A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Weasel.
''I looked in the mirror and knew with my "puss" and 155-pound weakling body, I couldn't pass for a leading man. I had to be different. I thought the meaner I presented myself, the tougher I was with women, slapping them around in well produced films where evil and death seem to lurk in every nightmare alley and behind every venetian blind in every seedy apartment, I could find a market for my screen characters.” Dan Duryea, Hedda Hopper interview in the 1950s
This is as much a movie review as it is a tribute to one of Noir’s greatest heels. As we can see from the above quote, Dan Duryea was an actor who knew where his talents and his limitations lay and as such he was able to market himself admirably. With his lanky built, slicked-back blond hair and a distinctive nasal voice it was clear to him he wasn’t really leading man material. He wisely chose a different path.
One thing the audience could be sure of. They knew they were in for a good time when they saw his name in the opening credits. Duryea played pimps, gangsters, con men, smooth operators, snake charmers, scheming arch-louses, slime balls and varied other unprepossessing characters… he was a happy sinner and made no bones about it. In his movies he was forever on the make - lying, scheming, terrorizing women, all while utilizing the requisite stock-in-trade for his characters, the trifecta of contempt: sneering, smirking and sniveling.
His characters’s veneer of civilization was thin at the best of times. Mostly remembered - and loved - for playing out and out SOBs (Scarlet Street), he didn’t restrict himself to that. He could play the good, the bad and the in-between. Pathetic oddly needy weaklings (The Great Flamarion and Another Part of the Forrest/The Little Foxes); men who weren’t quite as callous as they thought they were (The Underworld Story); men more sinned against than sinning (Too Late For Tears); or the rotter as a tragic figure as in Criss Cross where he’s doomed because of his soft spot for an even more rotten dame who cared for nobody but herself. He had pathos and was occasionally almost heroic in defeat. Not all of his characters were ruthless, but there was always a moral laxity and ambiguity about them. His ethics were dodgy. Rarely ever did he play straight-arrow guys. When he did, it didn’t go down well with the movie-going public.
He was charismatic and he made the bad guys look good. Even his most outright bastards possessed charm galore (Winchester 73, Ride Clear of Diablo). He never drops the charm for long because it is the chief weapon in his arsenal. There was always something self-deprecating about him. Here was a guy who had no illusions about himself and didn’t expect other people to have any either. Much as we want to hate the guy we can’t, against our better judgment.
It’s hard to explain how his slithery charm worked so well. Suffice it to say it just did. Maybe it was because even his most outright villains had enough humanity in them that somehow made them sympathetic. Maybe it was because his sneer and contemptuous attitude always seemed to mask inner demons which he couldn’t fight, a pain and suffering he couldn’t alleviate. Or maybe it was that we always get the feeling that Duryea’s characters sense that under all their crookedness they could have been someone better if the cards had been dealt differently.
What sticks mostly in people’s head though is Duryea’s itchy backhand. A New York Times article called him “the heel with the sex appeal”. He sure had a way with dames. Slapper Dan knocked ‘em and socked ‘em, more than any other actor in Hollywood. It became his specialty. He had a hair-trigger temper and could erupt into violence at the slightest provocation. The gentle touch went down well with the ladies. Duryea received bucketloads of mail from adoring female fans.
By the time Black Angel rolled around, Duryea had determinedly made his mark as the sneering, slap-happy heel…an image that was fast beginning to solidify itself.
So it came as a bit of a surprise for the audiences when they got Duryea The Romantic Hero in Black Angel. This is not the Duryea we all love to hate, or hate to love. Eddie Muller mentions in his book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir that the promotional material for the film specifically pointed out that - surprise! - for once Duryea doesn’t leave his fingermarks all over the dame:
“Something great has happened in Hollywood…Beautiful June Vincent met dangerous Dan Duryea and escaped unscathed. Prolific Dan…touches nary a strand of June’s blonde hair…”
Best advertisement I have ever read.
