There is some debate as to the film noir status of Angels Over Broadway, the 1940 picture helmed by Ben Hecht and Lee Garmes. There are indeed noir influences, from the rainy streets outside to the desperate criminals circling the drain, but there are also elements of troubled romance and foggy comedy.
The Oscar-nominated screenplay is by Hecht, while the cinematography is by Garmes. The writing is scattered with many tonal swings, featuring a collection of characters working in concert as they alternate between dappled losers and blessed angels from above.
The picture opens with one such loser angel, the hustler Bill O’Brien (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), standing outside in the rain. He’s looking for his next big score, a “seven,” and he sniffs out Charles Engle (John Qualen) in a nightclub. Engle is suicidal because he’s been busted for embezzlement. Unfortunately, O’Brien figures Engle is rich because he’s flashy a lot of money around.
O’Brien uses showgirl Nina (Rita Hayworth) to help set the trap, which involves a gangster’s poker game. Playwright Gene Gibbons (Thomas Mitchell) is also at the club and down on his luck, so he gets involved with the miserable man and tries to right the ship.
As a character-driven noir, there’s a lot to like about Angels Over Broadway. Fairbanks, Jr. is a rascal willing to do anything for money. He has a nasty streak and takes a lot of his torment out on Nina, who he unironically classifies as a basic whore willing to do anything for money. That a relationship sprouts between them is hardly surprising given their internal brokenness.
Engle is perhaps the opposite of O’Brien in almost every way. He’s weak. He’d rather face death than face the music. He’s mousey. The only reason he’s in the nightclub in the first place is because he was nearly caught doing a header and happened to mosey into where the music was playing.
Gibbons finds Engle’s suicide note after a mix-up with the coat check guy and sets about his own moral mission. His life is in shambles. He’s drinking himself into oblivion. His plays of late are all flops and he’s chastened by his ex, who’s at the same club with a much younger man. Helping Engle is a way of rewriting the final scene.
At last, there’s Nina. She seems a sweet kid caught up in a murky game. O’Brien figures he’s seen dozens of girls just like her. Nina insists she’s different. She doesn’t just settle for anyone. She does absorb a great deal of abuse, however, and that suggests a thread of self-loathing buried within.
Most Angels Over Broadway takes place in the nightclub, as characters scheme and spin around each other. Nina and Bill pair off to figure things out, but they don’t belong. They sit at an occupied table. They try to fit in, shelving themselves on the boundary of the room. At one point, Nina zeroes in on what she thinks is her big break.
Gibbons and Engle also pair off and Hecht’s screenplay goes to work, revealing colours and shades of the characters through elusive turns of dialogue and emotion. Watch as Engle’s hopes are raised after Gibbons snags a brooch from his former flame. Watch as those hopes are dashed in the humiliating scene that follows.
Despite an optimistic finish, Angels Over Broadway is a cynical examination of those who inhabit the night. There is a clue of salvation in the air, but it’s hard to shake the idea that these people only act with honour when they can smell the benefit. In that sense, these better angels of our nature have strings attached.