Dan Duryea is most renowned for playing villains and thugs, and he was so adept at giving these characters an unlikely charm that he deserves to be. He was capable of a greater range than this, however, as he shows in his role as Black Angel‘s tragic protagonist, Marty Blair. Blair is an alcoholic composer who has been badly treated by his wife, singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling). When Marlowe is strangled to death, Kirk Bennett (John Phillips), a married man whom she was blackmailing, is sentenced for the murder. Bennett’s wife, Catherine (June Vincent), believes he’s innocent and sets out to prove it. She enlists Blair, who becomes more interested in helping her after realising that the man he saw going into Marlowe’s building that night, Marko (Peter Lorre), was not Catherine’s husband. It isn’t long before Blair, recognising Catherine as another person who’s been hard done by, begins to fall for her.
Roy William Neill had plenty of experience directing B movies, and brings a polished style to Black Angel. The plot is clever but not overly convoluted, as film noir can sometimes be. Its emphasis on the lead characters’ musical talents gives it a freshness in comparison to other noirs, and it features a great twist ending that makes fine use of some of the genre’s darker tropes. Vincent is solid if not remarkable while Dowling is good enough to have deserved more screentime, but Lorre is excellent as always. The man doesn’t seem able to make a single uninteresting move.
All of this means that Black Angel is a pleasure to watch, even if you’re not comparing Blair to Duryea’s other noir roles. The difference is remarkable, however. Gone are the sneers and that nasal voice. Blair is a multi-layered character, and it’s impossible not to feel for him. Given more room in which to work, Duryea is outstanding. He even seems to know his way around a piano – the music is dubbed, so his hand movements wouldn’t match exactly anyway, but Duryea is close enough that he could well be playing.
Black Angel doesn’t manage to be an out and out classic. Nonethless, it is a self-contained and well-told film that doesn’t put a foot wrong. It doesn’t need Duryea to carry it – even though he could.