sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2015-12-04 03:19 am
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You haven't exactly kicked me in the face, you know

All right. Black Angel (1946). This is the L.A. noir, the gem of Sunday's double feature of female protagonists from novels by Cornell Woolrich. I can't understand how I could have run into noir oddities like Lured (1947) or Mystery Street (1950) and yet never heard of this movie. Like Phantom Lady (1944), it follows the travails of a woman determined to clear a man's name; unlike Phantom Lady, it doesn't fall apart in the third act and features one of the most interesting male-female relationships I've seen in this genre since The Reckless Moment (1949). Peter Lorre doesn't play the most compelling character in it and that's saying something.

June Vincent stars as Cathy Bennett, a self-effacing housewife whose husband was recently convicted of a sensational killing—the strangling of bombshell torch singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling) with her own monogrammed scarf while her signature song "Heartbreak" played over and over in the next room. His wife believes in his innocence. No one else does. Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) was one of Marlowe's many lovers; he was also one of her many blackmail victims. The singer's own maid can place him at the scene of the crime. Even the tolerant police captain has no more time for Cathy after her husband's verdict comes in: "We're three months behind on unsolved homicides now . . . The case is closed, out of my hands. And unless new evidence is discovered, it's going to stay closed." A gossipy insinuation overheard in a studio canteen sends her in the direction of Marlowe's estranged husband Martin Blair, the man who wrote "Heartbreak" for his spellbinding, sultry wife, then crashed into alcoholic obscurity after she left him; he's played by Dan Duryea in a departure from his usual heels and heavies and he really looks like six months straight of lost weekends when he rolls over on his flophouse bed to squint at the woman hovering over him in a flat straw hat, an unflattering plaid jacket, and an expression of daunted determination. Between his hangover and defensiveness, and her eagerness and pity, their first meeting is a mutually wounding disaster. By their second, however, their awkward rapport has begun to move toward active alliance, as Marty puts a corrected assumption together with a monogrammed matchbook, and before long the two of them are posing as a cabaret duo to gain the confidence of mysterious nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre) who might be in possession of some important evidence.1 As an investigative tactic, this imposture could obviously use some work. As a dramatic opportunity for the characters to spend time with another, it pays off for the story big time.

There must be a word for the motif seen in romances or narratives with a strong romantic element where two people who are not yet a couple have to play at marriage for purposes of subterfuge and inevitably it foreshadows the real thing. I think of it as one of the standard screwball progressions; it gets its most famous airing in It Happened One Night (1934), although I think I saw it first in The 39 Steps (1935). When one or both parties are married for real, though—to other people—the outcome becomes less predictable. It's not just the potential for infidelity, although that layers the tension in narratives where monogamy is the assumed and cherished default. There's a real sense of substitution, of doubling. You can see more clearly who isn't there by who is. Cathy and Marty present themselves as business partners rather than a couple, but the echoes are there all the same. They ghost marriage with one another, linked to their absent spouses by familiar patterns and new variations. As "Carver and Martin," held over as headliners at Rio's for the third week in a row, they perform the same roles of singer and accompanist that Mavis adopted professionally with Marty and Cathy for fun with Kirk. It is associated in both cases with an earlier, happier stage of the marriage, when Marty was still sober and successful and Cathy's husband had not yet started cheating. Marty even writes a signature tune for Cathy, just as he wrote one for Mavis; both feature as significant motifs in the soundtrack. Notably, although the songs are voiced from a female perspective, the first accurately reflects the eventual state of Marty's relationship with its singer ("I've much to regret / Finding your arms so thrilling / And finding myself too willing / So what do I get?") while the second makes a more cautious, wistful declaration ("And while I'm in your spell / Will I love wisely or too well? / Who can say? / Time will tell"). Whatever this uncertain intimacy can be called, it's not simply going through the same motions. Cathy and Marty thrive in each other's company, apparently more so than they did with their actual spouses. Despite her initial demurrals, Cathy turns out to have a smoky, low-throated way of putting a song over that blossoms unexpectedly from her self-image as a drab homemaker; as her star rises with Marko, she begins to dress more confidently and flatteringly, her gowns off the shoulder, her hairstyles softened, a square-cut glitter of gems at her wrists and throat. In the meantime, it escapes neither the audience nor Cathy that a sober, conscientious Marty is an attractive prospect, despite being nothing to look at conventionally.2 They dance together, they rehearse, they plan the next stage of their investigation. He brings her flowers and she is never surprised to see him around the house. She takes risks and he worries about her. After a show, they always share a Coca-Cola at the bar.

