Black Angel

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The final film of director Roy William Neill, who died not long after it was released, 1946’s Black Angel is one of those overlooked noirs that could stand a bit more attention.

Neill was the director of the string of Sherlock Holmes film starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, rattling yarns that all came in at around 60 minutes. Here he’s also wasting no time, though he has almost a feature’s length to play with – 80 minutes – introducing his characters and setting out his stall at speed.

One femme fatale, three men. The femme is played by Constance Dowling, and what a magnificent firecracker of nastiness it seems like she’s going to be. Mavis (pronounced “Mavvis”) Marlowe is a slinky singer who scowls and pouts regally but unfortunately Mavis dies off-screen just as we’re beginning to warm our hands on her spite.

Such a pity she’s gone, but who killed her? Was it her sad sack of an alcoholic husband, Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), the pianist and songwriter who made her name only to be dumped once Mavis hit the big time? Was it Kirk Bennett (John Phillips), her lover and the last person to see her alive? Or was it the shadowy Marko (Peter Lorre), a nightclub owner seen entering her building moments before Bennett?

It seems obvious that it’s not Bennett, because we are with him as he finds the murdered Mavis, and that it must be Marko, not least because Marko is played by Peter Lorre and no one is better as a murdering creep. Though Dan Duryea also has a history of playing nasty pieces of work – “the heel with sex appeal” as The New York Times called him in its obituary when he died in 1968. So one of those two, probably, though it could be someone else. There is, for instance, the big, mean homicide cop on the case, played by Broderick Crawford, always great as the human equivalent of a shipment of condemned corned beef.

However, it’s suburban nobody Bennett who takes the rap for the murder. Having been summarily interrogated by the cops, he is just as curtly whizzed through the legal system and off to Death Row, where he will die unless someone can prove his innocence.

Foyer poster for Black Angel
Foyer poster

This is where the film’s second billing, June Vincent, comes into the picture, as the convicted man’s dutiful wife who not only brushes aside the fact that her husband was having an affair with the victim, but goes into a sleuthing partnership with Blair, a man she does not know, to ferret out the real guilty party, Holmes and Watson style. Posing as a showbiz turn – he plays the piano and she sings – they get a gig at Marko’s club.

Around this point you might start rolling your eyes at the contrivance of the plot, and how little Mrs Bennett seems to be thinking about Mr Bennett on Death Row, or whether this is really going to turn into a strange love story in which Martin Blair gets unlucky in love for a second time, or maybe lucky for the first. It does not quite all add up, or appears not to, though Neill keeps it moving along at such a pace that it’s easier to surrender and enjoy the journey than start assembling a list of plot pinch points.

What’s good about it is the performances – cards held very tightly to chest – the speed of it all, the way a little moral question is posed about the possibility of a terrible deed being expiated by a good one (the title Black Angel explained). And it’s a good looking film too, as the Sherlock Holmes series were, thanks to lush lighting (the DP here is Paul Ivano) and a camera that’s mobile and economical but can’t resist the urge to show off now and again.

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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