Black Angel is a little-known noir based on a Cornell Woolrich novel. Woolrich’s work was adapted for film a lot: Phantom Lady and Rear Window were two such adaptations, and even Truffaut made a couple of films based on Woolrich’s books. One of his short stories was used for the under-rated noir The Window, one of the few films in that genre told through the eyes of a child.
Black Angel was directed by Roy William Neill, who was best known for directing 11 of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes short films. The plot revolves around a man (John Philipps) who is convicted of a singer’s murder (Mavis Marlowe, played by Constance Dowling.) While he’s in prison, his wife Catherine (June Bennett) teams up with Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), Mavis’s ex-husband, to clear his name. Peter Lorre appears as Mr. Marko, a dodgy nightclub owner, an easy role for Lorre to play.
The result is a solid, unfussy noir. It’s about 80 minutes long, studded with good performances, especially from Duryea, who usually played the heavy. It’s well-shot by Paul Iveno, but not particularly elaborate. Iveno started his career in the 1920s. He shot a lot of noirs and B-movies, but is better known for his second-unit work—he was the first cameraman to shoot film from a helicopter for a movie, for They Live by Night. Iveno moved on to TV in the 1960s. He was talented, and knew what to do with a modest budget.
It was the director’s last film, and probably now his most well-respected work, although his Sherlock Holmes films were of course popular. His other notable credit was the first Universal Monsters universe film, Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman.
Duryea’s character is a boozy songwriter, which may be a bit autobiographical as Woolrich was quite the boozer. Reportedly the author did not like the film, but the appreciation included here from Neil Sinyard states that Woolrich’s biographer quite liked it. While the film is quite different from the novel, perhaps it really caught the writer’s essence. So if you like films noir, it’s not the greatest ever made but it has some cool, inventive shots.
The disc includes commentary from Alan K. Rode, Sinyard’s appreciation, the theatrical trailer and a stills gallery are joined by a booklet with new writing about the film by Philip Kemp.