Tuesday, February 20, 2007

BLACK ANGEL (Universal 1946) Universal Home Video

A sexy nightclub singer with her neck broken, an ex-lover who suffers from alcoholic blackouts, and a dutiful wife who'll stop at nothing to prove her husband's innocence: excellent fodder for a classic film noir, this one singed by a race against time and sparkling performances from a stellar cast.

In Roy William Neill’s Black Angel (1946) style trumps substance, or even common sense for that matter. Roy Chanslor's screenplay, based on Cornell Woolrich's novel, gives us a lot of twists and turns, some memorable, other's worrisome or even implausible, but always in service to some truly stunning camerawork by Paul Ivano. Like The Big Sleep, the plot to Black Angel really doesn't matter all that much. The film is populated by some great character actors of their day giving it their absolute all, including Peter Lorre and Dan Duryea.

When viper-ish chanteuse Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling) gets invited to a necktie party, Kirk Bennett (John Phillips), Mavis’ lover seems the natural choice for the police’s prime suspect. No one believes Kirk’s story. It is, after all, a little hard to swallow - that he found Mavis already strangled on the floor of her apartment when arriving for a prearranged dinner date.

However, when Kirk is sentenced to death, his long-suffering, too-good-to-be-true wife, Catherine (June Vincent) begins to investigate the elements of the crime for answers of her own. She is aided by Martin Blair (Dan Duryea) Mavis’ ex-husband who still carries a torch for the deceased when he’s not too busy getting plastered and out of control. Blair concocts a fairly devious plan to get to the truth. He trains Catherine as a new singer for Marco’s (Peter Lorre) nightclub. Mavis sang there. Perhaps, Marco has something to hide?

The first half of the narrative is quite strong and peppered with all the winning essentials of a vintage film noir; a corpse, stark lighting, a litany of suspects and more than a few hairpin turns. Yet, the plot is riddled with a rich texture of diverting anomalies; like Kirk - guilty of philandering/innocent of murder. Or Mavis’ femme fatale turned victim. What about Catherine’s never wavering devotion to her wayward hubby, or Blair’s dedication to discovering who really killed his wife even though it's really him he's after?

Black Angel is a film that starts out strong but fizzles to the point of absurdity. The last act is uninspired. It’s as though director, Neill has painted himself into a narrative corner and then effectively turned out the lights, leaving the plot and audiences waiting for some grander exposition that never comes along to tie up all the loose ends. 

That said, Black Angel is not a bad movie. It's just not a definitive film noir. The mood and tempo of the piece is dark and sinister thanks to Martin Ozbina and Jack Otterson's brilliant art direction, as well as Paul Ivano's brooding cinematography. Peter Lorre's performance is arguably the stand out. Yet, it's depressing to see his character vindicated before the final reel, because during the first and second acts he makes one hell of a charming - if slightly unsettling - villain. 

The volatile chemistry between Dan Duryea and June Vincent is also palpable. It's a genuine pity they were never paired up again in subsequent like-minded fare.  

Universal’s DVD is just above average. Though the B&W image can exhibit a rather solid gray scale with deep blacks and relatively clean whites, contrast levels on the whole are softly rendered, leaving the mid-register a rather undistinguished gray. Age related artifacts are everywhere and occasionally quite distracting. Edge enhancement is present but not distracting. Pixelization, however, is! The audio is mono but nicely balanced. There are no extras!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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