What did you watch? Once again I didn’t look at the title or the link, that’s how much I trust you: Black Angel, 1946 murder mystery with romance and…
Oh, not that show that James Cameron produced? No. You’re thinking of Dark Angel.
Gene Hoglan’s band? Stop.
Hey, is that Peter Lorre? HE MUST HAVE DONE IT! It is, and please watch the movie here. Spoilers in my review.
Black Angel is a twisted love story or a murder mystery with a twist. Either way, the red herring in Black Angel has the most build up, and once it’s out of the picture, the actual ending is quite a let-down. And I don’t mean a downer ending for our lovebirds that a film noir would give you.
The movie starts with lush Martin standing outside of a ritzy apartment complex, and we follow his gaze to up on high and through a brick wall into the gorgeous Mavis’ apartment. Mavis calls down to instruct the doorman to keep her husband out, her husband being Martin. Which is the very next thing that happens, Martin tries to enter the elevator and the doorman politely stares him down. As Martin leaves, the great Peter Lorre (Marko, in the movie) enters, announcing that he’s there to see Mavis.
Martin heads to a bar and plays piano furiously, and drinks somewhat more furiously. He’s escorted to a hotel and dumped into bed, with a hotel caretaker promising to look after him (he bolts the door from the outside).
We’re introduced to the passage of time when we fade out from the hotel clock to the clock in Mavis’ apartment, where another man, Kirk, enters. Kirk looks around the apartment and finds Mavis’ body. There’s a heart shaped brooch on her chest, and a small gun on the bed. (I should add that there’s monogrammed items with MM, Mavis’ initials, and a matchbook with just one M…CLUES!) As Kirk looks around the room, he hears things opening and closing; someone was in a closet nearby, and made their way out the door…and they grabbed the heart shaped brooch! Kirk leaves, but is spotted by Mavis’ maid.
The police make their way to Kirk’s home, and there we meet his angelic (!) wife Catherine. In what is quite a surreal moment of the movie, they make themselves at home and turn off the radio, which was playing the beautiful instrumental music that was her character’s theme. They inform her that her husband is seeing another woman, who is now dead. Kirk arrives and denies the whole thing. He describes the scenario, including the missing heart shaped pin.
From there, Kirk is arrested, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. Catherine is devastated. All she can do now is set out to find work. She goes to a movie studio commissary to find a job as an extra, and overhears gossip that Martin killed his wife out of rage. She interrupts the conversation to find out who Martin is, and quickly finds him at the hotel where he’s still sleeping off the hangover from the first scenes of the movie.
After insisting that her husband couldn’t have done it, she convinces Martin that maybe if they found the heart shaped brooch, they’d find the killer. What happens next is the best kind of detective work you’d expect from Scully & Mulder: they seek work at Peter Lorre’s club, Martin as the pianist, Catherine as the singer (under slightly different names). They figure that they’re on the right track; Mavis was associated with Lorre, professionally (and possibly other), and he left behind a book of matches with Lorre’s signature “M” at her place that evening! Evidence! (His name is Marko in the movie, but c’mon, it’s Peter Lorre.)
They theorize the evidence is in his lavish office. They’re quickly hired, and a now sober Martin is writing songs for Catherine to enchant clubgoers, Lorre, and…Martin himself. Martin and Catherine make quite the team, and he drops hints that this could be the beginning of something beautiful between them. She, however, must find out who framed her husband, despite Martin’s not too out of line question: why would you want him back? (Well, he’s an innocent man on death row, as far as she’s concerned.)
Lorre invites her to his office and gives her (suspense!) A DIFFERENT KIND OF BROOCH PENDANT-Y THING! It looks expensive. She also notices Lorre putting something in the safe, and sees him use the combination to open it. Later, she makes a break for it and heads to Lorre’s office and opens the safe, but can’t open the box. In a tense moment, Lorre and his goons walk in. Lorre has known who Martin and Catherine have really been all this time (which shouldn’t have been too hard to figure out, what with Martin being the songwriter AND former husband to Lorre’s associate. I mean, COME ON. And Catherine must have been in the news as her husband faced the death sentence for murdering a well known performer.). The whole thing was a trap, though what Lorre had planned for the couple is still a little foggy. To embarrass them? To KILL one of them? This movie doesn’t go this route.
