Weekend Film Recommendation: Black Angel

The 1946 film noir Black Angel is Dan Duryea’s finest hour

duryeaDan Duryea, sometimes called “the heel with sex appeal” was usually cast as a second lead or a one-dimensional villain (For example in the outstanding noir Too Late for Tears, recommended at RBC here). But in 1946, he landed a leading part that let him show that he could portray complex characters with competing motives: Black Angel.

Duryea plays Martin Blair, an alcoholic once-successful tunesmith/piano player who has been on the decline since he was dumped by his beautiful but thoroughly self-absorbed and evil wife Mavis (Constance Dowling). Still carrying a torch for his ex, Martin tries to visit her at her apartment on their wedding anniversary but is ejected by the doorman. Before walking away, he notices a suspicious looking character (Peter Lorre) being admitted to Mavis’ apartment. Later in the evening, yet another man, Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) enters Mavis’ apartment, also apparently looking for love. He finds her strangled body, leading the police, in the form of no nonsense Captain Flood (Broderick Crawford), to slap the cuffs on him. Bennett is sentenced to die, but his heroic and devoted wife Catherine (June Vincent) believes he is innocent (of murder, anyway). She rouses Blair from his latest drunken bender and the two set off to find the real killer. Suspense, romance and some fantastic plot twists ensue.

As you might have guessed, this film is a bit overplotted, but every scene engages due to the quality of the acting and the fine work of Director/Producer Roy William Neill, who is best known for his masterful adaptations of Sherlock Holmes (for example, see a prior film recommendation here). I consider Black Angel Duryea’s finest hour, because he has so much to do and does it all well. After his early scenes of drunken desperation he sobers up and does a tremendous job conveying his growing but frustrated love for Catherine even while he knows they are both working to save her husband. As for Peter Lorre, there’s something about him as an actor that whenever he walks into a movie with a long cigarette just barely hanging out of his mouth, the audience knows they are going to be entertained. If there exists a film that doesn’t benefit from his presence, I don’t know what it is. Last but not least, June Vincent is moving as the wife who will do anything to save her wayward husband, most memorably in her wordless, teary recognition that she is going to have to get between the sheets with Lorre’s character if she is ever to learn the truth.

Paul Ivano’s photography is generally workmanlike, with two notable exceptions. Both the opening tracking shot/dissolve from Duryea on the street to Mavis’ apartment building and the closing alcoholic memory sequence are creative and arresting. On a different note (pun intended), the well-executed musical sequences are smoothly integrated into the story and enhance the movie’s mood. It all adds up a highly satisfying night at the movies for noir films as well as for cinema goers more generally.

p.s. If you like this excellent film noir you might also enjoy The Chase (Recommended here), which like Black Angel is a loose 1946 adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich novel that features fine supporting work by Lorre, again with one of those cigarettes hanging on to his upper lip for dear life.

Weekend Film Recommendation: M

Before Fritz Lang died, he had established himself as the titan of German Expressionist cinema, and he often referred to this week’s movie recommendation, M (1931), as his masterpiece.

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 19.36.39The film deals with the murderous impulses of Hans Beckert, played so well by Peter Lorre that he would reprise a similar character in many of his later films. Beckert is feeble and ashamed, and despite his awareness of the reprehensibility of his actions, he is unable to restrain himself. Beckert’s drive to kill children, however, is less of a focus in the film as is the community’s response engendered by his actions. In increasing desperation, the community turns from reliance on law enforcement to the organised crime underworld in an effort to apprehend Beckert by any means necessary. In so doing, they reveal their own pathetic susceptibility to bend rules for convenience’s sake.

The final scene is one of the most iconic in cinema history, as Beckert is brought before a kangaroo court. The prescience of that scene in particular, in light of events that would unfurl shortly after the film’s release, is uncanny. The judge, wearing a long black leather coat redolent of the SS uniform, presides over the perfunctory trial of a Jew whose fate has long been decided. The procedural rules of the trial are improvised ad hoc to satisfy the braying of the crowd; moreover, the defence counsel is as useful as a mantelpiece ornament, and noncommittal to boot.

M takes us back to the dawn of ‘talkie’ films. In it, Lang capitalised on the novel addition of sound to the medium, varying between quiet scenes and loud cacophonies of dissonant music, narration, sound effects, and evocative whistling in quick succession of one another. Lang was a master of symbolism, and deployed all the tools at his disposal to maximal effect. His tricks have been reproduced in countless films since, almost identically.