Black Angel may not be a landmark Noir but it’s a highly entertaining and effective psychological thriller/Noir/twisted romantic drama nevertheless. Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, the movie was directed by Roy William Neill, mostly known for his Sherlock Holmes films.
Woolrich’s stories are not horror stories in the classic sense but everyday tales of horror, filled with existential angst, paranoia and the aura of claustrophobia and entrapment. His appeal as a writer lies not in his often convoluted, messy plots, but in his bleak worldview. His protagonists exist invariably on the razor edge of impending disaster. They spiral down a vortex into a nightmare from which there is no escape. In fact in Woolrich’s works reality and nightmare become interchangeable. Woolrich’s protagonists can try to fight against their ghastly fate but there is nothing like safe passage.
The picture barely resembles the Cornell Woolrich novel it’s adapted from. As with most of Woolrich’s stories, the adaptations are not pristine, they’re sanitized. They’re missing the abject Nihilism and desperation of the writer’s vision.
The author had used and reworked the basic plot premise of Black Angel several times, but in 1943 he published the ultimate version as The Black Angel. A wife, here called Alberta Murray, tries to save her philandering husband from execution for the murder of his mistress. Her quest leads her down a path of corruption and destructiveness. She tracks down several men in the victim’s life and destroys them, making her the “black angel” of the title. But her ventures into sordid worlds have made her realize the staleness of her relationship with her husband. She’s fallen in love with one of her victims and has become a different woman. She enjoyed the depths of depravity she had plumbed to.
The PCA couldn’t let that stand. Breen’s sanitation crew got onto the job and consequently Woolrich was not happy with the film version.
The movie dispenses with a lot of sordidness but keeps some twists and turns. It runs on similar lines as Phantom Lady, also based on a Woolrich story. There it is a secretary who’s trying to free the boss she’s in love with, here it is a wife trying to free her husband. Cathy Bennett is the avenging angel, the Girl Friday who has to solve the crime simply because there is no one else to do it. There’s definitively a wartime metaphor trying to get out - men were away fighting so the girls had to take care of business.
Catherine Bennett’s (June Vincent) husband Kirk (John Phillips) has been found guilty of the murder of his mistress Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling) and he’s been sentenced to die for it. She was a shantoozy and gold-digger who had been blackmailing him, and many other men on top of that. Catherine is desperate, she can’t believe her husband would commit murder. She finds Mavis's ex-husband Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), an alcoholic songwriter, and begs him to help her clear Kirk as Blair saw a mystery man enter Mavis’s apartment on the evening of her murder. Together they set out to catch the real murderer. Blair agrees to help Catherine track down a brooch he gave to Mavis which it seems the murderer took with him. They reason that if they find the brooch, they find the killer.
The trail leads them to shady nightclub impresario Marko (Peter Lorre). His place, Rio’s, was the place of Mavis’s last employment. Catherine and Blair go undercover as a double act. But their search leads them down one blind alley after another.
June Vincent does her best with a role that doesn’t give her much leeway. She is a proactive heroine, not just a long-suffering wife who sits around moping at home while her cheating husband waits for the chair. The problem is that the film applies a liberal coat of whitewash to Cathy, to the point of blandness. There isn’t even the slightest hint of moral ambiguity about her and that makes her character a bit of a hard sell for me. She’s lamentably wholesome. As we’ve seen with Lucille Ball in The Dark Corner, Lizabeth Scott in Martha Ivers, Susan Hayward in Deadline At Dawn and especially with Ella Rains in Phantom Lady, the good girls of Noir don’t have to be boring. When Ella Rains goes to that questionable jazz club at night to meet Elisha Cook the audience can’t have failed to raise an eyebrow or two. The offbeat vibes in that joint weren’t just the haze from reefers.
Cathy never even suffers a moment of doubt. Not about her husband and not about giving in to Blair. She’s Miss Goody-Two-Shoes throughout. She looks fabulous in her evening gowns but she’s so resolutely virtuous that it borders on tedious. Oddly enough it is exactly this virtuousness that brings pain and heartbreak to Blair.