ALTERNATIVE TIMELINE: Lorre has his goons beat up Martin and takes Catherine somewhere to either kill her or make her his bride (I grew up in the 80’s, this makes sense), but Martin uses his newfound sobriety to defeat the goons, prove that Lorre was the killer, and rescue Catherine, and even though Kirk is acquitted, she chooses Martin over Kirk…
No, it’s that red herring I mentioned earlier. The police walk in, and force Lorre to open the box from from the safe. It’s a picture of his daughter, and that he was trying to keep his daughter from knowing he had been in jail. Apparently Mavis knew, and he was paying her off to keep her quiet. The police had actually picked up him that night BEFORE Mavis’ murder, about a different murder, and were his alibi…that’s like another whole movie plot RIGHT THERE.
Catherine is heartbroken, her only real lead had fizzled out. Martin can only console her by insisting that Kirk killed Mavis, and that she should go on with life…with Martin maybe. She rejects him. Martin heads to the bar and resumes his love affair with whiskey. After some time of stumbling from bar to bar day to day, he bumps into a lady who remembers him. And she remembers him pinning a heart shaped brooch to her dress, and is still wearing it months later.
He grabs it and starts a bar fight, and is whisked away to a hospital where he remembers the details of Mavis’ murder: the hotel caretaker offers to let Martin back out on the street for more drinking, which was super nice of him (and not the most sensible move, but whatever). He sneaks past the door man and makes his way to Mavis’ apartment, lets himself in, and kills Mavis. In that time is when Kirk walks in, and Martin and Kirk just miss each other in each room by seconds, with Martin grabbing the brooch as Kirk’s back is turned.
This is pretty amazing dexterity and stealth for a bumbling drunk guy.
I’ll just skip to the end, where Martin frantically tries to reach the police to prove Kirk’s innocence. He breaks into Catherine’s home, waiting for the police to arrive, and drinking all her liquor before passing out.
ALTERNATIVE TIMELINE: I seriously thought that this scene would continue down a very dark path, where, by passing out, Martin is unable to share his information with the police, and miles away Kirk is executed by the state. And it goes darker, with our heartbroken ANGEL Catherine discovering the truth, that Martin is both the killer AND an irresponsible lout (not as bad as being a killer) whose vices resulted in him unable to do the right thing in time, not allowing either of them to save Kirk… and (ALTERNATIVE TIMELINE, remember) SHE KILLS HIM!
Because it’s called Black Angel, that’s where I thought this was going.
But that’s what happened? Nope, the police walk in just after Catherine does. He convinces both of them, shows them the brooch, confesses, and the movie ends with the detective reciting those dramatic lines we all remember from our movie history books, “I’m afraid you’ll have to wake (the governor) then!” The last shot is of a book of Martin’s recent music publishing, dedicated to Catherine.
So…was it noir? Yup. A romance between two wrong people went even more wrong, our hero done in by his something or other.
But… Well, several things. It takes several minutes for us to realize who we’ll be following. Is this Martin’s story? Kirk’s story? Heck, was it Catherine’s story? She gives up hope for solving the crime, barely coming to terms that her husband is guilty of crimes against their marriage…and then she just fades away in her own home, and we’re back watching Martin succumb to his other true love, alcohol. A third of the movie was of the pair chasing after a guy who belonged in his own, possibly far more interesting, movie. We assume that Martin & Catherine become more attracted to each other as they form a musical duo, but there aren’t any discussions where they get to know each other better. WHY does she (still) love Kirk so? They’ve both been burned by their spouses, why not go into that? When all hope is lost because Lorre was a dead end, what is it about Kirk (who is in jail for MURDER, and as far as all the misdirects are concerned could still be the murderer) that makes her want to stay with him when the perfect partner could be right in front of her, playing piano while she transforms from taken-for-granted but loving housewife to sultry hot 40’s nightclub blonde bombshell?
Because she’s stunning once she’s in those evening gowns? Yes.
Was it good? Eh, after all that buildup with trying to infiltrate Lorre and his mob of restaurant employees, I didn’t feel the tension of Martin’s need to confess. And frankly, Martin’s a creep in this movie. I can see why she didn’t fall for him: he’s hovering over her. He has no incentive to find the real killer other than to get Catherine to fall for him. If he had a history with Lorre there’d be more tension.He seems to have no interest in following up with the woman he was infatuated with and legally bound to in those first few minutes of the movie.
By the title, who is the Black Angel? This should be Catherine’s story. It’s based on a book The Black Angel, which sounds like it took a dark path of a heroine looking to solve a similar mystery, and going all Continental Op in Red Harvest, going so far as to ruin lives to the point where it’s no longer about the truth, but for merciless revenge (uh, I’ll have to read it). Her transformation here goes from loyal housewife to detective in hopes to prove how loyal a housewife she is. Because that’s love, I guess.