  • Like Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), the scenery in M is architecturally impossible, as is the lighting and use of shadow. Each contributes to the acute sense of claustrophobia and disorientation.
  • Like Scorsese’s The Departed (2006), Lang illustrates the frailty of the distinction between good and evil by juxtaposing scenes of law enforcement with those of criminals, each of which is going about their respective business in similar fashion.
  • Like Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968; reviewed here), Lang assigned the protagonist a jarring leitmotif (Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’). The childlike cadences of the music disconcert audience members in light of the terrifying impulses towards children that they portend.

…The list could go on.

Not long after M’s release, both Lang and Lorre went into self-imposed exile in the States. Lang’s reasoning traces itself to a meeting with Goebbels, arranged shortly after the release of M. As a consequence of the film’s enormous success, Goebbels invited Lang to steer the newly-formed Nazi film industry. In response, he left the country. Lorre’s exile was accompanied with a little more flair: before leaving the country, he wrote a letter to Goebbels stating that ‘there isn’t enough space in Germany for two child-murderers like Hitler and Beckert.’

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 19.43.28

In 1936, while in the States, Lang made a lesser-known companion film to M, entitled Fury, which expanded on his preoccupation with ochlocracy that he first introduced in M. The parallels between the two films are too close not to dwell on at least momentarily: in both films, the protagonist is accused of kidnapping and murdering a young girl, and in both films, the citizens are whipped up into a frenzy in their pursuit of someone – anyone – to account for the crime. However, while in M the protagonist is indeed guilty, in Fury the protagonist is innocent. The distinction proves horrifyingly irrelevant, as the final message of both films is how ineffectual the justice system can be when set against a community’s retributive appetite. Perhaps as a showcase to Lang’s disenchantment with both notions of justice and of populism engendered by his personal experiences in Germany, the result in both films is eerily similar.

If we are to read anything into Lang’s filmography, he was a profoundly embittered man. Themes of revenge, oppression, aberration, credulity, and misogyny animate almost all of his films. However, bleak as they are, few directors have captured them on screen as successfully and evocatively as did Lang.

I managed to find an open source version of M at this link, but it doesn’t have subtitles. If you have better luck, please do let the rest of the RBC know in the comments section.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Chase

the chaseThis week’s film recommendation is an obscure, strange, yet compelling 1946 film noir: The Chase. Made through low budget studio Monogram but released by United Artists, this off-beat movie is not for all tastes, but has developed a cult following among fans of the genre.

Based on a Cornell Woolrich’s pulp crime novel, the film tells the story of Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings), a down-on-his-luck ex-GI who finds a wallet full of lolly on the street. After enjoying a hearty, much-needed breakfast, he nobly returns the wallet to its owner, a psychopathic gangster named Eddie Roman (played with presence and menace by Steve Cochran). He is such a boy scout that he even confesses his use of some of the money to eat. Roman is impressed and amused, and hires “Scotty” to be his driver, over the reservations of his sinister right-hand man Gino (Peter Lorre). But nothing in noir is that simple, especially once Scotty meets Eddie’s glamorous, lonely and desperate wife Lorna (Michèle Morgan, in an alluring and elusive performance). In their extended drives together, she tells Scotty that she longs from escape from her brutish husband…if only some man would take her away from all this…

The key development of the story is a twist that has delighted some viewers over the years, and confused and disappointed others. I am in the former camp, as everything that happens is consistent with the central character’s personality and motivation, and because expressionism, darkness, forbidden fantasies and dream-like atmosphere are as noir as noir can be.

the chase2 There is much to enjoy in this film, including some thrilling high-speed driving sequences in an unusual car that instantiates the sadomasochistic, dominating nature of Eddie Roman. Peter Lorre, in a role few people remember, steals every scene he is in as Roman’s aide-de-camp. Franz Planer’s tenebrous photography, particularly in Roman’s house (including a wine cellar you’d be well advised not to enter…) establishes the mood of doom in which the film revels. Also fun for film buffs: The Chase is a perfect film to analyze and argue about over unfiltered cigarettes and bourbon afterwards.

The Chase is in the public domain, so you can legally watch it for free right here.

p.s. Many people know that the train station gun battle in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables is an homage to the spectacular Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. It could well be that De Palma’s opening sequence with gangster Al Capone and the barber was inspired by a similar scene early in The Chase.

p.p.s. SPOILER ALERT: While the extended dream sequence is occurring, there is a tip-off, namely Cummings’ suit. Running through the streets of steamy Havana, battling bad guys and being chased by the cops, his white suit, shirt and tie are immaculate in every scene. No wrinkles, no perspiration, no dirt. You could think of this as the character’s fantasy of himself as a rescuing hero/angel, particularly when contrasted to the demeaning outfit the former solider wears as the chauffeur to a hoodlum.