Sunday, March 31, 2019

Black Angel (1946) Reblogged from Down These Mean Streets

Black Angel (1946)

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Weasel.
''I looked in the mirror and knew with my "puss" and                                        155-pound weakling body, I couldn't pass for a leading                                  man. I had to be different. I thought the meaner I presented                        myself, the tougher I was with women, slapping them around                                in well produced films where evil and death seem to lurk in                            every nightmare alley and behind every venetian blind in                                    every seedy apartment, I could find a market for my screen                    characters.”  Dan Duryea, Hedda Hopper interview in the 1950s
This is as much a movie review as it is a tribute to one of                                  
Noir’s greatest heels. As we can see from the above quote,                                
Dan Duryea was an actor who knew where his talents and his 
limitations lay and as such he was able to market himself 
admirably. With his lanky built, slicked-back blond hair and a 
distinctive nasal voice it was clear to him he wasn’t really 
leading man material. He wisely chose a different path.

One thing the audience could be sure of. They knew they 
were in for a good time when they saw his name in the                                                                                                    opening credits. Duryea played pimps, gangsters, con men, 
smooth operators, snake charmers, scheming arch-louses, slime balls 
and varied other unprepossessing characters… he was 
a happy sinner and made no bones about it. In his movies he was forever on 
the make - lying, scheming, terrorizing women, all while utilizing the requisite 
stock-in-trade for his characters, the trifecta of contempt: sneering, smirking and sniveling. 

His characters’s veneer of civilization was thin at the best of times. Mostly remembered - and 
loved - for playing out and out SOBs (Scarlet Street), he didn’t restrict himself to that. He could 
play the good, the bad and the in-between. Pathetic oddly needy weaklings (The Great 
Flamarion and Another Part of the Forest/The Little Foxes); men who weren’t quite as 
callous as they thought they were (The Underworld Story); men more sinned against 
than sinning (Too Late For Tears); or the rotter as a tragic figure as in Criss Cross where he’s 
doomed because of his soft spot for an even more rotten dame who cared for nobody but 
herself. He had pathos and was occasionally almost heroic in defeat. Not all of his characters 
were ruthless, but there was always a moral laxity and ambiguity about them. His ethics were 
dodgy. Rarely ever did he play straight-arrow guys. 
When he did, it didn’t go down well with the movie-going public.

He was charismatic and he made the bad guys look good. 
Even his most outright bastards possessed charm galore 
(Winchester 73, Ride Clear of Diablo). He never 
dropped the charm for long because it was the chief 
weapon in his arsenal. There was always something 
self-deprecating about him. Here was a guy who had no 
illusions about himself and didn’t expect other people to 
have any either. Much as we want to hate 
the guy we can’t, against our better judgment.

It’s hard to explain how his slithery charm worked so well. 
Suffice it to say it just did. Maybe it was because even 
his most outright villains had enough humanity in them 
that somehow made them sympathetic. Maybe it 
was because his sneer and contemptuous attitude always 
seemed to mask inner demons which he couldn’t fight, 
a pain and suffering he couldn’t alleviate. Or maybe it was that we always get the feeling that 
Duryea’s characters sense that under all their crookedness they could have been 
someone better if the cards had been dealt differently.

What sticks mostly in people’s head though is Duryea’s itchy backhand. A New York Times 
article called him “the heel with the sex appeal”. He sure had a way with dames. Slapper 
Dan knocked ‘em and socked ‘em, more than any other actor in Hollywood. It became 
his specialty. He had a hair-trigger temper and could erupt into 
violence at the slightest provocation. The gentle touch went down well with the ladies. 
Duryea received 
bucketloads of mail from adoring female fans.

By the time Black Angel rolled around, Duryea had determinedly made his mark as the 
sneering, slap-happy heel…an image that was fast beginning to solidify itself.

So it came as a bit of a surprise for the audiences when they got Duryea The Romantic Hero 
in Black AngelThis is not the Duryea we all love to hate, or hate to love. Eddie Muller 
mentions in his book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir that the promotional material for 
the film specifically pointed out that - surprise! - 
for once Duryea doesn’t leave his fingermarks all over the dame:
“Something great has happened in Hollywood…Beautiful June Vincent met                                           dangerous Dan Duryea and escaped unscathed. Prolific Dan…touches nary a                                               strand of June’s blonde hair…”
Best advertisement I have ever read.

