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Roy William Neill's "Black Angel"

Mavis is about to be murdered.
It's a shame that Roy William Neill never got to direct an "A" film during his tenure at Universal Pictures in the 1940s. I'd rate him as the studio's best low-budget director. His films typically had atmosphere and visual flair to spare. He is best remembered for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and for helming eleven of the twelve "modern day" Sherlock Holmes pictures starring Basil Rathbone. His finest film may be the Holmes entry The Scarlet Claw (1944), but his last movie, the film noir Black Angel (1946), showed a visual stylist at the peak of his powers.

The film opens with an elaborate tracking shot up the side of a high-rise into the apartment of singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling). Mavis augments her income via blackmail, so it's not surprising when she winds up murdered. The police arrest Kirk Bennett (John Phillips), one of her blackmail victims who had recently ended an affair with Mavis. Despite his pleas of innocence, Kirk is found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to die.

A smiling Dan Duryea.
His wife Catherine (June Vincent) stands by Kirk throughout his ordeal. She never wavers in her belief that he is innocent. As Kirk awaits his execution, Catherine decides to conduct her own investigation. She enlists the aid of Mavis' ex-husband, Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), who reluctantly agrees to help. Catherine and Martin suspect the involvement of a nightclub owner named Marko (Peter Lorre). To collect more information on the mysterious Marko, Catherine and Martin go to work as a singing act at his club Rio's.

Catherine gets the safe combination from Marko.
The screenplay by Roy Chanslor was loosely adapted from Cornell Woolrich's 1943 novel Black Angel, which Woolrich expanded from an earlier short story called Murder in Wax. Chanslor's script actually adheres closer to the short story, which features a doozy of a twist. Both Chanslor and Woolrich have impressive writing pedigrees. Woolrich's literary works provided the plots for a number of memorable films, such as Rear Window, The Leopard Man, and The Window. Chanslor toiled mostly as a screenwriter of "B" movies, but two of his Western novels were adapted as Johnny Guitar (1954) and Cat Ballou (1965).

I'll avoid any plot spoilers here, but will note that Black Angel sports a clever twist, too. However, it may not come as a surprise for discerning viewers. The film provides a pretty good clue right from the outset. In retrospect, the twist negates a large portion of the movie, a tactic that you may find oft-putting. For me, the payoff was worth it.

Dan Duryea gets to play a sympathetic protagonist for once. He teams well with June Vincent, a good actress who spent most of her career working in television (she guest-starred on Perry Mason five times). Alas, the always enjoyable Peter Lorre has little to do as Marko.

Martin is smitten with Catherine.
Roy William Neill is the reason to see Black Angel. He often packs his scenes with information, such as when Martin and Catherine are dancing at Rio's so they can learn more about Marko. As Catherine watches Marko walking down the stairs, Martin turns his eyes to her--a brief look that lets us know he's falling for her. Neill also uses music creatively, starting with the song playing on the phonograph when Mavis' body is discovered. We later learn this song, "Heartbreak," was written by Martin for his ex-wife. Music comes into play again when Martin uses it as a cue to warn Catherine of impending doom as she breaks into Marko's wall safe.

Sadly, Roy William Neill died of a heart attack at age 59. Black Angel indicates that Universal was perhaps considering him for bigger movies. Instead, this interesting film noir represents his swan song.

This post first appeared on Classic Film And TV Café, please read the originial post: here

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Roy William Neill's "Black Angel"


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