Any woman who has Dan Duryea and Peter Lorre calling on her at her apartment on the same evening is in trouble. Or at least that’s what I thought at first. The woman actually is the one who turns out to be trouble in this twisty, oddly romantic noir. Not that the woman lasts very long.
Martin Blair (Dan Duryea) is a composer who cannot get over his estranged wife, singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling). He tries to see her on their anniversary and she won’t even let him up to her apartment, though a mysterious man (Peter Lorre) is allowed up. Martin Blair retreats to a bar to drown his sorrows and play on the piano the song he wrote for her, “Heartbreak.”
Later, yet a third man, Kirk Bennett (John Phillips), enters her apartment and finds her dead, strangled with her own scarf. He is accused of the crime and sentenced to death. His wife, however, refuses to give up and sets out prove his innocence. Her search leads her first to Martin Blair, who is very hung-over.
But after a rocky first meeting, Catherine Bennett (June Vincent) piques his interest with her sympathy and with the story she tells him of the missing brooch. Kirk Bennett claimed to the police that when he entered the apartment, Mavis Marlowe was wearing a ruby, heart-shaped brooch. But as he searched the apartment he realized that he was not alone and someone stole the brooch. The police don’t believe his story, but Martin knows that he had, in fact, sent that brooch to Mavis that evening to try to remind her of his love for her.
Cathy and Martin soon go after Peter Lorre’s character, nightclub owner Marko. They form a team – Carver and Martin – with her singing and he playing the piano (and writing her songs) so they can audition for Marko’s floor show and get closer to him and his safe (where they believe some letters from Mavis are). And all the while Martin falls hard for Cathy, staying away from alcohol and even writing a song for her. But for Cathy there is still only Kirk Bennett.
For being a film noir, the music (composed by Frank Skinner) is surprisingly romantic and the romantic songs (written by Edgar Fairchild and Jack Brooks) feature prominently, with June Vincent singing a couple songs (I’m assuming she is not doing her own singing, though I don’t really know – I tend to doubt unless I hear otherwise). It’s tragic romantic. Martin Blair is a troubled man who can’t handle his love, which seems to overpower him and drive him helplessly to destroy himself. He’s self-destructive, but adores Cathy. He believes she owes nothing to Kirk and wants her to leave him. He has a way of giving his heart away wholesale, without checking to see the woman wants it or not.
Since this is Dan Duryea, I kept expecting him to verge over into creepy obsessive love for Cathy, but he never does…though one feels it’s in him. This is, after all, the man who played the possessive husband of Yvonne De Carlo in Criss Cross who also, in his own way, loved his wife (even if he does shoot her). He makes a very convincing anti-hero, though. Someone you feel sorry for (though he repeatedly says he hates to be felt sorry for…perhaps because he knows he deserves it), but also know is disturbed, with his disappointed, romantic soul.
June Vincent is okay as Cathy. She seemed to be sending mixed signals with her body language and face, as if she ought to be, by all rights, a femme fatale trying to seduce Martin instead of a desperate wife. And a very loyal one, which was slightly frustrating. Kirk Bennett cheated on her and seems rather bland and indifferent to her, but as she tells Martin, there is only one man for her and that there only ever is one man.
Peter Lorre elevates anything he’s in, though he does not get an especially large role. His character has a few unexpected sides to him, though. He’s willing to give a character a new shot at life – perhaps because that is what he’s currently trying to do for himself? He also manages some sly humor, which contrasts with his rather dim bouncer, Lucky (Freddie Steele).
Constance Dowling as Mavis Marlowe looks like trouble the moment the camera lays eyes on her – a very effective femme fatale and I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of her. And Broderick Crawford plays the detective who is just doing his job and has been made world-weary by it all. But the film primarily belongs to Dan Duryea and it is nice to see him in a leading role for a change.
The film is based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich. Woolrich is less known than other crime writers – like Hammett and Chandler – but is responsible for “Rear Window,” No Man of Her Own, Phantom Lady. There have been literally dozens of films based on his stories.
Black Angel is currently available on youtube.
Here is the trailer for Black Angel. I’m not sure the trailer really does give an idea of the story – trailers can be rather deceptive, even today.