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Black Angel

USA 1946
produced by
Tom McKnight, Roy William Neill for Universal
directed by Roy William Neill
starring Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre, Broderick Crawford, Constance Dowling, Wallace Ford, Hobart Cavanaugh, Freddie Steele, John Phillips, Ben Bard, Junius Matthews, Marion Martin, Archie Twitchell, Maurice St. Clair, Vilova, Robert B. Williams, Dick Wessel, Mary Field, Pat Starling
screenplay by Roy Chanslor, based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, music by Frank Skinner

review by
Mike Haberfelner

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When Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) arrives at his lover Mavis's (Constance Dowling) hotel room late one night, he finds her dead, murdered. He notices a brooch pinned to her dress, and thinks nothing as he searches her room for clues, but when he looks at her body again, the brooch is gone. And then he does exactly the wrong thing, instead of calling the authorities immediately, he takes a long walk to air out his head, and when he arrives home, Police Captain Flood (Broderick Crawford) is already there to arrest him. He's sure he can prove his innocence - but instead is sentenced to death.

Bennet's wife Catherine (June Vincent) is convinced of his innocence nevertheless, even if he cheated on her, so she swears to find the brooch, and if she finds the brooch she's sure the killer can't be far. But she really has nobody to turn to, so she turns to Mavis' ex-husband Martin (Dan Duryea) who has never stopped loving her, and who would have had a motive for killing her even but too water-tight an alibi to even suspect him. But since her death, Martin has turned a hopeless drunk, and at first he doesn't want to have anything to do with Catherine, especially since he, too, suspects her husband - but her sincerity strikes a chord with him, and then he finds out the man he witnessed going to her hotel wasn't Bennet at all, as he originally assumed, but someone else. The only clue he and Catherine have though is a phone number of a club - and when they visit it, Martin recognizes the club's owner Marko (Peter Lorre) to be the mystery man whom he saw entering Mavis' hotel. Now since Mavis is an accomplished singer and Martin a professional pianist and composer, they go undercover in Marko's club as a musical act to spy him out - and the more they investigate, the more guilty he appears to be - but when they set a trap on him, it springs on them instead, and not only that, they find out he has the most water-tight alibis of all, he was with Captain Flood at the time the murder happened, questioned about something else. Sure, he knew Mavis, and had a motive to kill her as she blackmailed him, but it would have been humanly impossible to kill her.

Catherine returns home a broken woman, and Martin wants to cheer her up, but when she realizes he has actually fallen in love with her and would like to take their relationship to the next level, she sends him away - which breaks him, and he, who has sobered up just for Catherine's sake, starts drinking again, and heavily so. And then he, on the eve before Bennett's execution, finds Mavis' brooch, and suddenly everything falls into place. But will he be able to get the brooch to the police in time, or will the alcohol get the better of him. And does he even want the truth out?

 

When it comes to murder mysteries, it's pretty much impossible to beat the 1940s in both quality and consistency - and the film noir is much more of a symptom of this than the cause. And Black Angel is yet more proof of above claim, an elegant noir that throws elements of love story and melodrama into the mix, and even a subtext about alcoholism, to come up with a very coherent movie that's cleverly built up and carried by a bunch of strong and interesting characters, and brought to life by a bunch of first rate performances, with Dan Duryea, film noir's favourite psychopath, playing a man on the straight and narrow even better than one'd expect him to.

A film that has really stood the test of time and is as tense and enjoyable now as it has always been, and thus well worth a look.

 

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review © by Mike Haberfelner

 

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