Duryea! …that fascinating tough-guy of “Scarlet Street”!
If one was to toss out the name Roy William Neill most would shrug and rightfully claim ignorance of the man in question. A smaller subset would know Neill as the director of most all of the Universal Sherlock Holmes films of the 1940s. These relatively quickly produced films featured- as we all know- Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as perhaps the definitive casting of one of the original dynamic duos.
Having started in the mid-teens of the silent era Neill, whose best years probably were those at Universal (his tenure there started in 1942), added much to the Holmes films, which were in some cases light on content, even though most were barely over an hour in length. Neill continued with Universal after the Holmes series wrapped with 1946’s Dressed to Kill, but lived to make only one final film, Black Angel. He suffered a fatal heart attack shortly thereafter.
Some toss Black Angel rather cavalierly into the noir bucket, and there all the key elements are there perhaps. An opening long zoom shot past a Wilshire Blvd. sign up the side of a Los Angeles apartment building through some blinds sets the bar rather high for this one. Though still an interesting and enjoyable picture after the opening shots, it is hard to definitively classify Neill’s final film as noir. Rather, it is perhaps a sometimes gritty whodunit which at times meanders close to being a musical.
The plot, based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, is a good one. Club singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling) is one nasty creature, and can’t even be kind to her own maid. The apartment the opening shot lands on is hers and she in short order calls the doorman to forbid her husband Martin (Dan Duryea) admittance. Of course timing being everything Martin is at the elevator only to be stopped and a brawl nearly ensues. From afar, Martin sees another man- Marko (played by Peter Lorre) announce himself and go up to see Mavis. Next thing we know Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) is in her apartment and discovers her dead by her nightstand. He’s convicted of her murder but Martin teams up with Mrs. Bennett (June Vincent) to try to exonerate her husband of the crime.
Like most pictures of such a short length, there are a few things you’ll miss if you blink. For starters, Kirk is having an affair with Mavis. She’s been blackmailing him to boot. Apparently this is unknown to his wife Catherine as she stands by him for the entire picture. What is made overly clear is that Martin has a serious drinking problem and in many cases has to be escorted back to his room- only to be locked in, presumably for his own safety.
Martin is a songwriter who previously wrote some of Mavis’ hits and he soon teams up with Catherine as a performing duo in Marko’s nightclub. He is the focus of their attention and a good chunk of the film is given to pursuing what ultimately turns out to be a red herring. As Marko Lorre has little to do outside of being his usual self. Marko is one of the many light thugs that Lorre played and here he isn’t given much to do in spite of a fair amount of screen time.
As to be expected there are the usual plot twists, but thankfully only a few of them are truly expected. Marko is too obviously portrayed as the heavy and ultimately it turns out Mavis was blackmailing him as well, though the reason shows how much times have changed since 1946. Among the expected happenings is the song which Martin writes for Catherine in which he shares his growing amorous feelings for her. After being rebuffed, he goes on the bender of benders while she leaves to prepare for her husband’s execution.
The almost dream-like sequence as Martin gets increasingly inebriated is one of the highlights of the second half of the film, which loses much of its potentially noir shine after the opening few scenes. Though Neill continues to highlight some of the dynamic shots and effects which he perfected in the Holmes series, most of the more intriguing and interesting shots are in the first few reels. The atmosphere once the stage is set is much more pedestrian and almost procedural in nature, with only random insert shots added to alter the tone.
Martin awakens in a hospital, now with the memory that he in fact is the one who murder Mavis. With the film drawing to a close he is finally able to clear Mr. Bennett as the screen fades to black, with the presumption that Catherine and her husband are reunited in wedded bliss.
Though surely not a classic in the Citizen Kane sense, Black Angel is not without its allure. Though Lorre is fine as the nightclub owner Marko, it is clearly a role he’s played many times before and he plays it as such.
Dan Duryea, however, plays extremely well against type, in a stronger and better defined role than most all of his others. He seems well cast as a wayward but musically talented drunk. In a performance highlighted by unique lighting and interesting camera angles, he effectively stumbles along with the vaguest sense of reality, only realizing the error of his ways at the finale.
June Vincent, an actress I must claim no familiarity with, leaves one with relative indifference. Though doing nothing to discretely harm the proceedings, she does little but help the plot progress. That said, the script clearly gives her little to work with outside of playing against Duryea and, in a few scenes, Lorre.
Going against a trend of picking pictures by their poster art, this time I went with casting, with Lorre being the draw. Knowing little of the film going in, was very pleased to see Neill’s association and the dynamics of a strong performance by Buryea. Frank Skinner, another Universal veteran, provides a strong if sometimes absent score.