Black Angel

BLACK ANGEL—-“I seem to have said all the wrong things.”   “Yeah, most women do.”   One of the dozens of Cornell Woolrich stories turned into movies (Rear Window the most famous), this neat, overlooked entry from 1946 wasn’t a major hit, 126th place in the crowd, but is well-regarded today as a worthy addition to the crop of film noir essentials from that first, downbeat postwar year. *

When her philandering hubby is convicted of murdering an equally unfaithful nightclub singer (Constance Dowling), his loyal wife (June Vincent) joins with the singer’s dejected piano-player husband (Dan Duryea) to find out what really happened. The cops think it’s open & shut, but what’s with that shady club owner? Well, for one thing, his name is ‘Marko’ and he’s played by Peter Lorre…

The screenplay by Ron Chanslor is just so-so, with conveniently simplistic relationship bridges between the characters that have attachments and reversals occurring with casual rapidity, but the cynicism-comfortable cast and smooth direction carry the night. Relying on mood and insinuation rather than vice or violence—an arm is twisted, one guy gets socked, the instigating murder is not shown—it’s marked by effective low-key performances.

In a welcome change from his familiar sneering sadists, Duryea beautifully conveys rejection and rue as the alcoholic spouse of the deceased deceiver—he should have seen betrayal coming from a dame named ‘Mavis Marlowe’. Duryea not only handles the piano chores with skill; his inebriated scenes are distinguished by some fully convincing impaired-walking movements, adept enough to be used as a template for actors to study when playing drunk. **

Lorre can’t help but be suspect from the get-go, but he shrewdly underplays the menace with sly humor: not many could say something as casual as “Don’t you know it’s not polite to stare?” and make it sound both funny and frightening. His ‘relationship’ with hulking bodyguard ‘Lucky’ (Freddie Steele, former Middleweight Champ 1936-38) adds an extra wrinkle of speculation. As the main detective, the typically bellowing Broderick Crawford gives perhaps his calmest-ever performance, not raising his bull-elk voice once.

Well-scored by Frank Skinner, the music includes neat renditions of “Heartbreak” and “I Want To Be Talked About”. Skinner boasted a vast trove of credits: 271 as composer, with 430 uncredited jobs arranging stock scoring for Universal’s Music Department. Whoever was in charge of wardrobe gave the slim Duryea one of those 40s suits broad enough for Mighty Joe Young. The last of 111 pictures directed by Roy William Neill, who died the year it was released.

With Wallace Ford and John Phillips. 81 minutes.

 * Competing crime classics from ’46: Notorious, Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Big Sleep, The Dark Mirror, The Blue Dahlia, The Killers, The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers. 

** My late brother-in-law (actor Larry Pennell) said Dan Duryea was one of the nicest guys he ever met in the business.

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