Thursday, February 5, 2015

Black Angel (1946)

Director: Roy William Neill                              Writer: Roy Chanslor
Film Score: Frank Skinner                              Cinematography: Paul Ivano
Starring: Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre and Broderick Crawford

Universal wasn’t really known for their noir films, but they did produce a few gems like Double Indemnity. This, however, isn’t one of them. Black Angel is based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich, one of his “black” series of thrillers and, whether the fault lies in the original novel or was simply butchered by screenwriter Roy Chanslor, the screenplay is dreadful. There are just too many places in the plot that don’t make sense at all and after a while it becomes too difficult to suspend disbelief. That being said, however, it still manages to be a watchable film, and that is due primarily to the actors. Had this been a low-budget, poverty row production it would have had no redeeming features. But the four big names, Dan Duryea, Peter Lorre, Broderick Crawford and Wallace Ford, are pros who bring a wealth of experience in tremendous films with them. It doesn’t make the screenplay any better, but it does make the overall film more palatable. June Vincent was the only real leading lady Universal had at the time. She had starred in their Phantom of the Opera sequel, The Climax with Boris Karloff two years earlier, but by the mid-fifties she had moved almost exclusively into television.

The film begins in Los Angeles with Dan Duryea on the sidewalk looking up at the single light on in a high-rise apartment building. The camera pushes in to the interior, Constance Dowling getting dressed in her bedroom. When the doorbell buzzes she pulls a gun out of her top drawer, but it’s only a delivery from Duryea. Nevertheless, she calls down to the doorman to stop him from coming up. As he’s leaving the building, Peter Lorre strolls in and goes right up, and the whole time Broderick Crawford and his partner are casing the joint. Duryea drowns his sorrows by playing the piano in a bar and Wallace Ford comes in to take him home. A few hours later John Phillips arrives at Dowling’s apartment, comes in and touches just about everything before finding her dead. When the killer gives him the slip he gives chase but attempts to avoid being seen by the maid. Unfortunately she gets a good look at him running down the stairs. Crawford and his partner then show up at the house a short while later and while his wife, June Vincent, defends his innocence, it doesn’t look good for Phillips. The plot finally gets going when Phillips is convicted of murder.

Vincent, getting no help from Crawford, then launches into her own investigation in an attempt to clear her husband before he gets the death penalty. At first she want to lay the blame on Duryea, until Ford tells her that he was locked in his room the whole night and she realizes he’s not the killer. But it’s not until he goes over to her house that Duryea realizes Phillips didn’t do it. It was someone else who went into the building when he was going out. In addition to the acting, the direction also helps the film. I’m not a big fan of Dan Duryea, primarily because he’s a terrible over actor and doesn’t have a lot of subtlety even when he isn’t. He’s definitely tolerable here, which is a nice surprise. Peter Lorre’s presence, on the other hand, is completely wasted. His part is small, and the role itself is another part of a bad screenplay. He’s supposed to be a nightclub owning mobster, and yet he simpers around the set with absolutely no sense of menace. Broderick Crawford’s homicide detective is far more threatening, but again the part is tiny, as is Wallace Ford’s. June Vincent is left to carry the picture and she does a decent job and is one, among very few, reasons to watch the film.

Cornell Woolrich’s story is very derivative of another of his novels, The Phantom Lady, adapted for the screen by RKO two years earlier. In that one it’s the protagonist’s secretary who attempts to find the woman he was with to prove he didn’t kill his wife, rather than the brooch from this picture that proves he didn’t kill his lover. Roy William Neill helmed Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series and, though the cinematography isn’t particularly inventive for its day, he and cinematographer Paul Ivano do some terrific moving camera work. But Neill’s unwillingness to overuse the device is what makes it particularly arresting when he does use it. He also has a very nice montage at the end of the film that reveals the killer. The music in the film is right in Frank Skinner’s wheelhouse. Unlike most of the composers in that era he didn’t come from a classical music background but as an arranger for dance bands, and the score is primarily dance music. The songs “Heartbreak,” “Time Will Tell,” and “I Want to be Talked About” were written by Edgar Fairchild and Jack Brooks and were all sung by June Vincent on the soundtrack. Though Black Angel has been called a cult classic, I’d call it a B-movie with big stars, interesting but far from essential.

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