Vincent had a considerably more interesting role as the femme fatale in Shed No Tears.
Black Angel isn’t helped by the presence of John Phillip as Kirk. We wonder why Cathy is so steadfastly loyal to her louse of a spouse. Frankly, this wouldn’t be an issue for me if Kirk had been played by a more charismatic actor. Phillips worked under a slight disadvantage. He had no personality. As it stands he’s simply a charisma vacuum. Yes, sexual attraction works in mysterious ways but Cathy’s overpowering passion for her husband is a tough lozenge to swallow and when she states that there will never be another man for her than Kirk, the audience collectively shake their heads.
Peter Lorre is always good value for the money but here he’s mostly wasted in a stock role. He brings his trademark sleazy “charm” to the table, but he isn’t given enough to do.
Broderick Crawford, an unlikely box office hit if there ever was one, is unfortunately relegated to playing barely there fourth banana. He’d do much better in Born Yesterday, Scandal Sheet and All the King’s Men.
Constance Dowling leaves quite an impression in her short scenes as Mavis. She’s a knockout and a busy lady. Mavis has been supplementing her income with a little blackmail. It’s not a nice thing to do but then, a girl’s gotta make a living too. Mavis likes the good life. Her apartment reeks of garish splendor. Blackmail is a lucrative business. There’s no doubt that Mavis needed killing but it’s a shame she got bumped off so quickly. The film would have been a lot more fun had she stayed around a while longer, just for entertainment purposes.
Dan Duryea is the one who effortlessly carries the movie. A full-time drunk and part-time songwriter, he’s a sympathetic figure and a tormented soul. Blair likes a drink…or ten. Night after night he can be found at his usual watering holes pickling himself in cheap hooch. Day in day out one drunken binge after another, to drown his sorrows. The man is not a sucker or loser per se, it’s just that he can’t curb the drinking habit he acquired because of a rotten dame. Blair is still stuck on his blackmailing cheat of a wife, try as he might he can’t get her out of his head. He wrote the song “Heartbreak” for Mavis which runs like a leitmotif through the entire picture. It’s entirely appropriate. It depicts the duality of romantic idealization and subsequent disillusionment.
Blair is in self-destruct mode. It’s a nuanced and affecting performance on Duryea’s part, almost as good as Ray Milland’s in The Lost Weekend. True alcoholism is something rarely seen in classic film and Black Angel doesn’t sugarcoat anything. Addiction is ugly and Duryea doesn’t shy away from the ugliness. To the film’s credit Blair’s alcoholism is never played for laughs.
Duryea’s acting is really outstanding in the sequences where Blair wallows in drunken despair. The night of Mavis’s murder is a blank spot in his memory after one more all-night bender. To the best of his knowledge he slept off his hangover in bed after getting kicked out of Mavis's building by the doorman. When Cathy finds him the next morning he’s still in an 80 proof haze.
He lives in a lousy dump of a boarding house that is in stark contrast to Mavis’s swanky apartment. Blair’s flophouse pad has all the mod cons to be expected of such surroundings. Iron prison bed, peeling plaster where he strikes his matches, hot plate in the corner. The lifestyle of the poor and famous. Whatever aspirations to class he ever had long vanished in this hell on earth.
His friend Joe (Wallace Ford) literally has to nurse him through his drunken comas. Because of his memory lapses he’s dangerous to himself and others, so Joe locks him in his room when he’s on a bender. In Black Angel it’s not fate that Blair has no control over but alcohol and his own inability to cope with it.
Blair is an incurable romantic. Reluctantly he agrees to help Cathy but soon finds himself falling in love with her, as she is everything his wife was not. Kind, caring and loyal. Black Angel is just as much Noir as it is romance and a story of (almost) redemption. After Mavis broke his heart he fell deeper and deeper into a bottomless pit of despair and booze but he kept on digging. Along comes Cathy and he thinks this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. He lays off the bottle but he can’t catch a break. Cathy can’t return his affections. Through his love for her he becomes a better man but when she rejects him, he dives right back into the bottle.
