No author furnished more material for the classic film noir era than Cornell Woolrich. And none of his novels got a better straight noir adaptation than his 1943 classic The Black Angel. Universal’s 1946 movie version, Black Angel, (I don’t know why they lopped “The” from the title) is as quintessentially Woolrich as his adaptations get. Yes, Rear Window is a better movie, but it’s distinctly a “Hitchcock movie,” while Black Angel is 100% a “Woolrich movie” from the era he helped to define. Phantom Lady (1944) established what a Woolrich novel could be on screen; Black Angel (1946) is the full maturation of Woolrich film noir and is on my shortlist for the best of the style from the 1940s.
The nature of the book The Black Angel required special changes for the screen. The novel is written in a highly subjective first-person style that is difficult to translate to the more objective medium of film; using a voice-over from the protagonist, a common film noir narrative strategy, wouldn’t work with such a jagged, unreliable viewpoint. The novel also uses an episodic structure that doesn’t comfortably fit the confines of an eighty-minute movie.
The screenplay removes the singular POV from the character of Alberta Murray, renamed Catherine Bennett, and gives the audience access to characters and scenes that Alberta from the book couldn’t know. Different episodes are compressed and the drug-peddling Dr. Mordaunt sequence is junked entirely, but it’s the book’s pulpiest section and an easy cut to make. Martin Blair is expanded into a lead and combined with the characteristics of another character, Ladd Mason. In fact, Marty Blair is more the Ladd Mason part than the book’s Marty Blair. Dangerous nightclub owner McKee remains, but his name is changed to Marko to better fit a performer like Peter Lorre. The location shifts from New York to Los Angeles, where it uses the Hollywood backdrop for more entertainment cynicism. L.A. is one the film noir capitals anyway, I’ll allow it. It’s my town.
The movie opens with Mia Mercer—now changed to singer Mavis Marlowe—still alive, and her estranged drunken piano-playing husband Marty Blair (Dan Duryea) trying to get into her apartment to see her. Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) arrives at Mavis’s place later and discovers her shot to death. Kirk was going to see Mavis to scare her off from blackmailing him, but his poorly-timed return puts him into the grip of the police—the worst spot to be in Woolrich’s world. The cops, led by the cold-blooded Captain Flood (Broderick Crawford), arrest Kirk and drill him. The evidence against Kirk is too overwhelming, and just as in Phantom Lady, a jury convicts him and a judge sends him to Death Row.
Kirk’s wife Cathy (June Vincent) goes on a quest to clear his name by discovering which of Mavis’s other male acquaintances may have done the deed. This leads her first to the sodden Marty. Marty can prove he’s innocent, and then joins Cathy in trying to find the killer. A matchbook in Mavis’s apartment puts them on the trails of nightclub owner and all-around suspicious fellow Marko. (As if a character played by Peter Lorre could avoid looking suspicious in film noir.) The two pose as a pianist and singer duo to land a job in Marko’s club, The Rio, so they have an opportunity to find the one clue to exonerate Kirk: a missing brooch taken from Mavis’s body. However, the partnership between Marty and Cathy has started to give the lonesome piano player ideas about him and his Black Angel.
All this comes straight from the novel, except the filmmakers have woven it together differently for the screen to avoid the book’s episodic structure. It’s an impressive screenplay from Roy Chanslor, taking an experimentally structured novel and making it work over eighty-one-minutes without losing its essential characters or scenes. The twist ending is identical, and if the movie doesn’t achieve the existential bleakness of Woolrich’s conclusion, it’s hard to imagine any film that could and not leave an audience near-suicidal. I condone softening some of Woolrich’s bleakest stories for a general audience, which is why Night Has a Thousand Eyes has never gotten a faithful adaptation and probably never will.
Director Roy William Neill was a busy contract man at Universal. He made most of the studio’s Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone, where he developed a Gothic-horror style that extended into the modern-day settings. Black Angel was his final film and his best. It has a wonderful atmosphere and complex camera moves and set-ups that create mood without becoming ostentatious. Only in one place does the style draw attention to itself, and that’s in the opening, where an effects shot flies past a street sign for Wilshire to a high window in an apartment and through the blinds. It’s an impressive effect for its day and not far off from what Hitchcock would do with the opening of Psycho.
Broderick Crawford and Dan Duryea are cast perfectly. They’re the most quintessentially Woolrichian actors I can imagine. Crawford embodies the figure of the heartless, merciless Woolrich cop; a character who gives you the chills even when he’s showing sympathy. The scene of the police grilling Kirk isn’t from the novel, but it’s perfect Woolrich. Crawford is a languidly scary monster in this scene, and the staging calls to mind any of Woolrich’s many examples of casual police brutality.
I’ve talked about Dan Duryea when I looked at 1949’s Criss Cross. He was an actor who could appear easily in both Westerns and film noir with his “dirty” style of acting. Duryea often played villains in noir, such as in Criss Cross and Scarlet Street. Here he plays a more subtle antihero: the downtrodden, mentally disturbed Woolrich loser. It’s one of the best page-to-screen Woolrich character transfers ever, and Duryea deserves most of the credit.
Black Angel is currently available on Blu-ray from Arrow Films in an exclusive restoration from a 35mm fine grain positive and dupe negative made available by NBC Universal. It’s as good as the film is likely to ever look on home video—and the old DVD from Universal was already solid.