Black Angel may not be a landmark Noir but it’s a highly entertaining and effective                                      psychological thriller/Noir/twisted romantic drama nevertheless. Based on a story by 
Cornell Woolrich, the movie was directed by Roy William Neill, mostly known for his 
Sherlock Holmes films. 

Woolrich’s stories are not horror stories in the classic sense but everyday tales of horror, filled with existential angst, paranoia and the aura of claustrophobia and entrapment. His appeal as a writer lies not in his often convoluted, messy plots, but in his bleak worldview. His protagonists exist invariably on the razor edge of impending disaster. They spiral down a vortex into a nightmare from which there is no escape. In fact in Woolrich’s works reality and nightmare become interchangeable. Woolrich’s protagonists can try to fight against their ghastly fate but there is nothing like safe passage.

The picture barely resembles the Cornell Woolrich novel it’s adapted from. As with most of Woolrich’s stories, the adaptations are not pristine, they’re sanitized. They’re missing the abject Nihilism and desperation of 
the writer’s vision. The author had used and reworked the basic plot premise of 
Black Angel several times, but in 1943 he published the ultimate version as 
The Black Angel. A wife, here called Alberta Murray,  tries to save her philandering 
husband from execution for the murder of his mistress. Her quest leads her down a path 
of  corruption and destructiveness. She tracks down several men in the victim’s life and 
destroys them, making her the “black angel” of the title. But her ventures into sordid worlds 
have made her realize the staleness of her relationship 
with her husband. She’s fallen in love with one of her victims and has become a different 
woman. She enjoyed the depths of depravity she had plumbed to.
The PCA couldn’t let that stand. Breen’s sanitation crew got onto the job and 
consequently Woolrich was not happy with the film version. 

The movie dispenses with a lot of sordidness but keeps some twists and turns. It runs on 
similar lines as Phantom Lady, also based on a Woolrich story. There it is a secretary 
who’s trying to free the boss she’s in love with, here it is a wife trying to free her husband. 
Cathy Bennett is the avenging angel, the Girl Friday who 
has to solve the crime simply because there is no one else to do it. There’s definitively a 
wartime metaphor trying to get out - men were away fighting so the girls had to take care 
of business.
Catherine Bennett’s (June Vincent) 
husband Kirk (John Phillips) has been 
found guilty of the murder of his 
mistress Mavis Marlowe 
(Constance Dowling) and he’s been 
sentenced to die for it. She was a 
shantoozy and gold-digger who had 
been blackmailing him, and many 
other men on top of that. Catherine 
is desperate, she can’t 
believe her husband would commit 
murder. She finds Mavis's 
ex-husband Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), 
an alcoholic songwriter, and begs 
him to help her clear Kirk as Blair 
saw a mystery man enter Mavis’s 
apartment on the evening of her murder. 
Together they set out to catch the real 
murderer. Blair agrees to help Catherine track down a brooch 
he gave to Mavis which it seems the murderer took with him. 
They reason that if they find the brooch, they find the killer.
The trail leads them to shady nightclub impresario Marko 
(Peter Lorre). His place, Rio’s, was the place of Mavis’s 
last employment. Catherine and Blair go undercover as 
a double act. But their search leads them down one blind alley after another.

June Vincent does her best with a role that doesn’t give her much leeway. She is a 
proactive heroine, not just a long-suffering wife who sits around moping at home while 
her cheating husband waits for the chair. The problem is that the film applies a liberal coat 
of whitewash to Cathy, to the point of blandness. There isn’t even 
the slightest hint of moral ambiguity about her and that makes her character a bit of a 
hard sell for me. She’s lamentably wholesome. As we’ve seen with Lucille Ball in 
The Dark Corner, Lizabeth Scott in Martha Ivers, 
Susan Hayward in Deadline At Dawn and especially with Ella Rains in Phantom Lady
the good girls of Noir don’t have to be boring. When Ella Rains goes to that questionable 
jazz club at night to meet Elisha Cook the audience can’t have failed to raise an 
eyebrow or two. The offbeat vibes in that joint weren’t just the haze from reefers. 
Cathy never even suffers a moment of doubt. Not about her husband and not about 
giving in to Blair. She’s Miss Goody-Two-Shoes throughout. She looks fabulous in 
her evening gowns but she’s so resolutely virtuous 
that it borders on tedious. Oddly enough it is exactly this virtuousness that brings pain
and heartbreak to Blair. Vincent had a considerably more interesting role as the femme 
fatale in Shed No Tears.