They double one another, too. As the cheated-on wife, Cathy was an object of pity, but not so much sympathy: her husband was the one who strayed, but she was the one who couldn't hold him, the dowdy housewife outcompeted by the glamour girl.3 Marty wasn't just the cheated-on husband, he was the husband who got kicked out by his wife and collapsed into a bourbon-soaked punch line and kept pining for her anyway while she balled half the guys in Hollywood, earning him the inevitable nickname of "Heartbreak"—he used to play the song in dive bars until he passed out on the keys. Mavis and Kirk are the hardboiled archetypes at the heart of the story, the manipulative mistress and the two-timing man who loved and—allegedly—killed her. Marty and Cathy are the halves left out of this charmed/poisoned circle, the ordinary people on the outside, the ones who weren't loved enough. A romance would put these wounded characters together, let them find wholeness in one another. Black Angel does, but not equally and not for long.

Proceed at your own risk from here on. The stuff that really interests me requires the rest of the plot. I have some arguments with the script's expression of it, but I am intrigued by a story which raises such obvious symmetry and then averts it. Past the familiar routines of performance and camaraderie, Marty recognizes his attraction to Cathy and assumes it must be mutual, the romantic inevitability of swapping partners from two unhappy marriages into one loving one: "We both need someone. We need each other, Cathy [. . .] I knew from the very beginning that you were everything I wanted and everything I'd missed. It has to be you and me, Cathy." Her reply is gently spoken and crushing: "There's only been one man. There can only be one man. Ever." In order to accept this line, I have to assume she's speaking for her own idiosyncratic experience rather than all of womankind, but it is true that in real life people do not automatically fall in love with each other just because it would close a circle. Cathy's feelings for Marty are real and honestly expressed; the man she misses is her husband, now waiting on death row and no closer to an exoneration than when they started performing at Rio's. The irony is perfectly balanced. The very force that brought out the qualities that make her such an ideal partner to Marty—her compassion, her loyalty, her tenacity against the odds—is the reason she will never see him in the same light, because it's her devotion to her husband. Now the substitution is performed in reverse. Where her husband's transgression brought a potential new love into her life, Cathy's rejection of a lover's overtures leads directly to her husband's salvation. Marty takes the news badly. Sober for weeks now, he throws himself off the wagon with a vengeance, culminating in the fever-sweating discovery that he himself was the one who took the ruby brooch from Mavis' apartment; in a drunken blackout, he was the one who killed her. His recollection is a marvelous delirium dream of montages and double exposures, images wavering as though seen through the bottom of a tilting glass. It's the truth; the recognition token of the jewelry heart proves it. Kirk Bennett is in the clear.

