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Friday Noir: Black Angel

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Written by Roy Chanslor Directed by Roy William Neill U.S.A., 1946

To fall in love again after having previously fallen out of it: this is the tried, tested and true cycle that virtually everyone on the planet lives through once, twice, or multiple times throughout their time on Earth. The emotions felt towards the previous individual gradually subside before shifting towards and blossoming for a new personality. However much we, at first, believe that to be impossible, it occurs nevertheless. The 1946 thriller Black Angel takes this complex reality a step further by exploring the subject of falling back in love in the aftermath of a partner’s demise. Who better than Dan Duryea to portray an anti-hero with a dubious moral compass afflicted by a broken heart, only to see a new sun on the horizon in the form of the delightful June Vincent?

Duryea was a staple of the classic noir cycle whenever directors needed someone to play a slimeball, a duplicitous jerk, a manipulator, and villain. Rarely did he feature in roles that required him to engage in acts that suggested virtue, and while his Martin Blair is no saint, he is, quite aptly, the eponymous dark angel. Martin is a pianist and songwriter hammering down on the keys at a local club each night. He has had a falling out with his main squeeze, Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling), a popular singer who belts out the tunes Blair composes and made a handsome living off it to boot. After refusing to see him one night, Marlowe is found dead in her upper class condominium. Catherine Bennet (June Vincent) is appalled when her musician husband is arrested for the crime. Together with a very reluctant and very drunk Martin Blair, she opens her own private investigation into the matter so that her hubby, totally innocent in her opinion, can come home. Their first stop: a fancy lounge owned by one Marko (Peter Lorre), another of Mrs. Marlowe’s many acquaintances that tried to visit her that fateful night. It isn’t long however before Blair starts to get mushy feelings for Catherine, but will she reciprocate?

The film adheres strongly to the familiar template of one or multiple characters, despite being in well over their heads, adventurously risking their well being for the sake of discovering the truth behind a terrible crime. Films in which the police or private investigators feature as central figures can be wonderful in their own right, but there is always the knowledge they have signed up to partake in the danger. They know full well the risks they incur for they have accepted them as part of the profession. In the case of movies like Black Angel, the protagonists are willingly betting everything for no more than to find peace of mind, although peace of mind can certainly be a far greater reward than a paycheck, to be fair. Martin and Catherine, the latter whom has a wonderful singing voice, present themselves as a musical duo from Seattle, hoping to land a steady gig at Marko’s establishment. As such, the film, under the guidance of director Roy William Neill, clicks along at a brisk of enough pace, regularly find successive, clever ways for the duo of amateur gumshoes to sneak their way into Marko’s organization.

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It is interesting to note that Neill helmed several of the Sherlock Holmes adventures that starred the inimitable Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. His flair for mystery and investigation is keenly on display throughout Black Angel. First and foremost, unlike far too many thrillers of similar ilk, this film actually does not reveal the answer to Marko’s suspected involvement in Mrs. Marlowe’s murder until very, very late.  Given that, the audience, as much as the protagonists, are following their nose, hoping that some clues will be unearthed to land Marko, not exactly the classiest fellow, in the slammer. Each proverbial step that takes Martin and Catherine closer to the truth obviously ups the ante as far the likelihood that Marko will sniff out their ruse and squash their hopes.

Tense sequences and entertaining song numbers aside, Black Angel truly finds some backbone in the subplot involving Martin’s shifting feelings. While at the start of the picture he claimed the now deceased Mrs. Marlowe as the apple of his eye, the more time elapses, the more a few things become evident. First, Mrs. Marlowe was not what one would describe as an angel. Snobbish, cocky, disrespectful towards others, perhaps their love was never meant to be. On the flip side, the more time he spends with Catherine, a strong willed woman with plenty of compassion, the more evident it becomes that he would like to spend quality time with her. Not helping matters is that, in order to support their cover story, Catherine has agreed to have Martin live at her home where they prepare their upcoming musical performances. When Martin asks that she sing a new song that makes his feelings towards her clear as water, suffice to say that things get complicated.

June Vincent was a very talented actress that regularly featured in dramas and thrillers in the 1940s before launching a television career in the 1950s and onwards. Her impassioned depiction of a wife desperate to prove her husband’s innocence is worthy of notice, but all things considered, it is Dan Duryea that takes over the film as the picture’s most complicated, nuanced, and challenged figure. As previously argued, Duryea excelled at playing the part of the ultimate jerk. In a neat move, Black Angel asks that his screen persona be softened to a degree. He’s a drunk, an angry one at that, and at first shares no empathy towards Catherine’s plight as she pleas that he help her on her quest. Catherine is really a delightful woman, something Martin cannot resist, although his advances are much softer and more romantic than what one would expect from his sort of character. He remains something of a cynic until the very end, only one that gets to taste something hopeful and sweet, albeit in infinitesimal quantity.

Black Angel is a very solid mystery thriller with a complicated romantic angle peppered in for good measure. Arguably, the main sticking point that holds it back are the final five minutes when the full extent of what transpired the night of Mrs. Marlowe’s murder is revealed. It comes off as facile and not particularly inspired from a script point of view. That said, ironically, director Neill and cinematographer Paul Ivano indulge in some wild and creative visuals to make the pill a bit go down a bit smoother. Nevertheless, the movie is engaging for its taught mystery, its attempts at drilling home tension, and might even relate to some viewers that have gone through the simultaneously painful but beautiful experience of rediscovering love when it was previously believed to be lost and gone forever. If anything, Dan Duryea is an incomparable drunk.

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