Roy William Neill’s Black Angel barely resembles the Cornell Woolrich novel it’s adapted from. In typical Woolrich fashion, Black Angel is a dark novel about morality and punishment. The film version is a lot more light and whimsical at times (plus there’s like five musical numbers), but at least it maintains the end’s disturbing twist. Aside from some really trippy sequences near the end, Black Angel is a visually drab film. But any shortcomings in the style department are remedied by the solid cast.
Catherine Bennett’s (June Vincent) husband has been put on death row for a murder he may not have committed. She teams up with Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), the ex-husband of the woman who was murdered. He’s a boozing piano player in a dive bar, where the regulars feed his addiction. Due to his heavy drinking, he’s plagued by blackouts. The night of his ex’s murder is a huge blank spot in his memory.
Dan Duryea is terrific in this role. Martin’s a downtrodden louse, who bar hops alone and passes out in his shithole apartment until it’s time to get up and binge again. He’s sweaty and shaky-eyed, but he cleans up nice. Him and Catherine go undercover in the swanky nightclub owned by Peter Lorre, who’s magnificent as always. They get a gig performing there every night (Martin tickles the ivories, Catherine sings) because they suspect Lorre had something to do with the murder. A piece of jewelry stolen at the crime scene is the crucial clue they’re sniffing around for.
After an engaging first third, one that sets up a compelling mystery, the middle part lags a bit. There’s an excessive amount of musical numbers and the film simply loses steam at this point. However, the final third is fantastic. The mystery begins to unravel and the truth launches Martin into one last epic binge. There’s some fun camerawork during the drinking sequence, which leads into an absolute nightmare for Martin.
It might not be a classic, but Black Angel offers some fun thrills. The drab middle part is worth sitting through to get to the madness of the end. The film lacks many of the visual trademarks of ’40s noir, but the straightforward approach matches the film’s straightforward plot in the middle. I can sort see why Woolrich hated the movie.