles Willem Dafoe. He’s not an imposing figure, which causes him to lean on other facets of self-expression. He uses his innate mildness well, shifting the game to hide his secrets in plain sight and doing a lot of talking with his eyes. This complicates things with the dames, it seems.
Speaking of Catherine, Vincent infuses her with a very inconspicuous sensibility. The actress does a lot with her eyes and facial expressions, illustrating an array of thoughts and considerations in even the slightest of moments. She warms to Martin Blair at first and even seems to revel in his attention, but those pesky recollections of her incarcerated hubby flash back through.
Even the wardrobe conspires to drift Vincent’s Catherine down to the dark side. She first appears in rather homely attire, then slowly becomes more entrenched in the nightspot regime after going undercover as a singer. She begins to elicit sure sex, which leads to a scene with Marko that suggests much more than a little heavy breathing. Note the tear in her eye.
As for Lorre, this is definitely not one of his most intriguing roles. He plays the nightclub owner down the middle, offering just a few greasy quirks to pad the man. One still can’t help but wish for a little more, although he does know how and where to point that upmarket champagne bottle.
While Black Angel isn’t the most notable of the films noir, it weaves a warped tale with precision and pulls out some simmering performances from Duryea and Vincent. Neill and Ivano may not have pleased everyone with this adaptation, but they do compose a bleak yarn that tells of swindles, dirty deals and those sinister devils lurking in late-night bourbon.