In an apartment dripping with indulgence – crystal chandeliers, fur rugs, jewels and perfectly lined-up ornate perfume bottles – lies the dead body of singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling). An unfired gun lies nearby and an expensive broach has been purloined by the murder. Three men visited (or attempted to visit) the singer in her double monogrammed apartment that night: her alcoholic ex-husband/composer and pianist Martin Blair (Dan Duryea) who is determined to win her back, shifty nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre) and lover Kirk Bennett.
Blame instantly falls on Bennett, caught fleeing the scene moments after Marlowe’s death, killing the chanteuse before she could divulge their affair to his wife Catherine (June Vincent) in all of its scandalous glory The Police are convinced that they have found their man – Bennet’s fingerprints are all over Miss Marlowe’s gun – yet Catherine is determined that her husband is innocent. Blair has an alibi, his drunken binge that evening ended with him locked into his apartment by his building’s clerk, which only leaves Marko. Posing as a musical act, ex-singer Catherine and Blair become regulars at Marko’s club, earning his trust and closing in on the safe, which may or may not, hold the only evidence that will spare Bennett’s life.
Lorre does not have to do much in Black Angel, a film based on the work of Cornell Woolrich, yet it is impossible to take your eyes off him when he is on screen. His character is far from wholesome yet there is likeability to him – who can resist those hang-dog eyes? He is perfectly cast as the nightclub owner whose hands are far from clean. Duryea makes a convincing drunk (no-one intoxication quite like Duryea), which is frequently heightened by flashbacks and hallucinations, the unsteady camera-work accurately conveying the nausea and queasy feeling that is common of imbibing too much strong alcohol.
There is no denying that the women in the film are superb: Dowling is on wonderfully bitchy form as the demanding Marlowe, bossing her assistant and ruling her narcissistic apartment like a true diva. Yet it is Vincent who the film belongs, her transformation from housewife in dowdy clothes (if that is even possible in a film noir) to stunning lounge singer with eyes as glittering as the missing broach. She could have played the role as a frantic, desperate wife, yet she is composed, in control and more than capable when pitted against Lorre.
Black Angel may be lesser known when viewed against Lorre’s formidable body of work, yet it is perfectly indulgent film noir.
*This is a modified, slightly tidier version of a post that appeared on my old website (silverembers.com) on 20 September 2014. I don’t use that site anymore, so please continue to follow me here instead! Thank you.