The movie employs one of 40s Hollywood’s most cherished themes, amnesia, which had its roots in the plight of returning servicemen who came home desperately trying to forget what couldn't be forgotten. The unforgettable refused to let itself be summarily dismissed. Amnesia became a primary Noir metaphor. There was almost an epidemic of movies dealing with the disease. Somewhere in the Night, The Crooked Way, Twelve O’Clock Courage, The Locket, Crack up, The Chase, So Dark the Night, High Wall to name just a few. Protagonists delved deep into their suppressed memories, reliving horrors, picking up the pieces of a broken life and reconstructing the past from scratch. They didn’t always know what they would unearth. The mind had become unchartered territory. Careful. Here be dragons.
It wasn’t always amnesia brought on by horrific war experiences that films focused on. Noir explored a further path using amnesia as a device for alienation and psychological entrapment taken to the extreme, often brought on by shock, other traumatic experiences or addiction, a condition Woolrich was very familiar with. A dark self - an alien doppelgänger - lurked within the protagonist, completely unbeknownst to him. Exorcising the demons of one’s own mind was fraught with terror because you never knew what you might find. Imogen Sara Smith writes in her Noir City Magazine article Lushly Lovesick, Dan Duryea in Black Angel:
“…not only are people incapable of knowing what they’re capable of, they don’t even know what they’ve actually done. They can never be certain of anything, except that things are probably worse than they appear”.
And indeed they are. Blair stumbles through the entire movie with only the vaguest sense of (un)reality. There’s a great psychedelic scene towards the end of the picture when Blair finally remembers what happened that fateful night. It rivals Phillip Marlowe’s hallucinatory scene of in Murder, My Sweet. After yet another all-night bender Blair wakes up in an alcoholic ward. Through the boozy haze of his half-forgotten memory reality surfaces. He finally remembers - in a flashback scene - what the alcoholic blackout had erased from his mind. He killed Mavis. Just when we thought we had it all figured out, events take an unexpected turn, though there are clues throughout, for example the song “Heartbreak” that plays after the murder on the record player.
In a bleak little bit of irony Blair, who thought he had an alibi due to being locked into his room by his friend, had actually paid the flophouse attendant 25 cents to let him out of the room on the night of the murder. 25 cents decided a woman’s fate. Life is cheap.
As opposed to the novel, Blair turns out to be the black angel, not Catherine. Many viewers thought the ending too implausible and far-fetched - and not unjustifiably so - but it is Noir if anything is in the movie. The cruelty of fate. Here is a man who’s allowed a brief glimpse of hope and the possibility of love. But right around the next corner there’s yet another blind alley with a barred gate at the end. Love is an impossible dream. First You Dream, Then You Die is the title of Francis Nevins’s Woolrich biography. I’m hard-pressed to find a more fitting epitaph for the author’s life, or any of his protagonists for the matter.
The ending of course had to adhere to Code conventions. Blair does the right thing and confesses. He chooses self-sacrifice even if he’ll have to die for his crime. Duryea makes the last-minute twist convincing because he’s believable as both a deranged killer and a basically good man.
However, here’s a thought. It’s interesting and slightly subversive to note that the man who turns out to be the killer in the end would be a better choice of husband for Cathy than Kirk probably ever was.
In the Audie Murphy Western Ride Clear of Diablo Duryea utters the interesting line: “If I ever started feeling like a human being, I’d shoot myself.” In Black Angel Duryea acts like a human being, albeit a flawed one.
I’m not quite sure if Saint Dan sits well with me. He’s very engaging in Black Angel and plays inner turmoil well but I think I’ll have to go watch Scarlet Street now. I prefer my Duryea mean, not mawkish.