You just got to play detective, don’t you? Do I go around playing piano? — Capt. Flood, Black Angel

1946’s Black Angel isn’t the most well-known film noir adapted from a Cornell Woolrich novel. That honor goes to 1944’s Phantom Lady, the story of a woman investigating a murder to free her lover. That’s more or less the premise here: A woman has been killed, and the police suspect the woman’s lover, married man Kirk Bennett (John Phillips). Catherine Bennet (June Vincent) knows her husband may be a philander, but he’s no murderer. She’ll get no help from police captain Flood (Broderick Crawford), but Martin Blair (Dan Duryea) will lend a hand and find the real killer before the state of California puts Kirk Bennett to death. And who is Blair’s dog in the fight? The dead woman happens to be his wife.

Blair and Bennett suspect nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre), and to get close to him, pose as a musical act. She sings, and he plays the piano. Naturally, fantasy bleeds into reality, and Blair finds himself drawn to Bennett. Too bad Blair is played by “Dangerous Dan” Duryea, as the trade papers called him, and things are not what they seem.

They never are in noir — a popular cycle of films commonly placed between 1941 and 1953. Some are classics. Many have disappeared and await discovery. Black Angel, newly restored by Arrow Academy and currently on Blu-ray, is firmly in the latter.

Directed by Roy William Neill, Black Angel is the filmmaker’s first and only foray into the noir cycle. Neill started in the silent era and, according to Philip Kemp’s essay, “Swansong of a Neglected Moviemaker,” made 50 films, almost all of them now lost. Acclaim came with a series of 11 Sherlock Holmes adaptations starring Basil Rathbone, but never enough to make his way up to the big leagues. Instead, Neill learned to make the most out of limited budgets, a hallmark of both horror and noir filmmakers.

Horror and noir: two of Hollywood’s most popular and longest-lasting genres. Westerns and musicals were Hollywood’s bread and butter for decades, but their luster has waned considerably with modern audiences. Not true with horror (which never really went away) and noir (which seems to be having a resurgence).

And there’s more than just a passing connection between the two. Whereas horror is often set in motion by supernatural interference (an ancient curse, haunting spirits, possessed objects or locations), noir is more material, more pedestrian. In horror, something or someone does it to you. In noir, you do it to yourself.

Demon booze is the main culprit in Black Angel: Booze and heartbreak. One of the film’s signature moments comes from an elongated flashback, a drunken fever dream, with Neill and cinematographer Paul Ivano using optical effects to give the image a wavy ripple. It works exceptionally well because what we’ve seen before is pretty standard stuff. The frame captures the performances, and the lighting captures the mood. Still, neither creates a third layer of aesthetic despair like The Killers (which opened the same week in 1946) or Phantom Lady (directed by Robert Siodmak and shot by Woody Bredell).

The lack of that third layer might explain why Black Angel has remained largely unseen or un-written about while the above two are in constant reparatory rotation. No matter, there is still much to appreciate with Black Angel, particularly Duryea’s performance and Vincent’s singing. Lorre is especially repellent here: Cigarette dangling from his lower lip, collar shirts plunging so low you can see his chest hair tufting above his bowtie. Few played the heavy better, even Broderick Crawford leaning across the table, or Dangerous Dan standing right next to him.

In real life, Duryea was anything but dangerous. Hailing from White Plains, New York, Duryea was clean-cut and upstanding. But that’s not what audiences wanted. They wanted him mean, particularly mean to women. And, as scholar Alan K. Rode points out on the commentary track, “they” in this case were women, legions of them, who wrote to Duryea’s fan club with slap requests. Or, that when Duryea beat up his leading ladies, it reminded them of their husbands. Fame like this didn’t sit well with Duryea, but his audience wouldn’t have it any other way. How very noir: He was hoping for a life one way, but the world wanted it another way.

Arrow Films has gorgeously restored Black Angel and is currently available on Blu-ray from Arrow Academy.

Black Angel (1946)
Directed by Roy William Neill
Screenplay by Roy Chanslor
Based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich
Produced by Tom McKnight, Roy William Neill
Starring: Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre, Broderick Crawford, Constance Dowling, Wallace Ford, Hobart Cavanaugh
Universal Pictures, Not rated, Running time 81 minutes, Released Aug. 2, 1946.
Available on Blu-ray from Arrow Academy.
Special features:

  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Philip Kemp
  • Gallery of original stills and promotional materials
  • Reversible sleeve featuring two artwork options
  • Original trailer
  • “A Fitting End,” a new video appreciation by the film historian Neil Sinyard
  • New audio commentary by the writer and film scholar Alan K. Rode