(I admit that while I find this conclusion emotionally effective, realistically foreshadowed, and totally noir-compatible—shadow sides, the return of the repressed, the monster you chased down the maze of the city was yourself—I have a pattern-recognizing brain and so found myself briefly thinking oh, hey, Sydney Carton, didn't see you there as the formerly irresponsible alcoholic decided to exchange his death for that of his doppelgänger, the beloved of the woman he loves. It is probably more useful to think of this device as Marty doubling himself, not realizing that he's been tracking his own footprints all this while. I do think it speaks well of him that not for a second does he consider keeping the information to himself and then renewing his courtship after Kirk's execution. Cathy already told him what she wanted and it wasn't him. While I've got this parenthesis going, I am fascinated that Cathy suffers no narrative punishment for sleeping with Marko in her efforts to get into his safe. I suppose it might have gotten past the censors on the grounds of plausible deniability: we never see the characters so much as kiss, although the timing of the fadeout, the preceding and subsequent dialogue, and the manner in which he gives her jewelry, expects her company, and touches her face are all suggestive enough to convey the message without it. It's conceivable that it's allowed because she is portrayed as neither physically nor emotionally attracted to him: where Marty poses the threat of really replacing Cathy's husband, her association with Marko is strictly a ploy and one that she endures rather than relishes, assuring the audience of the real marital fidelity in her heart. Possibly the censor was just taking a smoke break.)

And so the investigating woman is rewarded for her fidelity and her hard work: she will get her husband back, with any luck harrowed by his experience into appreciating the hell out of her; the audience may feel ambivalently about this prospect, but she has accomplished what she set out to do. Had she not gone looking for "new evidence," she would never have found Marty; without the impetus of love and frustration, he might never have recovered his incriminating memories. For all this reinforcement of the permanence of marriage and the importance of standing by one's man, however, the ending of Black Angel is decidedly ambiguous. Marty's last line is a lightly spoken, truthful callback to the idyll that neither of them recognized at the time: "Carver and Martin. It was a good team while it lasted." But the last image of the film is not the picture of Kirk that Cathy kept on the piano, or even the man himself reunited with his faithful wife, but the published sheet music for "Time Will Tell" with its dedication "To Cathy," scattered across the floor as the theme itself plays. The photographed faces of "Catherine Carver" and "Jack Martin" smile up from the cover, heads close together. Somewhere the ghost marriage is still going on.

I have little interest in reading the Woolrich novel on which it's based, The Black Angel (1943), because by all accounts it sounds about four times more misogynist than the movie: the protagonist is the eponymous black angel, destroying each man she meets in her desperate, oblivious efforts to save her husband. The film's bittersweet ending does make it possible to read in this fashion, but because the collateral damage of Cathy's quest is greatly decreased from the book—and the responsibility crucially redistributed—it is just as persuasive to consider Marty in this deceptively attractive light, or even beautiful, blackmailing Mavis. The screenwriter responsible was Roy Chanslor, none of whose other movies look familiar to me, although he wrote the novels later adapted into Johnny Guitar (1954) and Cat Ballou (1965). The film itself was the last project of Roy William Neill, best known for directing all but one of Universal's Sherlock Holmes series. It's tight at 81 minutes without feeling crammed; stylistically, it mostly confines itself to realistic compositions with the occasional slatted shadow or plate-glass reversal, but its expressionist breakout packs a punch when it arrives. The songs are convincing and catchy. Lorre is delightful. Vincent and Duryea and their mismatched chemistry anchor the picture.4 Woolrich famously hated it and I am delighted to report that it appears to be readily available on DVD. This flashback brought to you by my musically minded backers at Patreon.

1. The key to the murder is a heart-shaped ruby brooch, a spurned gift from Marty that Kirk swore he saw pinned on Mavis' breast when he discovered her body, conspicuously missing a few moments later. Finding it on any other person will link them to the crime scene and earn him a reprieve from the gas chamber.

2. He really isn't, although it doesn't stop him from being great to look at. Duryea has one of those lanky, flat-angled faces, with a mulish set to the jaw; he sneers easily, which means that watching Marty's gentleness emerge from his bruised, hungover cynicism is as nice a surprise as Cathy's hitherto undiscovered facility for siren song. The character brilliantines his hair severely, which in his drunk scenes gives him a look I haven't seen much outside of manga: disheveled and bed-headed, he looks like a sardonic dandelion.

