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Tag Archives: Constance Dowling

Boston Blackie and the Law (Dec. 12, 1946)

D. Ross Lederman’s Boston Blackie and the Law, produced by Ted Richmond, is the twelfth of 14 Boston Blackie features released by Columbia Pictures from 1941 to 1949.

Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black was a gentleman thief and safecracker created by author Jack Boyle in 1914. Stories featuring Boston Blackie appeared in The American Magazine, Cosmopolitan, and Redbook, and the character showed up in a number of silent films starring a variety of different actors. When Chester Morris stepped into the role in Meet Boston Blackie (1941), however, he was on the road to becoming inseparable from the character. Meet Boston Blackie was the first “talkie” featuring Boston Blackie, and Morris would go on to play Blackie in all 14 programmers released by Columbia Pictures. Morris also played the character on the radio, in a 1944 summer replacement series for Amos & Andy. When Blackie returned to the airwaves in 1945, Richard Kollmar took over the part, and starred in more than 200 episodes.

The radio version of Boston Blackie is the one I’m most familiar with, and while I’m a regular listener, it’s never been one of my favorite shows. Occasionally there’s a really crackerjack episode, but mostly they’re middle-of-the-road mysteries with more corn than the state of Iowa. Judging solely by Boston Blackie and the Law, which is the first Boston Blackie movie I’ve ever seen, the film series is pretty similar. Blackie is a likable rogue, but his puns are pretty lame, and he’s got plenty to go around.

Boston Blackie and the Law begins in a festive fashion, with Blackie performing a magic show at the annual Thanksgiving party at Women’s State Penitentiary. An old lady in the audience says, “I didn’t know Boston Blackie was a magician.” A young blonde responds knowingly, “There isn’t a trick he doesn’t know.”

That young blonde is Dinah Moran, a.k.a. prisoner #31329 (played by Constance Dowling), and when Blackie offers to make someone disappear in his “Phantom Cabinet,” she volunteers. Blackie promises Warden Lund (Selmer Jackson) the disappearance will be only temporary, which gets a laugh from the audience, but no one’s laughing when he pulls back the curtain of the cabinet a second time and Moran is still nowhere to be seen.

Enter the long-suffering Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) and his bumbling sidekick, Sgt. Matthews (Frank Sully). Farraday is Blackie’s foil; an eternal chump who always suspects Blackie of wrongdoing, and who always trips over his own feet while Blackie effortlessly solves the crime his own way.

After Blackie gives the imbecilic Sgt. Matthews the slip, he and his sidekick, “The Runt” (George E. Stone), follow clues to a stage magician named “Jani” (Warren Ashe) and his pretty, dark-haired assistant Irene (Trudy Marshall).

Jani, whose real name is John Lampau, bears a strong resemblance to Boston Blackie, which comes in handy when Blackie needs to impersonate him. (To enjoy a movie like this, you have to buy that Inspector Farraday and Sgt. Matthews can’t recognize Blackie up close just because he’s wearing a turban and a false Van Dyke beard.)

As usual with these types of B mysteries, I was left with more stupid questions than the film had trite answers when the words “The End” appeared onscreen. But I enjoyed it. Columbia’s mystery series of the ’40s — like The Whistler series and The Crime Doctor series — were top-notch B-movie entertainment, and Boston Blackie and the Law isn’t bad, either.

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Black Angel (Aug. 2, 1946)

Black Angel was directed by Roy William Neill, the dependable craftsman responsible for eleven of Universal’s fourteen Sherlock Holmes pictures. Black Angel isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s slick, well-made entertainment and a nice opportunity to see what Neill was capable of when he stepped outside of the formula of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Holmes films.

The screenplay, by Roy Chanslor, is based on Cornell Woolrich’s novel of the same name. Woolrich was a prolific author, and an instrumental figure in film noir, even though his actual work for the film industry occurred only during the silent era and was brief and unhappy. He apparently wrote a few screenplays under the name “William Irish,” which was one of his pseudonyms. (“George Hopley” was the other.) He was also briefly married as a young man, but it was annulled after less than three years. After that, he headed back to New York City, his hometown, and went back to live with his mother.

Woolrich mostly kept to himself. A closeted homosexual with a drinking problem, Woolrich found his niche writing stories for the pulps. He was a frequent contributor to publications like Black Mask and Argosy. More screenplays for film noirs were adapted from Woolrich’s stories and novels than from the the work of any other crime writer, but that’s not the only reason he was instrumental to the genre. The inky darkness of noir is evident in the titles of his books alone; The Bride Wore Black (1940), The Black Curtain (1941), The Black Path of Fear (1944), and Rendezvous in Black (1948) are just a few. The two novels of his I’ve read were not particularly well-written — he wasn’t a great stylist like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett — but he conveyed in his writing a sense of overwhelming dread and alienation, both emotions that are central to film noir.

Also, perhaps due to his his drinking, Woolrich’s characters frequently suffer from amnesia and alcohol-induced blackouts. In Fright, written in 1950 under the name George Hopley, a young man is convinced he has committed murder while blind drunk, but it’s not clear for most of the novel whether he actually has or not.

This is a theme that rears its head once again in Black Angel, in which a regular Joe named Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) is convicted of the murder of a blackmailing singer named Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling). Bennett’s wife Catherine (June Vincent, who bears a fairly strong resemblance to Dowling) believes he is innocent, and sets out to prove it. She enlists the aid of Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), a composer and piano player who seems like a decent guy despite his alcoholism and unhealthy obsession with the murdered woman. (In the memorable first scene of the picture, we see Duryea leaning against a wall, staring up at the high rise apartment in which Mavis lives.) As Bennett’s execution date looms, the two pose as a professional singer and piano player in order to get closer to their prime suspect, an oily club owner named Marko (Peter Lorre).

One of the things I liked best about Black Angel was the opportunity to see Duryea in a sympathetic role. He wasn’t perpetually cast early in his career as villains and sniveling punks because he lacked charisma, he had plenty. But he was whip-thin and had a perpetual scowl, and he was good at playing nasty characters. The poster for Black Angel calls him “that fascinating tough guy of Scarlet Street,” and that movie and this one were both instrumental in creating his new image as a violent, dangerous, and sexy antihero.

Sadly, this would be Neill’s last film. He died of a heart attack on December 14, 1946, while visiting relatives in England. He was 59 years old. Neill was a superior craftsman, and his Sherlock Holmes films were some of the most entertaining and well-made programmers of the ’40s. He made all kinds of films, including the campy horror movie Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) (a personal favorite), but Black Angel showed what he was capable of in the hard-boiled noir/mystery genre. It’s a shame he wasn’t able to make more movies like it.