Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Black Angel (1946)

When bar singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling) is murdered, quite a bit of circumstantial evidence points to her lover Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) as the murderer, enough so that the glorious American justice systems sees fit to sentence him to death.

Ironically, the only one who believes Kirk's insistence on his innocence is the one he's been lying to all along, his wife Catherine (June Vincent). After the sentencing, June decides to put all her energy into finding the only piece of evidence that could exonerate Kirk, a heart-shaped broach Mavis's killer took with him. Her investigation leads Catherine to Mavis's estranged husband, the pianist and composer Marty (Dan Duryea). Something about June pulls Marty out of the alcoholic stupor that is his usual state of mind, and convinces the alcoholic to help the desperate yet gutsy woman.

The trail leads the new partners to bar owner Marko (Peter Lorre, obviously having a lot of fun with his pasted-on cigarette). Marko may or may not have had good reasons of his own to kill Mavis. Catherine at least is convinced Marko is hiding the broach in his safe, so she and Marty develop a plan to get closer to the man and his safe 70s Bollywood would approve of: they turn into a singer/pianist duo (quite like that of Mavis and Marty once were) and hire on in Marko's establishment. Things don't go as planned, of course.

Ray William Neill's Black Angel (based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, like so many other noirs) is a very fine, b-list Universal noir that contains so many elements typical of what we now think of as part of the noir genre, listing them may make the film sound like a parody, or at least as a pretty dumb series of clichés. Thanks to Neill's atmospheric direction and a script that contains quite a few moments of cleverness and hidden depth, nothing could be further from the truth, for if you do it right, you can make clichés sing like the truth, while certain improbabilities of plotting always seem to be rather the point of film noir anyway.

Of course, when it comes to helping me ignore improbabilities and clichés in a movie, a nice ensemble of actors like the one working here is useful too. Duryea, Vincent and Lorre in a good mood - like they are here - would be more than able to convince me of much less believable things, like politicians not in the pocket of big media corporations.

While the film contains more than enough inventive visual moments - Neill sure loves transitions that are more than just cuts to the next scene, and does put an equal amount of effort in meaningful framing of scenes, which gives the whole affair a pleasant visual flow that only breaks when it is supposed to break - this isn't one of those noirs where the emphasis truly lies on the visual side of things.

Neill seems more interested in the subtextual load his script offers, and the way it plays with and sometimes against certain noir stereotypes. Just to take an obvious example, this isn't a film where a male main character is seduced or beset by a femme fatale (though one could argue that the typical male lead in these films really seduces himself), but rather one where the absence of the femme fatale creates a void at least one of the male characters needs to fill.

From a certain perspective, Black Angel is a film exploring its lack of a living femme fatale. It is certainly no accident that Marty seems to attempt to turn Catherine into a woman very much like his dead wife, nor will it come as a surprise that Catherine loses more of her scruples the longer she stays in the role men seem to want her to play. The film's not so crass as to have her turn "bad", but it's still a clear part of the set-up. I'm of the opinion that the femme fatale in most noirs isn't so much the deadly and infinitely ruthless monster the films pretend she is, but a useful foil on which the genre's male main characters can project their own weakness, and Marty's creation of his own private femme fatale here looks like a point in favour of that idea to me.


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