3. Even Marty makes a crack about it, right after she's woken him up that first inopportune morning: "Mrs. Kirk Bennett. So you're the one he left sitting at home." The fact that he apologizes for it almost as soon as they see each other again is one of his first signs of sensitivity. I feel it may also be relevant that the first Carver and Martin song, performed in full at their audition for Marko, is an arch number called "I Want to Be Talked About" in which the narrator breezily boasts, "Sticks and stones won't break my bones and names will bring me fame / A man in the hand is worth two in the arms of some other dame." The Mavis Marlowe murder case was a front-page spectacle; nobody's private lives stayed that way. Putting a jaunty spin on it—as they perform incognito—might well do both of them good.

4. I had never seen Vincent before, although I note that two of her early roles are in musicals. I thought I hadn't seen Duryea, either, but IMDb informs me that it's just that I've seen him in two other roles against type: a wry tank gunner in Sahara (1943), making endless trivial bets with Humphrey Bogart to cover the stress of the North African war, and the mild-mannered company accountant who names the eponymous aircraft in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965). IMDb also seems to believe that he did his own piano playing in Black Angel, which if true is pretty cool.
skygiants: Lauren Bacall on a red couch (lauren bacall says o rly)

[personal profile] skygiants 2015-12-04 01:11 pm (UTC)(link)
THIS SOUNDS REALLY GOOD. Kind of like it belongs in the same genre as The Reckless Moment, really.
skygiants: Sokka from Avatar: the Last Airbender peers through an eyeglass (*peers*)

[personal profile] skygiants 2015-12-05 06:20 pm (UTC)(link)
Whatever Foster Hirsch had to say about it doesn't seem to have stuck in my head very well -- it's possible that he briefly described it and then studiously avoided saying much about it because it highly contradicts most of what he wants to say about noir, but he might have had more to say that I've just forgotten. And, excellent! Depending on timing, we could even recreate the double feature that I missed. :D

I can't think of any right now (unless you count the remake of The Reckless Moment with Tilda Swinton, which seems like cheating) but I'll keep cadging my brain.

[identity profile] 2015-12-04 02:23 pm (UTC)(link)
Same comment as ever: I obviously need to see this. A wonderfully detailed thing to wake up to.

[identity profile] 2015-12-04 02:41 pm (UTC)(link)
Jeez, that sounds like some good Noir.
I've recently been introduced to the song "Johnny Guitar," which hints at a larger story, as well, so it doesn't surprise me there's a film. Maybe I should try seeking it out, too.

[identity profile] 2015-12-04 10:17 pm (UTC)(link)
Here's another version by Dave Vanian (of The Damned) and the Phantom Chords:

I've never had much time for Woolrich for the same reasons as you, but I'd watch the hell out of this. And Phantom Lady.

[identity profile] 2015-12-05 05:48 pm (UTC)(link)
Ooh, this version is excellent too.

[identity profile] 2015-12-05 05:46 pm (UTC)(link)
Ooh. Neat.
gwynnega: (coffee poisoninjest)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2015-12-04 07:28 pm (UTC)(link)
I've put this at the top of my Netflix queue.
ext_104661: (Default)


[identity profile] 2015-12-04 11:07 pm (UTC)(link)
Read this, and thought you would enjoy it:

[identity profile] 2015-12-05 06:00 pm (UTC)(link)
That sounds excellent, though my heart is full of.... hmmm. Anger at the thought that Cathy pours all that love into a man who treated her so callously. I assume, cynically, that the choice to have her stand by her man was male-writer wish fulfillment, and yet, in fact, sometimes people **do** love that way, not to satisfy anyone's whims, but just because that's the way they are. One hopes that it works out for her....

Anyway. Onto the Netflix queue it goes!

ETA: I wonder if at Netflix Central they notice little blips in requests for old films as your reviews come out...
Edited 2015-12-05 18:02 (UTC)

[identity profile] 2015-12-07 11:35 am (UTC)(link)
I think a person can get an education in what it means to be human by reading your film analyses. This is wonderful.

He's attractive in the way that most interests me, based on the kind of person he is rather than how nice he looks doing it. --I can't wait to see this. I've moved it to first place in the queue.