Thursday, March 17, 2016

She's a Housewife. He's a Songwriter. Together, They Fight Crime!

We don't expect Film Noir and Hard-Boiled stories to reflect real-life in the way crimes are committed or investigated. The Hard-Boiled universe is not the real world. It plays by its own rules and, by golly, you'd better not try to tell it to do otherwise!

But a good Hard-Boiled or Noir story will immerse you and make you believe its true. That's one of the things that makes Black Angel (1946) so good. It takes a silly idea, treats that idea seriously, builds a coherent story around it, then makes us believe it.

Mavis Marlowe (Constance Downing) is a blackmailing, ruthless Femme Fatale. Generally, this is a character type that sticks around for the entire film. But she actually gets herself strangled to death pretty early on.

The cops soon tag Kirk Bennett for the crime and find more than enough evidence to get a conviction. Kirk is soon languishing on Death Row.

But his wife Catherine firmly believes he's innocent. Desperately, she tracks down Marty Blair, an alcoholic songwriter who was once married to Mavis and had good reason for wanting her dead. But Blair has an air-tight alibi.

But this leads to a housewife/songwriter team-up. Pooling what they know, they determine that a brooch missing from the crime scene would finger the real killer and they soon find good reason to believe a local nightclub owner (Peter Lorre in a typically perfect performance) is the real killer. Fortunately, Catherine can sing, so she and Marty get a gig together at the club, surreptitiously looking for the brooch whenever they have the chance.

Dan Duryea--always worth watching in a Noir film--is Marty. Catherine is played by June Vincent, a very-easy-on-the-eyes blonde who starred in a number of low-budget films in the 1940s before moving on to an active and respectable career as a character actor on about a zillion TV shows.  In Black Angel, they play very well off each other, establishing an effective rapport. That they are amateur detectives isn't ignored (and in fact, comes into play at one point in the story), but they are each written as smart enough to make us believe they can manage an investigation on their own.

The story is based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich. I haven't read that particular novel, but Woolrich is an excellent and occasionally brilliant mystery writer, so the source material is undoubtedly strong. The screenplay certainly is--the plot progresses in a logical manner. The cops (with Broderick Crawford giving a strong personality to the head Homicide detective despite limited screen time) are honest, smart and capable. Catherine's husband is on Death Row because he really looks guilty. Catherine and Marty are smart as well. All this is key--no one character is portrayed as smart by dumbing down other characters. But the amateur status of the Catherine/Marty team does come into play when it looks as if they have found their proof--only for the plot to take several unexpected and suspenseful twists. The identity of the killer is left in doubt right until the end.

Black Angel is a wonderful little Film Noir--smart, suspenseful and full of great character actors in the supporting roles.

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