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
Action/Adventure British Mystery/Noir

The Scarlet Claw

Of the many film series of the 1930s and 1940s, Sherlock Holmes stood out both for its watchability and its unusual provenance. It was launched at 20th Century Fox in 1939 as a high-end period production. But after two very strong films, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (my recommendation here), Fox unaccountably dropped the series. Enter Universal Studios, who retained the lead actors and moved the series to modern times (Partly for WWII morale building and partly as a cost-cutting measure). Universal made a dozen modestly budgeted Holmes films in rapid succession over the next four years. Financial constraints and breakneck speed of production were no barrier to quality in this case. None of the films are bad and several are outstanding, including 1944’s The Scarlet Claw.

The plot: Holmes and Watson are in Canada, participating in a conference about the occult. Holmes’ open skepticism about the supernatural irritates the organizer, Lord Penrose (Paul Cavanagh). Penrose gets a message that his wife has been murdered, and the meeting is abruptly adjourned. Holmes presently receives a telegram sent by Penrose’s wife just before her death, saying that she feels she is in grave danger and wants Holmes to help her. Despite Lord Penrose’s hostility to him, Holmes sets off for the fog shrouded town of La Mort Rouge, where the locals believe a monster is ripping the throats out of livestock and also people. The monster is targeting particular individuals for some mysterious reason…can Holmes discover the motive behind the grisly crimes and save the next intended victim?

The heart of the Universal series are the triumvirate of Producer-Director (and in the case of The Scarlet Claw, co-screenwriter) Roy William Neill and stars Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. With his mien, delivery and intelligence, Rathbone was born to play the king of detectives and he defined the role for a generation through appearances on radio, television, film and stage. Neill and Bruce decided to make Watson much more comic than he was Doyle’s stories, which irritated some Baker Street Irregulars. If you can let that go and just take the performance for what it is, you will appreciate that Bruce is indeed agreeably funny in the role and also contributes some moments of emotional warmth which balance out his calculating machine of a friend.

The Scarlet Claw (1944): Fear and Flannel | Nitrate Diva

The Scarlet Claw is a high point of the series in part because it feels like an old-fashioned Victorian Holmes story even though it is set in the present day. Unlike in prior entries, Holmes is not battling Nazis but a killer who is (as in many of the films) a pastiche from the original stories. The moody, dark surroundings in rural Canada could easily pass for the Baskerville estate in Dartmoor. Also on display are some first rate make-up and special effects work, which is essential to the story for reasons I will not reveal. The film is also the career highlight of little-known British character actor Gerald Hamer, who makes the most of the opportunity to demonstrate his versatility as a performer. Cavanagh, a handsome, solid B-movie actor who appeared in several films in the series and also in another of my recommendations, (The Kennel Murder Case) is fully at ease in the role of Lord Penrose. The script is strong and Neill by this point in the series had mastered every aspect of how to create fine Holmesian cinema. The result is a skillfully made, suspenseful mystery.

More generally, as a body of work, the Universal Sherlock Holmes films depart too significantly from the original stories for some people’s tastes, but in performances and atmosphere they stand shoulder to shoulder with the tremendous Soviet Livanov-Solomin and British Granada television versions as high-quality, sustained efforts to adapt Conan Doyle’s beloved stories to the screen. Also, the prints of these films have been beautifully restored by the angels at the UCLA film preservation archive. Scarlet Claw is my favorite, but you could pick up almost any of the Universal series and have a fine evening watching the world’s greatest detective work his magic.