Black Angel

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

MVD/Arrow;
Mystery;
$39.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre, Broderick Crawford.

Was there something in the cinematic vapors during the late and immediately post-World War II years when it came to big-screen chippies getting murdered in their apartments, leaving their innocent husbands or lovers to be pursued by the cops? Universal’s Black Angel, adapted from a Cornell Woolrich story, has its own way with this premise, though in certain particulars it recalls Alan Ladd’s plight in the Raymond Chandler-scripted The Blue Dahlia, which Paramount had released just four months earlier. Not only is there an obvious kinship between their respective titles, but the murder victim in Dahlia is played by Doris Dowling — real-life sister of actress Constance, who has the counterpart role in Angel.

Beyond this, there had been Phantom Lady from a couple years earlier, in which Alan Curtis’s lesser half gets strangled with one of his own ties, and the parties who can supply a legitimate alibi aren’t cooperating. In this case, there’s more of a creative direct line with Angel because Lady, too, was taken from a Woolrich work and released by the same studio. If you’re still following this, you’re a) a better than man than I am, Gunga Din; and b) maybe getting a sense that Hollywood was going to this narrative trough to arguable excess around this time.

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The big takeaway from Angel, at least speaking personally, is just how much of a visual stylist director Roy William Neill apparently was (this was his final film before passing away later in 1946 under circumstances somewhat murky, albeit with no foul play involved or alleged). I haven’t seen much Neill beyond his Sherlock Holmes pictures — and those, with one exception, not lately — so it is was a revelation to let the often elaborate nature of Angel’s camera set-ups sink in during the movie’s many nightclub scenes (Paul Ivano was the cinematographer). I had seen the picture a couple times before but never looking as great as it does on this new Arrow Blu-ray — nor with A-Team bonus commentator Alan Rode on the voiceover, basically applying a prod that kept saying, “Mike, just look at that.”

Still. This is one of those pictures easy to admire for its sometimes surprising craftsmanship, and I’m impressed by how many admirers it has, even if Woolrich wasn’t among them. But just to keep our feet on the ground here, the film isn’t all that much on emotional resonance when you stop to think that 1946 (one of those movie years that cleans the plow of 1939, imo) was also the year of The Best Years of Our Lives, It’s a Wonderful Life, Notorious, My Darling Clementine, Beauty and the Beast, The Big Sleep, Great Expectations, Panique and, for that matter, Road to Utopia. Still, it keeps you going like bowls of salsa and chips, while offering the almost novel experience (at least for the 1940s) of seeing Dan Duryea in a sympathetic role, albeit as one seriously messed-up dude here. Musician Duryea’s not the one who stands accused of bumping off Dowling (Constance, that is, who was the knockout of the two real-life sisters), but he was once married to her, and her rejection has driven him to such drink that he has to have someone keep an eye on him in the more or less flophouse apartment where he lives.

The guy the cops are after is Dowling’s lover, who is married, trapped in someone’s blackmail scheme, and (oh, yeah, right) soon to be executed after a trial that’s gotten out of the way mighty quickly in screen terms (I think this happens as well in Phantom Lady, if I recall right). The role here goes to John Phillips, who, like Alan Curtis in Lady, is so nondescript that the film takes something of a hit. This is more debatable, but I’m also not too crazy about June Vincent, cast as Phillips’ rather remarkably devoted wife who teams up with Duryea to clear her husband (let it not be said that the unhealthy subtext here fails to provide a viewing alternative to the same movie year’s Courage of Lassie). Though adequate — original plans were to have a young Ava Gardner in the role as an MGM loan-out — Vincent reinforces the perception that Universal had a real problem cultivating conventional female leads with the charisma to catch on. Which is to say that, Deanna Durbin and Maria Montez were specialized personalities, to be sure; Marlene Dietrich was only there for about a five-year run that, yes, did include Destry Rides Again and The Spoilers, but she both made and strengthened her legacy elsewhere; and Ella Raines (a personal favorite), while amassing several credits there, found two of her career roles (in Hail the Conquering Hero and Tall in the Saddle) at other studios.

