21 January 2009

Movie Review: Black Angel

Black Angel (1946)
Directed by Roy William Neil. Starring Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre, Broderick Crawford, Constance Dowling

Wow, I’m reviewing an old black and white Universal film that’s not a horror movie!

But it’s a movie version of a recently re-published Cornell Woolrich novel, The Black Angel, so it isn’t far off-course for me.

Black Angel (Universal hacked “The” off the title of the book for some reason) is the best movie adaptation of a work by Cornell Woolrich. Hitchcock’s Rear Window is a better movie, but it’s distinctly a “Hitchcock movie,” while Black Angel is 100% a “Woolrich movie.” It displays better than any other movie how the author influenced the entire genre of film noir.

The nature of Woolrich’s novel required changes for the screen, however. First, the story is told in too subjective a style to translate directly into the more objective medium of film. Second, its episodic structure doesn’t work for the plotting style necessary for an eighty-minute film. The screenplay removes the singular viewpoint focus from the Alberta Murray character, re-named Catherine Bennett, and gives the audience access to characters and scenes that Alberta from the book couldn’t know. The different episodes are compressed or deleted. The screenplay entirely junks the Dr. Mordaunt sequence—an easy cut to make. Martin Blair is expanded into a main character and combined with the characteristics of Ladd Mason. You might say that Marty Blair is essentially playing the Ladd Mason part. The dangerous nightclub owner McKee remains, but his name is changed to Marko to better fit a performer like Peter Lorre. The location has moved from New York to Los Angeles, where it makes use of entertainment cynicism with the Hollywood backdrop. (And L.A. is one the noir capitals anyway. I’ll allow it; it’s my town.)

The film opens with singer Mavis Marlowe (the Mia of the novel) still alive, and her estranged drunken piano-playing husband Marty Blair (Dan Duryea) trying to get into her apartment to see her. Kirk Bennett arrives at Mavis’s place later, and discovers her shot to death. The cops, led by the icy Captain Flood (Broderick Crawford) arrest and drill Kirk, who was going to see Mavis to scare her off from blackmailing him. The evidence against him is too monumental, and a jury sends him to Death Row.

Kirk’s wife Cathy (June Vincent) goes on the quest to clear his name, which leads her to the sodden Marty. Marty can prove his innocence, and then joins her in trying to learn the truth. A matchbook in Mavis’s apartment puts them onto nightclub owner and all-around suspicious fellow Marko (Peter Lorre). As if a character played by Petter Lorre could avoid looking suspicious. The two of them pose as a piano and singer duo to get a job in Marko’s club, The Rio, so they can have an opportunity to find the one clue that will exonerate Kirk: a missing brooch taken from Mavis’s body. However, the partnership between Marty and Cathy has started to give the lonesome piano player ideas about him and his Black Angel.

All this comes from the novel, except that the filmmakers have woven it differently for the screen. It’s an impressive screenplay from Roy Chanslor, taking a great but strangely structured novel and making it work in an eighty-one-minute film without losing its essential characters and scenes. The twist ending remains the same, and if the movie can’t achieve the existential bleakness of Woolrich’s conclusion, it’s hard to imagine any film that could.

Both Crawford and Duryea are cast perfectly, perhaps the most quintessentially Woolrichian actors imagineable. Crawford embodies the heartless, merciless cop, who manages to give you the chills even when he’s showing sympathy. Duryea was an actor who could appear easily in both Westerns and noir with his “dirty” style of acting. The downtrodden, mentally disturbed Woolrich loser . . . Duryea owns it.

The scene of the police grilling Kirk isn’t from the novel, but it’s perfect Woolrich, a piece of casual police brutality. Crawford is one languidly scary monster in this scene. And the staging immediately call to mind any one of Woolrich’s examples of callow police work:
Director Roy William Neill was a busy contract man at Universal. He did most of the studio’s Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone, where he developed an atmospheric style. Black Angel is his final film and his masterpiece. It has wonderful atmosphere and some complex camera moves and set-ups, although only in one place does the style overtly draw attention to itself, and that’s in the opening, where an effects shot flies past a street sign up into a high window in an apartment and through the blinds. It’s an astonishing effect for its day.
And look everybody, it’s Wallace Ford, the annoying comic relief from The Mummy’s Hand! He’s a semi-comic part here as well, but he’s not annoying.

Black Angel is quintessential film noir, and would make my short list for the best of this genre from the classic era (1942–1958).

Dig a few more shots, then go see it (after reading the book, of course):