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Tag Archives: Roy Chanslor

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.

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The House of Fear (March 16, 1945)

Even when it’s pretty easy to figure out the solution to the mystery, as is the case here, the Sherlock Holmes pictures starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are well-oiled machines; exceedingly well-made, and a joy to watch. Directed by Roy William Neill, The House of Fear is loosely based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Five Orange Pips,” and is the tenth film that Rathbone and Bruce made together in the Sherlock Holmes series. It tells the farfetched story of a group of curmudgeonly old friends who call themselves “The Good Comrades,” and spend most of their time together as a club in a remote area of Scotland (in a creepy old castle, natch). After one man receives a single orange seed in an envelope at dinner one night, he is murdered. And then it happens again to another member of the club. And again. Oh, and did I mention that each member of The Good Comrades has an insurance policy with all the other members listed as beneficiaries? Sounds like a job for Sherlock Holmes…

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) was the first film that featured Rathbone as Holmes and Bruce as his faithful sidekick Dr. Watson, and it set the tone for the series beautifully. If you’re a fan of English mysteries, I can’t recommend it highly enough (even though it’s an American production, it gets most of the details right). Their second film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) is also a doozy. It’s probably my favorite in the series, owing in no small part to George Zucco’s brilliant performance as the cunning Professor Moriarty. After the first two, I found the next few Rathbone/Bruce films, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943), and Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943), a bit of a letdown. The setting was changed to the present day, and the films contained a good amount of World War II-era propaganda. Worst of all, someone decided that Rathbone’s hair should be combed forward. This might seem like a minor detail, but Rathbone, with his aquiline nose and intense gaze, is the very embodiment of Holmes when his hair is slicked back. With his hair combed forward he looks as if he’s wearing a curly pageboy wig.

The series hit its stride again with Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943). Not only was Rathbone’s hair restored to its full Holmesian glory, the Conan Doyle story “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual” was adapted to a more temporally indeterminate setting. It may have been “the present day,” but the wartime propaganda was jettisoned, and aside from automobiles and telephones, it could have been the Victorian era. Holmes was Holmes again. This film and the three that followed in 1944, The Spider Woman, The Scarlet Claw, and The Pearl of Death, are all fantastic.

In total, Rathbone and Bruce made 14 full-length features together as Holmes and Watson, and they appeared together for years on the Sherlock Holmes radio show. For many people, Rathbone and Bruce simply are Holmes and Watson. Rathbone was often cast as the villain, a role he played well (e.g., in The Adventures of Robin Hood [1938] opposite Errol Flynn), but when I think of Rathbone, I think of a brave, brilliant, and heroic detective.