Black Angel isn’t helped by the presence of John Phillip as Kirk. We wonder why Cathy is so steadfastly loyal to her louse of a spouse. Frankly, this wouldn’t be an issue for me if Kirk had been played by a more charismatic actor. Phillips worked under a slight disadvantage. He had no personality. As it stands he’s simply a charisma vacuum. Yes, sexual attraction works in mysterious ways but Cathy’s overpowering passion for her husband is a tough lozenge to swallow and when she states that there will never be another man for her than Kirk, the audience collectively shake their heads.

Peter Lorre is always good value for the money but here he’s mostly wasted in a stock role. He brings his trademark sleazy “charm” to the table, but he isn’t given enough to do.

Broderick Crawford, an unlikely box office hit if there ever was one, is unfortunately relegated to playing barely there fourth banana. He’d do much better 
in Born Yesterday, Scandal Sheet and All the King’s Men.

Constance Dowling leaves quite an impression in her short scenes as Mavis. She has been supplementing her 
income with a little blackmail. It’s not a nice thing to do but then, a girl’s gotta make a living too. Mavis likes 
the good life. Her apartment reeks of garish splendor. Blackmail is a lucrative business. There’s no doubt that 
Mavis needed killing but it’s a shame she got bumped off so quickly. The film would have been a lot more fun 
had she stayed around a while longer, just for entertainment purposes. 

Dan Duryea is the one who effortlessly carries the movie. A full-time drunk and part-time songwriter, he’s a 
sympathetic figure and a tormented soul. Blair likes a drink…or ten. Night after night he can be found at his 
usual watering holes pickling himself in cheap hooch. Day in day out one drunken binge after another, to 
drown his sorrows. The man is not a sucker or loser per se, it’s just that he can’t curb the drinking habit he 
acquired because of a rotten dame. Blair is still stuck on his blackmailing cheat of a wife, try as he might he 
can’t get her out of his head. He wrote the song “Heartbreak” for Mavis which runs like a leitmotif through 
the entire picture. It’s entirely appropriate. It depicts the duality of romantic idealization and subsequent 

Blair is in self-destruct mode. It’s a nuanced and 
affecting performance on Duryea’s part, almost as good as 
Ray Milland’s in The Lost Weekend. True alcoholism is 
something rarely seen in classic film and Black Angel 
doesn’t sugarcoat anything. Addiction is ugly and Duryea 
doesn’t shy away from the ugliness. To the film’s credit 
Blair’s alcoholism is never played for laughs.
Duryea’s acting is really outstanding in the sequences where 
Blair wallows in drunken despair. The night of Mavis’s murder 
is a blank spot in his memory after one more all-night bender. 
To the best of his knowledge he slept off his hangover in bed 
after getting kicked out of Mavis's building by the doorman. 
When Cathy finds him the next morning he’s still in an 80 
proof haze.

He lives in a lousy dump of a boarding house that is in 
stark contrast to Mavis’s swanky apartment. Blair’s flophouse pad has all the mod cons to be expected of 
such surroundings. Iron prison bed, peeling plaster where he strikes his matches, hot plate in the corner. The 
lifestyle of the poor and famous. Whatever aspirations to class he may have had long vanished in this hell on earth.
His friend Joe (Wallace Ford) literally has to nurse him through his drunken comas. Because of his memory lapses 
he’s dangerous to himself and others, so Joe locks him in his room when he’s on a bender. In Black Angel it’s 
not fate that Blair has no control over but alcohol and his own inability to cope with it.

Blair is an incurable romantic. Reluctantly he agrees to help Cathy but soon finds himself falling in love with her, 
as she is everything his wife was not. Kind, caring and loyal. Black Angel is just as much Noir as it is romance 
and a story of (almost) redemption. After Mavis broke his heart he fell deeper and deeper into a bottomless 
pit of despair and booze but he kept on digging. Along comes Cathy and he thinks this could be the beginning 
of a beautiful friendship. He lays off the bottle but he can’t catch a break. Cathy can’t return his affections. 
Through his love for her he becomes a better man but when she rejects him, he dives right back into the bottle.

