Black Angel, a noir from 1946, is really a run of the mill B picture until its socko ending, which I won’t spoil here. The first time I saw it I was amazed at how the twist works, but viewing it a second time, knowing what was coming, the film didn’t hold up as well.
Set in Los Angeles, the film begins with a forlorn Dan Duryea (a wonderful character actor of the period) standing outside an apartment building. The camera, in a bit of crude but effective special effects, swoops up and in through a window, where a beautiful woman is preparing to meet someone. She’s a famous singer, and about as warm as a rattlesnake. Duryea, who wrote a hit song for her, is her estranged husband, but she won’t see him. After being thrown out of the building by her doorman, he goes on a bender, and is put in bed by his friend (Wallace Ford).
It turns out the singer (played by model Constance Dowling) is a blackmailer, and a poor sap (John Phillips) shows up at her apartment to find her murdered. He does everything dumb, such as touching a gun lying on the bed to fleeing, but not before he’s spotted. He gets convicted and sentenced to death, but his devoted wife (June Vincent) believes in his innocence. She tracks down Duryea who, sensing the goodness in her, decides to help. Finding a matchbook with a phone number in it leads them to a nightclub run by Peter Lorre, and the two go undercover as a pianist and singer duo to see if they can find incriminating evidence against him.
The spine of the film is the redemption of Duryea, who falls in love with Vincent. He cleans himself up and quits booze, though seeing the bottles in her cupboard makes him pause. The film has other charms, notably Lorre, who slinks through the film like a reptile, a cigarette dangling from his lower lip, his lummox of a bouncer, played by boxer Freddie Steele, and Broderick Crawford, with that marvelously silky voice, plays the sympathetic detective on the case. But the story is pretty thin until that ending.
It was directed by Roy William Neal, who made many of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes pictures (it would be his last film) and based on a novel by hardboiled writer Cornell Woolrich, who hated the adaptation (I have a feeling the film softened a lot up). It has many noir staples, such as the cold woman (Dowling’s acting career never really took off, and she died in 1969 at age 49 of a heart attack) and the wonderful “drinking” montage, with Duryea shown stumbling down the street, or slumped at table, with the neon signs of various bars floating around him.
Black Angel is not a great film, but it’s a nice bit of film noir.