Fortunately, Duryea still doesn’t have to carry the charisma load all by himself. Peter Lorre has a key role as a shifty nightclub owner with surface charm, and watching him is like watching a friendly baseball batter get tossed a lollipop by a pitcher who wants to date the batter’s sister, so directly is the part even as written (by Roy Chanslor) in Lorre’s wheelhouse. Broderick Crawford plays the cop who seems to show up like the Cavalry at every perilous moment, and he, too, fits right in — though as Rode notes, this was before the actor commenced his gruff period when his All the Kings Men Oscar was followed quickly by Born Yesterday. This means he’s a more subdued Brod than he came to be — and certainly more so than on TV’s “Highway Patrol” (also referenced here on Rode’s voiceover) in which Crawford’s Dan Mathews character was likely the kind of guy who likely wouldn’t even have been able to order a BLT without bellowing for extra mayo. The great Wallace Ford, too, is a welcome presence — or as welcome as one can be when you’re part of the seedy male hit parade that resides in Duryea’s dump of an apartment.

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Angel floats somewhere in that amorphous region where it can be categorized of both an ‘A’ or ‘B’-movie, depending upon who’s talking. Universal didn’t ever have big bucks to spend, but it sprung for $600,000, which would have been a lot of haircuts for the Wolf Man, to keep in the studio vernacular. As suggested earlier, the atmosphere goodies of the nightclub sequences can hold their own with any screen rival’s of the period, and this was a rich period for nightclub sequences (Raoul Walsh’s wonderful The Man I Love, starring a woman I loved, Ida Lupino, came out the same year). Rode all but says as much on his commentary, though the movie still bothers me by the way the trial is glossed over and how one has to believe that eventual plot revelations as things progress would almost certainly have come out earlier via any halfway competent lawyer. On the other hand, this is how you keep a movie running a taut 80 minutes until a finale that’s not your everyday tidy-up.

As always, Rode comes heavily prepped from having studied studio production files, and he was also great friends with Duryea’s late son Richard. The latter point contributes to tidbits, which, among many others, inform us that the actor taught himself to play five numbers to make more convincing his performance as a piano player (the two key women here are vocalists) — and that in real life, the actor was a real homebody who enjoyed getting out of his Fritz Lang lapels and gardening in dumpy duds. (I’ve heard that one before, but it’s a tough image to avoid sharing.) There’s also an on-camera interview with British film historian Neil Sinyard, another favorite of mine and one who’s something that film folk almost never are: jovial. He and Rode both relate a great aside I’d never heard previously, which is that Crawford was such a practical joker (he also loved the sauce, but we won’t go there) that he ate Frank Sinatra’s toupee on the set of Not As a Stranger. Dooby Dooby puke, which is apparently close to what happened, for a Frank fate arguably more humiliating than even the then imminent Johnny Concho.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Black Angel’ and ‘Kitten With a Whip’

The Woman in the Window

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street 6/19/18;
Kino Lorber;
Mystery;
$19.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated
.
Stars Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Raymond Massey.

As with a lot of fellow nitpickers whose starting position should be that we’re still talking about a very good movie, Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window from 1944 has always been problematic because it has one of the shakier wrap-ups of the big-screen ’40s — though hardly the shake-i-est because there’s always Robert Siodmak’s The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry from the following year. Let’s continue hoping that all the yahoos who instigated creaky censorship boards of the day have been moaning in pain half-a-century or more Waaaaaay Down South where the fires burn, watching the hundred most impoverished PRC releases on a loop.

Fritz Lang directed Window from a Nunnally Johnson script to launch that period in the mid-’40s when the former briefly enjoyed commercial success after immediate follow-ups Ministry of Fear and Scarlet Street also proved popular. (And before The Secret Beyond the Door — also with Window/Street’s Joan Bennett — materialized in 1947 to turn any money-related magic touch back into a pumpkin. In one of his greatest career years (1944), Window also gave the now freelancing Edward G. Robinson (post-Warner) a role worthy of capping his memorably dynamic insurance sleuth in Double Indemnity from a few months earlier. In contrast, the married assistant professor Robinson plays here isn’t dynamic at all but notably meek — albeit one who turns uncharacteristically daring once his life turns messy after meeting the title subject on the street (she’s been the model in a conspicuous storefront painting that has captured his imagination).

Though what really makes Bennett tick is one of the movie’s more intriguing questions, she definitely isn’t a dangerous femme fatale in the usual noir sense (that would be Scarlet Street). And as for what she and Robinson are doing before an out-of-the-blue violent act that substantially alters the film’s direction … well, it’s kind of foolhardy for a man in Robinson’s situation to be on the scene at all but necessarily over the line.

