Arrow Video: Black Angel (1946) - Reviewed

The final film of industry veteran Roy William Neill, who first began in the early 1900s directing silent pictures before carving out his niche having directed eleven Sherlock Holmes pictures with Basil Rathbone, all but cemented his reputation as one of the most distinguished purveyors of film noir.  Very loosely based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich (who reportedly hated the film) and made at the height of the 1940s film noir craze, Black Angel spices up the proceedings by adding in a musical act as one of the driving plot threads in attempting to solve a murder mystery while tossing in enough red herrings that when the grand reveal finally comes it’s every bit as shocking to the viewer as it is to the characters.  

Telling the story of Catherine Bennett (June Vincent) a young housewife whose life is turned upside down when her husband Kirk (John Phillips) is falsely convicted of the murder of his mistress, blonde singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling).  Determined to clear her husband’s name, Catherine tracks down the dead woman’s husband, alcoholic pianist Martin Blair (Dan Duryea) and together join forces to track down the real culprit behind the murder.  Leading them to a mercurial nightclub owner named Marko (Peter Lorre) who may know more than he’s telling, the sleuthing duo poses as a musical act to ingratiate themselves into Marko’s echelon.  Can they solve this murder mystery before the dangerous Marko is onto their ruse?  

Functioning as both a traditional noir thriller and as an uncompromising character study, the film version debatably misses the meaning of the novel’s title by deviating so heavily from the source material yet finds its own footing as a dark and foreboding thriller.  Whereas the novel concerned the impact Catherine Bennett’s efforts to exonerate her husband had on everyone around her as well as herself, Black Angel the film shifts gears and instead focuses on Martin Blair’s alcoholism while basking in the rich noir atmosphere of deep shadows, dark alleyways, cigarettes, pistols and secret letters. 

Visually the film benefits greatly from veteran cinematographer Paul Ivano whose combination of elegant crane shots, keen eye for lighting and camera placement make Black Angel one of the most innovative looking noir pictures of it’s time.  Take for instance a hallucinatory flashback sequence in which the screen becomes woozy and wavy, signifying an alcoholic fog.  You don’t typically see such imagery in a noir picture, blurring the lines further in what defines a film noir. 

Then there’s the soundtrack which is partially an original score by Frank Skinner as well as a compendium of original songs by Edgar Fairchild and Jack Brooks for the nightclub scenes which present the actors performing their own songs.  Noir pictures rarely if ever utilize the Hollywood musical number as one of their narrative thrusts, making Black Angel truly one of a kind.  The score by Skinner is strong but the added musical numbers which are integral to the story elevate this noir to a whole new artistic height.

Black Angel, being an ensemble piece with many characters designed to mislead you or subvert your expectations, contains a stellar cast who all give top notch performances.  Peter Lorre is dependably menacing and like Erich von Stroheim made a career out of portraying onscreen villainy.  Dan Duryea was already established as a villain in the movies, making his turn as the leading man/flawed hero somewhat surprising for viewers at the time by playing against type.  June Vincent turns over a standout performance by having to play the lowly housewife, the sultry singer and plucky heroine all at once. 

Though one comes away somewhat frustrated the film’s title has been stripped somewhat of it’s meaning by so drastically altering the story, Black Angel the film on its own terms succeeds as an uncompromising noir with many unexpected as well as shocking twists and turns ahead.  While originating in pulpy form, the story realized onscreen represents a rare noir that functions as a whodunit that keeps you guessing the whole time as well as an unfettered portrait of a man perpetually derailed by his addiction to boozing.  Not quite what novelist Cornell Woolrich envisioned who lamented his story was wasted by the film, but for seasoned noir fans and newcomers Black Angel remains an indelible classic example of the genre.

--Andrew Kotwicki