Black Angel (1946)
Having just directed eleven of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, Roy William Neill, turned to the world of Noir in what would sadly prove to be his final film, Black Angel, a nifty whodunit starring one of the genre’s most beloved actors, Dan Duryea.
Along for this turbulent tale of murder and mystery is June Vincent, Broderick Crawford and another name that needs little introduction to Noir fans, Peter Lorre.
If this is to be a murder mystery we’re going to need a victim which brings us to Veronica Lake look-a-like Constance Dowling. She’s a nightclub singer living in a swank apartment in downtown Los Angeles. The opening sequence paints her as someone less than likable though she is drop dead gorgeous. She’s about to receive three gentleman callers in the opening frames.
First off is Dan Duryea, her ex-husband who is refused entry by the doorman of the building which sends him off to the bottom of a whiskey bottle. Then along comes Peter Lorre who easily gains access and lastly John Phillips who will arrive too late to confront her about a little secret that she shares with him. You see, she’s already been strangled by the time he enters her apartment. He’ll trail a mysterious figure out the door who has run off with a broach he had first seen on the body before it’s disappearance on a second look
Sadly for Phillips, he’s the only one seen leaving the crime scene by an eyewitness and soon after is arrested for the murder by our homicide detective, Brod Crawford. Despite a thorough grilling under the hot lamp at the police station, Phillips, isn’t owning up to the crime but it’s all to no avail with the amount of circumstantial evidence built up against him. It’s death row for Phillips.
All of which leads us to his lovely blonde wife, June Vincent. She believes in her husband’s innocence and sets out to prove he’s not guilty. First up she figures to pin it on the jilted ex-husband, Duryea. She’ll find him still drowning his sorrows at the bottom of a jug with good friend, Wallace Ford, ensuring no real harm comes to him. Turns out Dan has an ironclad alibi with Ford to back him up.
The film takes an interesting turn when Dan sobers up and goes to see June. He believes he saw her husband enter the apartment after he left but in fact he saw Lorre. This sends the two of them on a manhunt looking to save Phillips from the gas chamber.
Luck smiles on the pair. They learn that Lorre runs the Rio’s Nightclub and since Dan is a piano man/songwriter and June a songstress, the pair audition for a job at the nightclub under assumed names and are somewhat of a hit. Now all they have to do is break into Lorre’s office safe and uncover the broach which will incriminate him.
The question will soon become, who’s playing who here and is Broderick Crawford a totally inept homicide detective based on the amount of leads that Dan and June uncover?
Plenty of twists and turns lay ahead and some sharp dreamy direction from Neill as we get to the climax and uncover just who the guilty party is. Lorre delivers a line that is a perfect fit for all concerned including the viewers, “Sometimes I find myself surrounded by puzzles.”
Can’t you just hear Lorre’s wonderfully original voice delivering that line?
That’s all I can really divulge on Black Angel without going to far and playing spoiler.
Neill not only directed the film but scored a producer’s credit as he had on many of the Rathbone/Holmes films. He’s also remembered by fans of Universal Monsters having directed the thoroughly enjoyable monster mash-up, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man. Neill has plenty of directing credits to his name dating back to 1917, the majority of which I’ve never seen. Still if I may recommend a title outside of the Holmes universe it would be one of Boris Karloff’s finest thrillers, 1935’s The Black Room.
A keen eye will also notice the make-up credit goes to Jack Pierce on Black Angel. The legendary Pierce who created the eye popping monsters of Universal including Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Wolf Man, was a busy man at the studio in 1946. According to the IMDB he’s listed on no less then 27 releases as the director of make-up. It’s a crime his name isn’t listed in the opening credits of his greatest creations which also includes The Bride of Frankenstein and Dracula.
Broderick Crawford was just three years away from copping an Oscar for All the King’s Men while Lorre was appearing here in-between assignments opposite Sydney Greenstreet in a pair of top notch films, The Verdict and Three Strangers. 1946 proved an excellent year for Lorre overall. Along with the Greenstreet pictures and Black Angel, he could also be seen in the Noir favorite, The Chase and the horror classic, The Beast With Five Fingers.
Dan Duryea was on a solid run of films by this time dating back to his debut in 1940’s The Little Foxes. He quickly found a home in Noir films and more specifically, Fritz Lang movies including Ministry of Fear, Scarlet Street and The Woman In the Window. He’d easily slide into westerns with that genre’s rise in popularity with the masses. Duryea has always been a favorite of mine from my early days of watching westerns and Noir titles on late night TV. Back before I’d even heard of the term, Noir. I just knew I liked this guy who was always hard to put one’s trust in with the one of a kind voice. He may not have always been the star of the movie but it was always hard to take your eyes off him even when he was playing second fiddle to the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Audie Murphy or Burt Lancaster.
Black Angel shouldn’t be too hard to locate if you’re on the hunt for a copy. It was released on DVD a number of years ago and more recently put out on blu ray via Arrow Video.