Saturday, November 3, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: BLACK ANGEL (1946)

Based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, Black Angel (1946) is a minor film noir from the classic period that merits attention more for its cast than its convoluted plot. Woolrich's work produced some interesting source material for movies, notably The Leopard Man (1943), Rear Window (1954), and The Bride Wore Black (1968), and that list alone ought to say something about the kind of story Black Angel has to tell. It's certainly no walk in the park, but its twists and turns never quite deliver, perhaps because the ending is so obvious that the suspense can't really build effectively. The dedicated classic film fan may well find the movie worth watching, however, because of the performances of noir regulars Dan Duryea and Peter Lorre.

The heroine of the picture is Catherine Bennett (June Vincent), whose husband is convicted of killing Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling), the former wife of boozy musician Martin Blair (Dan Duryea). Cathy asks Martin to help prove her husband's innocence, and their joint investigation leads them to Marko (Peter Lorre), an oily nightclub owner who obviously has something to hide. Posing as a musical act, Martin and Cathy go undercover at the club, but their dangerous gamble might not be enough to save Kirk Bennett (John Phillips), especially if Marko turns out to be the wrong man.

It would be inconsiderate to spoil the "shock" ending, but the movie telegraphs it so insistently that surely nobody is really going to be surprised. That's one weakness in the film, but another is June Vincent's Cathy, so resolutely a "good girl" type that she's determined to save the life of a man who was not only cheating on her but submitting to blackmail to keep her from finding out about it. The picture opens with the murder of the femme fatale character, but even in her few minutes on the screen Mavis Marlowe manages to be a lot more interesting than Cathy Bennett. It might be that the story leaves little room for her character to develop, but it might also be June Vincent's performance that leaves something to be desired. Either way, she can't really carry the picture, and we're left scratching our heads about her dogged devotion to her faithless spouse.

Dan Duryea and Peter Lorre, on the other hand, are great fun to watch. Duryea makes a memorable heavy in pictures like Ball of Fire (1941) and Scarlet Street (1945), but here he's more sympathetic, still a hard luck case but a nice enough guy as long as he stays on the wagon. Lorre gets to be the tough guy for a change, and he pulls it off beautifully, proving his own versatility in character roles. Of course, his most memorable work is with extreme characters, like the serial killer in M (1931) or Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (1941), but here he shows that he can play a more subtle line, as well. Between the two of them they almost make up for the lackluster heroine's plot.

For more classic noir with Dan Duryea, be sure to see Scarlet Street (1945). You'll find Peter Lorre in dozens of great pictures, but M (1931) made him a star, while his performance in Casablanca (1942) helped ensure his enduring celebrity. For more from director Roy William Neill, try Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) or any of the Sherlock Holmes pictures starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.