Perple Haze

AUGUST IS ARROW VIDEO MONTH

An eerie, atmospheric thoroughly satisfying noir, 1946’s BLACK ANGEL stalks viewers on Blu-Ray, thanks to the gang at Arrow Video/MVDvisual/Universal Studios.

Based on a novel by the great Cornell Woolrich, an author made for The Movies, BLACK ANGEL added to the increasing number of the writer’s works (occasionally, under his pseudonym, William Irish) adapted for 1940’s cinema; within the space of five years, studios from Paramount to RKO to Monogram would be giving us such deliciously evil fare as Street of Chance, The Leopard Man, The Chase, Deadline at Dawn, Fall Guy, and, I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (the last entry, a contender for one the greatest noir christenings ever).  Suffice to say, his penchant for twisted twisty conclusions is in full bloom here.

BLACK ANGEL revolves around the music business end of night clubbery, so you know you’re in sleazy territory from frame one.  Beautiful, talented, and satanically skanky Mavis Marlowe delights in torturing her hired help, her song-writing ex-spouse, her coworkers, and just about everyone else.  Mavis’s greatest joy, however, is her blackmailing sideline, enormously helped by the woman’s ability to corrupt otherwise loyal husbands into adulterous situations.  That she is found brutally murdered comes as no surprise to anyone who knew her.  What troubles the detective division, particularly head sleuth Captain Flood, is the plethora of suspects.  Numero uno is supposed cheater Kirk Bennett, seen exiting her apartment shortly before the murder, and leaving enough fingerprints and other incriminating evidence to guarantee a ringside hot seat.  And it does.  Swearing his innocence seems to be falling upon deaf ears, save his stunning wife (and former band singer), Catherine’s.  Prior to Bennett, the only serious suspect was the ex, Marty Blair, a once-brilliant pianist/composer, now a hopeless alcoholic (thanks to Mavis).  Prone to violence, Marty has the perfect alibi, courtesy of his buddy, Joe; when drinking, which is often, Blair is locked up for the night in an apartment bolted from the outside.

Now sober, Marty joins forces with Catherine, and they quickly become kindred spirits (“I had a wife who needed killing and you had a husband who took care of it.”) – teaming up to solve the case as the upcoming execution draws closer.  And they soon have a suspect of their own: Marko, the sadistic, pervy owner of a top nitery, where they soon score a singer/accompanist gig.  Marko’s no fool, though, and secretly is on to them…with his own diabolical agenda.

A spine-tingling noir with a wallop of an ending (thanks to an excellent script by Roy Chanslor), BLACK ANGEL is one of those amazing Golden Age movies that often falls through the cracks.  Made by Universal in 1946, it was definitely meant to be a follow-up to their smash 1944 entry Phantom Lady (also available through Arrow, and likewise based on a Woolrich work).  It was the final pic of underrated director Roy William Neill (a master of moody, unnerving cinema whose resume went back to the silent era, but is probably best known for the studio’s Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce), who died on December 14, 1946 (BLACK ANGEL was released on August 2).  It was also the first movie for a newly-liberated Peter Lorre (who plays Marko, and, no big surprise, quite magnificently), just freed from his Warners contract, and now an independent thesp-for-hire.  The star is noir icon Dan Duryea, and (again, no big surprise) he’s terrific as Marty.  Catherine, the duly devoted wife, guilty-ridden by her growing affection for Duryea’s character (and it’s reciprocal) was a complicated role, ably enacted by recent signee June Vincent.  The remainder of the cast is top-drawer, and features Constance Dowling (as Mavis), Wallace Ford (as Joe), Broderick Crawford (as Flood), John Phillips (as Kirk), plus Hobart Cavanaugh, Freddie Steele, Marion Martin, Eddy Chandler, and Mary Field.

In the meticulously researched 2005 Lorre bio, The Lost One by Stephen D. Youngkin, June Vincent recounted the joy of working with Lorre, whom she was pleasantly surprised to find a deeply intelligent, kindly and snarkily funny costar; yet, he took acting very seriously.  Seeing that the newbie was nervous (and worried about an upcoming scene where he had to hurt her), Lorre did his best to calm her down “We did [the scene] a couple of times, and I was not a good enough actress to come across with it correctly.  He whispered in my ear, ‘Now, listen, you think about something else this time. I’m really going to hurt you…He didn’t hurt me badly…but…enough so that I reacted the way I should.”  More than physically, he prepped her psychologically.  “And then I realized what he had done.”

The Arrow Blu-Ray of BLACK ANGEL has been worth the wait.  The 1080p visuals are beautifully contrasted from 35MM elements, giving the Paul Ivano photography that extra midnight sidewalk rain shimmer.  Universal’s house composer Frank Skinner provides a suitable score; a slight fly in the ointment regarding the music is that this new mix infrequently dwarfs bits of dialog; suffice to say, it’s a minor carp.

Of course, being an Arrow title, there’s a boodle of extras, including a gallery of stills and promotional materials, a video homage by film historian Neil Sinyard, audio commentary by Alan K. Rode, and the original theatrical trailer.

An elusive noir absolutely worth checking out, BLACK ANGEL is sure to become a screening repeat offender in your library.

BLACK ANGEL. Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 PCM audio. Arrow Films/MVDvisual/Universal Studios. CAT # AA054. SRP:  $39.95.

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