The movie employs one of 40s Hollywood’s most cherished themes, amnesia, which had its roots in the 
plight of returning servicemen who came home desperately trying to forget what couldn't be forgotten. The 
unforgettable refused to let itself be summarily dismissed. Amnesia became a primary Noir metaphor. There was 
almost an epidemic of movies dealing with the disease. Somewhere in the Night, The Crooked Way, 
Twelve O’Clock Courage, The Locket, Crack up, The Chase, So Dark the Night, High Wall to name just 
a few. Protagonists delved deep into their suppressed memories, reliving horrors, picking up the pieces of a 
broken life and reconstructing the past from scratch. They didn’t always know what they would unearth. The 
mind had become unchartered territory. Careful. Here be dragons. 

It wasn’t always amnesia brought on by horrific war 
experiences that films focused on. Noir explored a further 
path using amnesia as a device for alienation and 
psychological entrapment taken to the extreme, often brought 
on by shock, other traumatic experiences or addiction, a 
condition Woolrich was very familiar with. A dark self - an 
alien doppelgänger - lurked within the protagonist, 
completely unbeknownst to him. Exorcising the demons of 
one’s own mind was fraught with terror because you never 
knew what you might find. Imogen Sara Smith writes in her 
Noir City Magazine article Lushly Lovesick, Dan Duryea in 
Black Angel:
“…not only are people incapable of knowing what they’re capable of, they don’t even know what they’ve actually done. They can never be certain of anything, except that things are probably worse than they appear”. 
And indeed they are. Blair stumbles through the entire movie with only the vaguest sense of (un)reality. There’s a 
great psychedelic scene towards the end of the picture when Blair finally remembers what happened that fateful 
night. It rivals Phillip Marlowe’s hallucinatory scene of in Murder, My Sweet. After yet another all-night bender 
Blair wakes up in an alcoholic ward. Through the boozy haze of his half-forgotten memory reality surfaces. 
He finally remembers - in a flashback scene - what the alcoholic blackout had erased from his mind. He killed 
Mavis. Just when we thought we had it all figured out, events take an unexpected turn, though there are 
clues throughout, for example the song “Heartbreak” that plays after the murder on the record player.
In a bleak little bit of irony Blair, who thought he had an alibi due to being locked into his room by his friend, had 
actually paid the flophouse attendant 25 cents to let him out of the room on the night of the murder. 25 cents 
decided a woman’s fate. Life is cheap.

As opposed to the novel, Blair turns out to be the black angel, not Catherine. Many viewers thought the ending 
too implausible and far-fetched - and not unjustifiably so - but it is Noir if anything is in the movie. The cruelty 
of fate. Here is a man who’s allowed a brief glimpse of hope and the possibility of love. But right around the next 
corner there’s yet another blind alley with a barred gate at the end. Love is an impossible dream. First You Dream, 
Then You Die is the title of Francis Nevins’s Woolrich biography. I’m hard-pressed to find a more fitting epitaph 
for the author’s life, or any of his protagonists for the matter.

The ending of course had to adhere to Code conventions. Blair does the right thing and confesses. He chooses self-sacrifice even if he’ll have to die for his crime. Duryea makes the last-minute twist convincing because he’s believable as both a deranged killer and a basically good man.

However, here’s a thought. It’s interesting and slightly subversive to note that the man who turns out to be the killer in the end would be a better choice of husband for Cathy than Kirk probably ever was.

In the Audie Murphy Western Ride Clear of Diablo Duryea utters the interesting line: “If I ever started feeling like a human being, I’d shoot myself.” In Black Angel Duryea acts like a human being, albeit a flawed one.

I’m not quite sure if Saint Dan sits well with me. He’s very engaging in Black Angel and plays inner turmoil well but I think I’ll have to go watch Scarlet Street now. I prefer my Duryea mean, not mawkish.

Noirsville Noir Art



Gentle Rest - Pino Daeni

Stop Looking For Love - Gina Higgins - American Noir

Despair - Unknown

Jazz Club -  Unknown
City - Sara Yuster

Richard Hopper
don't tell mama - Teresa Moore


Saturday, March 30, 2019

Noirsville Bonus Shower/Bath Scenes a Strange Compulsion (Part 11)

It took 78 camera setups, and 53 cuts, seven days of filming  to construct the 45 second shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960).  It's uneasy to watch, queasy for the faint of heart, and compulsively sleazy as we all willingly become the voyeurs of a woman taking a shower. For me the seminal sequence  runs "Eye to Eye."  The bonus on subject celluloid and amateur studies from film and still photography below will be equally book-ended "Eye to Eye."