That Old Feeling: Fear Noir

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Black Angel, 1946
Screenplay by Roy Chanslor, from the 1943 novel by CW
Directed by Roy William Neill

“Black Angel,” novel and film, has a family resemblance to “Phantom Lady.” A glamorous, unloving wife is strangled on the fifth anniversary of her marriage to a man she can’t stand. A husband is rudely interrogated by some loutish cops, found guilty and condemned to death. The woman who loves him struggles and connives to find the evidence that will clear him. There’s also a detective who is at first skeptical, then accepting, of the man’s innocence. (And [SPOILER] her partner in detection, who is played by the top-billed actor, turns out to be the killer.)

A couple of differences: the “Black Angel” loser is a lover of the murder victim, and the woman avenger, Catherine (blond, charisma-challenged June Vincent), is his betrayed wife. When her schlub of a two-timing spouse is sent to jail for the murder of showgirl-vocalist Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling), Catherine tracks down Mavis’ ex, a part-time songwriter, full-time drunk named Martin Blair (Dan Duryea). “I had to see you,” she implores, and he snaps, “Why? Because I had a wife who needed killing. And you had a husband who took care of it.”

Marty has a locked-room alibi — a pal had bolted the lush’s apartment door from the outside just before the murder was committed — and, as played by Duryea, is a sympathetic soul looking to redeem a promising life pissed away. He’s also falling in love with Catherine. So he joins forces with her as a pianist-singer duo at the nightclub of menacing Marko (Peter Lorre), who knew the dead woman. All this amateur sleuthing wins the initial contempt of detective Broderick Crawford, who snarls to Marty, “You just gotta play detective. Do I go around playin’ piano?”

The movie has a pretty twist in store. [SPOILER] Nice-guy Marty is indeed the killer — the janitor had let him out of his room, he went to Mavis’ place hoping for an anniversary reunion and, when she rudely rejected his affections, he strangled her with his scarf (overtones of Franchot Tone!) — but he doesn’t remember because his alcoholic stupor blotted out the deed. Now that all is clear, he wants to save the husband of the woman he loves. A killer racing against time to turn himself in: that’s a poignant twist.

The Woolrich original had a different twist in mind: the twisting of the woman’s righteous quest into soulless revenge, as, one by one, the suspects die off and our heroine grows callouses on her conscience. The book was a variation on Woolrich’s first novel, “The Bride Wore Black,” which was also the story of a woman who, having been infected by wrongful death, spreads the contagion around to other innocent people. (The woman may have transferred her husband’s betrayal onto other men.)

Woolrich biographer Francis M. Nevins, Jr., says this is the best film adaptation of a Woolrich novel. But “Black Angel” the movie uses only the situation, not the soul, of the original. It de-kinks the novel’s plot — just who is the black angel here anyway? — and the result is a B-minus remake of “Phantom Lady.”

Fear in the Night, 1947
Screenplay and direction by Maxwell Shane, from the 1941 story “And So to Death” / “Nightmare” by CW

In the “Black Angel” movie, a man has forgotten he killed someone. In “Fear in the Night,” a man dreams he killed someone, then wakes to find evidence indicating he really is a murderer. Vince Grayson (DeForest Kelley in his movie debut, 19 years before he became “Bones” McCoy on “Star Trek”) has memories of a mirrored room and a woman watching as he strangles a man. Vince’s policeman brother-in-law Cliff (Paul Kelly, who looks like the seediest possible Johnny Carson), refuses to take his complaint seriously: “If you want me to arrest you for murdering a man in your dream, well ... I’m off-duty when I’m dreamin’.”

Vince finds a house, and a mirrored room, that resembles his dreamscape; and Cliff learns that a murder was recently committed there. This being a thriller, they have to stay there to discover that the murderer was [SPOILER] a cuckolded husband who hypnotized Vince to kill the man she was fooling around with. Vince still isn’t sure if he did it: “I’ve got an innocent man’s conscience in a killer’s body.”