This “situation” includes a wife and two children who are away on a trip, an absence that brings to mind a more serious take on this hook, courtesy of The 7-Year Itch. Before you go “uh, huh,” one should note that this family unit is reasonably harmonious in an un-stimulating way — and that the wife is by no means the disagreeable sort who’d automatically destroy anyone’s quality of life by walking into the room. For one of those, see the crone Charles Laughton is married to in Siodmak’s splendid The Suspect from the same year.

Window is full of potential spoiler minefields, though I gotta say that it was a movie that had been substantially written about even when I was a kid. So let’s merely set the table by noting that Bennett turns out to be a lonely and insecure kept woman with fleeting flashes of confidence; that Robinson gets in deep; and that one of Robinson’s men’s club cronies is a well-cast Raymond Massey as a snooping D.A. who, for fun, is taking Robinson on his investigations to help solve a crime the former knows all too well about.

There’s also Dan Duryea’s terrific show-up late in the picture to make such a strong impression that I (all well as bonus-commentary contributor Imogen Sara Smith) am always surprised to be reminded that his part isn’t bigger. Though Duryea had been quite memorable recreating his stage role three years earlier in the Goldwyn-Wyler film version of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, this in reality was his breakthrough screen role, paving the way for the Lang-Robinson-Bennett-Duryea reunion in Scarlet Street, a movie I like even more.

Historian Smith’s voiceover is tight and well thought-out, offering the expected bios of the key actors and personnel but also giving weight to alternative interpretations of key events in ways that soften the negative impact of the weak wrap-up. Among other things, they make us wonder if the movie can’t be just as easily seen as an exploration of what makes men’s roving minds tick when they’re jawboning at a men’s club (who the hell would want to go to a men’s club, anyway?) — though, OK, tons-o-fun relationships between senior marrieds likely didn’t offer that many socially normalized alternatives at the time this movie was set. Robison wasn’t likely to be asking the Mrs. to go running with him.

Whatever the interpretation, events are all photographed and constricted in superb Lang style, though aside from some newsreel satire and one bullseye replication in one scene of what old radio commercials sounded like, Lang was never going to be mistaken for Henny Youngman or Rodney Dangerfield. I remember Jonathan Demme once telling me in an interview that it was actually Brian De Palma who came up with the idea to open Married to the Mob with Rosemary Clooney’s recording of Mambo Italiano — quickly noting that one didn’t usually go to De Palma for comical music advice. Not dissimilarly, you don’t watch Lang movies for knee-slapping fun (though the last particular bonus always gave Hitchcock an extra boost), but he could really immerse you in a sinister world.

In keeping with this, Smith offers up some of the stories about Lang’s tyrannical moods and mistreatment of actors (especially minor ones); though Bennett and others would continue working with him, these were not “loose” sets. Maybe this explains how it came to be that Sylvia Sidney wrapped her long career by working with Tim Burton, the second time against a Slim Whitman soundtrack.

Kino’s Blu-ray isn’t up to the impossibly high standards of the French release of Siodmak’s Criss Cross, but neither does it suggest the difference between Grace Kelly and Maria Ouspenskaya in terms of cosmetics and, in this case, delineation of shadow and light. It’s certainly the best presentation of this independent production (originally distributed by RKO) that I’ve ever seen and another example of Blu-ray turning me into a Milton Krasner fan when I didn’t know I was. With me, he’s almost getting to be another Joe MacDonald when it comes to consolidating credits that I didn’t realize were all his — as in, he “shot that, and that … and THAT?!!!”

Mike’s Picks: ‘Up in Smoke’ and ‘The Woman in the Window’

Criss Cross (Pour toi j’ai tué )

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

All-Region French Import;
Elephant;
Mystery;
$29.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Burt Lancaster, Yvonne DeCarlo, Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally.

Even in terms of the lowlife-laden melodramas Burt Lancaster made right out of the career gate, Criss Cross seems somewhat undervalued, at least relative to its merit. The Killers and Brute Force are probably the early Burts that come automatically to mind, but Steven Soderbergh, for one, apparently thought enough of Criss Cross to refashion it into 1995’s The Underneath — a remake he says he doesn’t care for much though one included as a “stealth” bonus on the Criterion Blu-ray of Soderbergh’s King of the Hill. At least up to a point, I rather like the revamp myself, and yet this not quite brainstorm always did seem superfluous given what the original has to offer.

