Categories
Mystery/Noir

Black Angel

duryea

Dan Duryea, sometimes called “the heel with sex appeal” was usually cast as a second lead or a one-dimensional villain (For example in the outstanding noir Too Late for Tears, recommended here). But in 1946, he landed a leading part that let him show that he could portray complex characters with competing motives: Black Angel.

Duryea plays Martin Blair, an alcoholic once-successful tunesmith/piano player who has been on the decline since he was dumped by his beautiful but thoroughly self-absorbed and evil wife Mavis (Constance Dowling). Still carrying a torch for his ex, Martin tries to visit her at her apartment on their wedding anniversary but is ejected by the doorman. Before walking away, he notices a suspicious looking character (Peter Lorre) being admitted to Mavis’ apartment. Later in the evening, yet another man, Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) enters Mavis’ apartment, also apparently looking for love. He finds her strangled body, leading the police, in the form of no nonsense Captain Flood (Broderick Crawford), to slap the cuffs on him. Bennett is sentenced to die, but his heroic and devoted wife Catherine (June Vincent) believes he is innocent (of murder, anyway). She rouses Blair from his latest bender and the two set off to find the real killer. Suspense, romance and some fantastic plot twists ensue.

As you might have guessed, this film is a bit overplotted, but every scene engages due to the quality of the acting and the fine work of Director/Producer Roy William Neill, who is best known for his masterful adaptations of Sherlock Holmes (I recommended one of them here). I consider Black Angel Duryea’s finest hour, because he has so much to do and does it all well. After his early scenes of drunken desperation he sobers up and does a tremendous job conveying his growing but frustrated love for Catherine even while he knows they are both working to save her husband.

Black Angel (1946) — The Movie Database (TMDb)

As for Peter Lorre, there’s something about him as an actor that whenever he walks into a movie with a long cigarette just barely hanging out of his mouth, the audience knows they are going to be entertained. If there exists a film that doesn’t benefit from his presence, I don’t know what it is. Last but not least, June Vincent is moving as the wife who will do anything to save her wayward husband, most memorably in her wordless, teary recognition that she is going to have to get between the sheets with Lorre’s character if she is ever to learn the truth.

Paul Ivano’s photography is generally workmanlike, with two notable exceptions. Both the opening tracking shot/dissolve from Duryea on the street to Mavis’ apartment building and the closing alcoholic memory sequence are creative and arresting. On a different note (pun intended), the well-executed musical sequences are smoothly integrated into the story and enhance the movie’s mood. It all adds up a highly satisfying night at the movies for noir films as well as for cinema goers more generally.

p.s. If you like this excellent film noir you might also enjoy another of my recommendations, The Chase, which like Black Angel is a loose 1946 adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich novel that features fine supporting work by Lorre, again with one of those cigarettes hanging on to his upper lip for dear life.

Categories
Mystery/Noir

Too Late for Tears

I’ve recommended I Walk Alone, a 1948 gangster melodrama directed by Byron Haskin with Lizabeth Scott and Kristen Miller in supporting parts and Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in the leads. The following year, the first three of those talented people re-teamed to make Too Late for Tears. This time around, men move to the back of the room to make space for the women characters, the noir elements are much more pronounced, and the script offers a more tightly constructed and cleverly plotted story. The result is an even better movie, indeed a treasure of the film noir canon.

The plot has so many surprises that it’s hard to summarize without spoliers, so I will confine myself to the set up. The Palmers are driving down a lonely, winding canyon road. Alan Palmer is a straightforward, true blue type who loves and trusts his wife (or so it seems…). Jane Palmer has been married before to a man who committed suicide (apparently…) and complains that she is tired of not having enough money. But she is so happy to have Arthur as her husband that she doesn’t mind that he isn’t rich (or so she says…). And then, a miracle. Another car throws a suitcase full of kale into their back seat and then drives away without explanation. Clearly some mistake has been made and they ought to go to the police, but it’s so so tempting to keep so so much money. And then they see another car pursuing them: Is it driven by the person who was supposed to receive the payoff that has landed in their lap?

To reveal more would be an injustice. Roy Huggins, who later went on to TV Hall of Famedom for The Rockford Files and The Fugitive, deserves roses for his ingeniously plotted script. It keeps the viewer guessing (usually, wrong) and ties up all the loose ends in a satisfying conclusion.

Kristine Miller, as the sister-in-law who has never really trusted Jane Palmer, has some wonderful scenes with Scott where they are pleasant on the surface but clearly jousting underneath. I find it strange that the alluring and talented Miller never became a star, but she said in late life that in the end Producer Hal Wallis “didn’t know what to do with her”. That’s a shame, because with the right vehicle she could have captured the public’s imagination in way she ultimately did not in the 1940s and 1950s.

The male supporting players, Arthur Kennedy as Alan Palmer, Dan Duryea as a slimy grifter and Don DeFore as a man with mysterious motives, turn in solid performances. And Haskins, in contrast to I Walk Alone, seems in full command from the director’s chair, partly no doubt due to experience and partly because he has a stronger storyline this around.

But this movie is first and foremost dominated by Lizabeth Scott, in a knockout performance. She had an unusual life in film. She looks and sounds like a cross between Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall, and indeed was packaged as a Bacall-type by Hal Wallis. She spent almost her entire career making crime melodramas and film noirs in the 1940s (the fine picture Dead Reckoning with Humphrey Bogart being the mostly widely remembered). And then in the 1950s her career swooned, perhaps because the tabloid press reported that she was a lesbian (Ms. Scott, who lived until 2015, shunned publicity for over a half-century, so her view of what happened remains unknown).

I criticized her somewhat stilted performance in I Walk Alone, but I can do nothing but praise her tour-de-force in Too Late for Tears. She owns the screen, in one of a handful of movies made right after the war that was willing to put a tough woman at the center of the story (for another, see my review of Strange Impersonation). In her words, expressions and physical movements, Scott brings alive a femme fatale of hidden motives, craftiness and tough-as-nails pursuit of money. She’s a nasty, manipulative piece of work such that when a tough male actor like Dan Duryea is clearly shocked and repulsed about how much more brutal she is than he ever could be, the audience nods along, mouth agape.

Comparing this film to I Walk Alone is a good way to learn about the nature of film noir. Although I Walk Alone is often mentioned in books about the genre and Too Late for Tears is not, the latter is a much more fully realized example of the style. Look for example at the washed out set design in the Palmers’ apartment and the lighting and camerawork in Scott’s scenes with Duryea. The bleak view of human nature and the number of characters trapped by irresistible, bad impulses are also defining features of what is probably the most completely developed style of American film (Even though, of course, its precursors are European). Why Too Late for Tears isn’t mentioned in the same breath with other noir classics is a mystery to me, because it ranks with the very best of the genre.