The movie isn’t much, but Kelley nicely conveys a doomed man’s look and walk, as if he’s wearing invisible shackles. His voiceover has the voluptuous tone of a bad dream, or bad pulp writing: “It seemed as if my brain was handcuffed... My stomach was riding a roller coaster... I was scared sick.” The film stretches its minuscule budget with effects like showing murder in Vince’s eyes — literally: the camera closes in, Kelley’s eye sockets turn black and we see the nightmare killing in them. Writer-director Shane would remake this film in 1956 as “Nightmare,” with Edward G. Robinson in the Kelley role. Apparently the same dream kept dogging Shane, and he had to film it, over and over, to get it out of his system.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes, 1948
Screenplay by Barré Lyndon and Jonathan Latimer, from the 1945 novel by George Hopley (CW)
Directed by John Farrow

Another man with visions: he can see death coming but is powerless to stop it. Vaudeville mindreader John Triton (Robinson, in the first of two haunted Woolrich roles) has presentiments of doom for a child playing with fire, a newsboy heading into traffic, his own fiancee, her eventual husband. All of these quickly died. Now, 20 years into his premonitory curse, he has a forewarning of doom for his beloved’s rich daughter (Gail Russell). The world thinks Triton is mad, and he does too, but his conscience goads him to warn her that she will die under the stars — the night’s thousand eyes — at 11p.m. and that her death will be presaged by a gust of wind, a broken vase, a crushed flower, a lion and the words, “There’s no danger now.” The night in question, one by one, each element comes true...

The book’s intended victim was a wealthy tycoon, but the confluence of zany coincidences and logic lapses is the same. “There’s a ‘why’ in this too big to go down on any report,” the book’s detective says. “It seems to slip away each time you think you’ve got it pinned down.” In the baronial study, the girl, her lover (John Lund), the cop (William Demarest) and a few businessmen all wait for the witching hour. Then [SPOILER] a mysterious figure moves the minute hand on the grandfather clock ahead, and when that clock chimes 11 the girl and her protectors (who never look at their own watches) think all peril is over. That’s when the murderer strikes. Jeez!

“Night” was Woolrich’s prime mixture of the paranoid and the paranormal — a cocktail that rarely fizzes in this flat adaptation. You will make do with minor pleasures: Robinson’s walking-dead pallor as Triton (who calls himself “a zombie in reverse”); Russell’s fragile beauty (she would drink herself to death at 36); the movie’s last words, that “there are things on earth still hidden from us. Secret things, dark and mysterious.” Like the resolution of a Woolrich plot.

The Window, 1949
Screenplay by Mel Dinelli, from the 1947 story “The Boy Cried Murder” / “Fire Escape” by CW

Cities crush people, sometimes. They surely crush them together, making it hard to keep a secret. An apartment dweller can hear the bickering couple’s argument through the walls; he can tell what the family downstairs is eating from the fugitive aroma. If he’s up late on a sweltering night, he might glimpse a murder.

Nine-year-old Tommy (Bobby Driscoll) has taken his bedding to sleep where it’s cooler, on the fire escape outside the apartment upstairs. There he sees a woman (Ruth Roman) stab a man and, with her husband (Paul Stewart), take the corpse away. Tommy, who has the reputation as a fibber, can’t get his parents or the police to believe him. He’s in deeper trouble when his mother makes him apologize to the murderers. The next night, his folks have to go out overnight. “Don’t leave your room,” warns his mother. “I won’t, Mom,” he says hopelessly. “There’s no place for me to go.” But there’s a place for the killers to go: his place.

Prime-cut Woolrich: the accused must corral the killers to exonerate himself. And who could be more helpless than a child — alone, abandoned, unbelieved — pursued in the dark by a murderer? This atmospheric thriller, shot almost entirely at night, tautens the suspense like rough hands around a little boy’s neck. Driscoll was a Disney star (“Song of the South,” “Treasure Island”) who somehow knew the way to plant fear and grit on a winsome face. He makes “The Window” one of the most modest and satisfying Woolrich adaptations. Driscoll earned a special Oscar for his acting that year, but with puberty his value to Hollywood waned. He later said, “I was carried on a velvet pillow and dumped into a garbage can.”

A city like New York holds a lot of garbage, and a few secrets. In 1968 two children chanced upon a corpse in an abandoned Greenwich Village tenement. The body was buried as John Doe in a pauper’s grave. A year later, fingerprint tests revealed the man’s identity: Bobby Driscoll, dead at 31 of a drug overdose.

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