On the last point, we don’t have to start with Dan Duryea’s suits — and most people wouldn’t. But part of the fun in the predominantly Universal noirs Duryea made in the ’40s — and Kino Lorber is about to pay homage to quintessential Duryea by releasing a new Blu-ray of RKO-released The Woman in the Window June 19 — is watching him saunter around in duds that don’t exactly advertise him as the new Presbyterian minister on the block. I hope the actor’s costumers here at least rated auditions when it came time a few years later to dress all those chorus boys in the original Broadway product of Guys and Dolls.

In this case, Lancaster and Duryea are the two guys and Yvonne De Carlo the doll who have them both itchy, which is probably playing with a flame-engulfed oil refinery when all three find themselves as participants in or accessories to an armored car robbery. The edge Lancaster has is previous marriage to De Carlo; they may have resumed arguing all the time, but both still have a mutual yen (a circumstance that disturbs his well-meaning mother, whose olfactory powers are apparently keen when it comes to trollops). Duryea’s edge is as a potential money source and, I suppose, a certain swagger that’s part of his makeup. Hard as it is to believe in terms of the 1950s Burt, the latter doesn’t display much of a toothy dimension and is, in fact, basically playing a chump. Albeit an almost laughably fit chump who looks as if he’s been bench-pressing the sadistic prison guard Hume Cronyn plays in Brute Force about 500 times daily.

After some wound-licking time away from after the divorce, Lancaster returns to his home in the old Bunker Hill area of L.A., whose location photography by the great Franz Planer is a monster plus here. He then returns to his old place of employment to become (uh, oh) an armored truck driver, which is probably not a good move when you’re also in need of fast cash to get your ex away from her new husband (yes, Duryea). One thing leads to another, including a memorably staged heist scene and a wrap-up that may match Detour’s for having the courage of its conditions.

Criss Cross reunited Lancaster with Robert Siodmak, who had directed him in his star-making Killers debut amid the supreme noir-ish run this cult filmmaker enjoyed, spanning roughly 1944-50 (though in terms of Lancaster, their decidedly un-noirish The Crimson Pirate collaboration was yet to come). De Carlo is especially good here, but then she was always underrated — and if you doubt this, ask yourself how many actors come off with their dignity fully intact in De Mille’s The Ten Commandments. In this case, she projects a little vulnerability that crucially keeps her from coming off as totally evil (or, for that matter, overly obvious in her sexuality).

There’s also a major casting footnote: Criss Cross was also Tony Curtis’s screen debut via a wordless sequence (again, memorably staged) in which he dances with De Carlo — thus enabling this one to become the rare film noir to give major screen credit to a rhumba band (that of Esy Morales, who’d played with Xavier Cugat and died at 33 of a heart attack shortly thereafter). Curtis’ character name is “Gigolo” per the IMDb.com listing, which I suppose is more credible than “Antoninus” in Spartacus or anyone named Bulba (in this case, it was “Andrei”) in Taras Bulba. In any event, this bit apparently got Universal-International’s press department about a zillion letters wanting to know who this Mr. Wavy-Hair was, and on a dime the studio buildup mechanism got in motion by giving Curtis slightly larger parts in subsequent releases including the ultimate U-I reward: featured billing as an army captain in a Francis picture.

This splendorous release from France’s Elephant Films has been released as Pour toi j’ai tué, which my Googled French translates into For You, I Kill You — which does a better job of describing my relationship with a couple editors from my long past than Criss Cross’ does to portend the movie’s complex flashback structure. By any name, this is another of Elephant’s beautiful renderings of from Universal and Universal-controlled libraries, which include all but a handful of Paramount talkies from 1929 to 1949. Pricey two-fers — with, that is, bonus DVD inclusions — that do play on Region ‘A’ machines, they have only minimal extras (and in French, at that). But visually, the ones I’ve seen are of Criterion quality, and programmatically, they go places that most high-def distributors don’t. (Douglas Sirk anamorphics, anyone? Or how about One Hour with You and If I Had a Million, two just-out Paramounts from the early ’30s?

My visiting younger son walked in when I was watching Criss Cross on a 75-inch screen and asked, “What’s the matter with that black-and-white?” But before I could clobber him verbally, he then clarified with, “It looks so sharp — almost more like color.” Putting it another way, he was seeing black-and-white the way it’s supposed to look and how it was conceived; it’s just that b&w transferring has become such a specialized skill that only a handful of Blu-ray distributors (and this excludes even some good ones) have the skill to go the full route. Here’s one release that does, and oh, do some of those Bunker Hill exteriors look like pristine b&w glossy photos.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Next Stop, Greenwich Village’ and ‘Criss Cross’