Review of “Black Angel” (1946)

trailer from YouTube

This week’s Saturday pizza and bad movie night was a little different. Svengoolie was a re-run, and I was in a noir-ish mood. We tried a movie I’d never heard of before, Black Angel from 1946.

Plot:

Inside a richly-appointed Los Angeles apartment, famous singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling) nags her maid (an uncredited Mary Field). (“Why don’t you keep my things where I can find them?”) The buzzer rings. While the maid answers the door, Mavis digs out a handgun from her draw full of monogrammed linen.

A delivery boy has a heart-shaped broach, a lovely piece. The maid is on her way out to see a movie. Unfortunately, she puts on the wrong record, one that sends Mavis into a tizzy. As the maid leaves, Mavis calls downstairs to the doorman* (an uncredited Dick Wessel) and says that if Mr. Blair comes there tonight, she does not wish to see him then or ever.

A man (Dan Duryea), who was earlier leaning against the building, now comes in, asking to see Miss Marlowe. The doorman bars him, telling him Miss Marlowe has refused to see him. Blair protests, nearly striking the doorman when he blocks his entry to the elevator. He’s her (ex-) husband, and that night is their anniversary.

“Sorry, Mr. Blair,” the doorman says.

To add insult to injury, on his way out, Blair sees another man (Peter Lorre) ask the same doorman to let him see Miss Marlow and be told to go on in. “She’s expecting you.” Bitterly disappointed, Blair then goes to the bar where he has a job playing piano and gets blind drunk. His buddy Joe (Wallace Ford) drags him back to his hotel room and locks him in, bolting the door from the outside.

Back at Mavis’ apartment, a man (John Phillips) pushes her door open. No one seems to be home, but the music she hated is playing. He hears a noise from her bedroom, enters, and finds her dead, strangled with her own monogrammed scarf. He sees the heart-shaped broach, sees the gun. The jewel disappears. One thing leads to another, and he’s the one the maid sees fleeing the scene. The maid knows him: Kirk Bennett, who’s been sleeping with Mavis, and, as it turns out, was being blackmailed by her.

He is tried and convicted of her murder. However, his wife, Catherine (June Vincent), is convinced of his innocence and seeks Martin Blair’s help. Blair is at first reluctant but then sobers up. The two find nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre) and get hired as performers (… it could happen).

The best-laid plans and all that.

Thoughts:

The opening scenes of the movie are carefully plotted out. Mavis is portrayed as a bitch, so the audience will not mourn when she is killed. Plus, she’s a blackmailer. Naughty girl! However, there’s more going on here that makes more sense in the end. Why does she go for a gun when the doorbell rings? Why does the gift of the broach prompt a call to the doorman?

It’s a perfect movie plot device that they should fall in love when Blair and Catherine work together. Blair falls for her. He’s given up drinking. He’s writing music for her—just as he did for Mavis—but Catherine is in love with her husband. This sends Blair out drinking again.

The driving force behind the action is Catherine Bennett’s drive to exonerate her husband. She knows he was unfaithful, but she loves him. She doesn’t want to see him die, and she will do everything in her power to set him free.

The title is better suited to the novel the movie is drawn from than to the movie itself. The harm that Catherine causes is not out of malice or an attempt at vengeance but out of ignorance. She is not heartless, but she is certain.

To be fair, the movie presents one person as looking guilty to the audience. The audience is with Bennett when he discovers Mavis’s body, when he hears noises in her bedroom, when he first sees then doesn’t see the heart-shaped broach. The audience sees what the police don’t. This builds sympathy with Catherine, the wronged wife who is doing all she can to prove what the audience knows to be true. Additionally, the audience roots for Blair, who had given up the bottle to help her. Yeah, she’s married, but can you blame him if he falls for her…?

The end, as improbable and unconvincing as I found it, throws new light on many things. Acts and gestures take on new meanings—this works. Nevertheless, I couldn’t buy the solution it offered.

As for a recommendation, there are definitely parts of it that are engaging. The opening scenes are worth a second look after you’ve seen the ending to understand how nuanced every aspect is. Peter Lorre’s performance reflects just the right amount of menace, thuggery, and devastation. Plus, there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in realizing he and not Bogart is the club owner this time. But the unsatisfying ending overshadows a lot of this for me.



*Kids, ask your grandparents what a doorman is.

Title: Black Angel 1946

Directed by
Roy William Neill

Writing Credits
Roy Chanslor…(screenplay)
Cornell Woolrich…(based on novel by)

Cast (in credits order) verified
Dan Duryea…Martin Blair
June Vincent…Catherine Bennett
Peter Lorre…Marko
Broderick Crawford…Police Captain Flood
Constance Dowling…Mavis Marlowe

Released: August 2, 1946
Length:  1 hour, 21 mins.

Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

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