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December 17, 2005

Two Angels of Death

Der Mude Tod
Fritz Lang - 1921
Image Region 1 DVD

Black Angel
Roy William Neill - 1946
Universal Region 1 DVD

Both of these films are linked by death and love. One of the stars of Black Angel, Peter Lorre first gained fame in Fritz Lang's M. Black Angel, being classic film noir with the cockeyed camera angles, downbeat subject matter and fatalism is in some ways more Germanic than the made in Germany Destiny. Both films share plots involving women who will do anything on behalf of the men they love.

Lil Dagover, a bit mature at age 36, portrays a newlywed on a honeymoon trip with her husband, played by Walter Janssen. Death hops on board the stagecoach they are traveling in. Death in this film is a no-nonsense guy with no time for chess games. Stepping away briefly during lunch, Dagover discovers that Death and Janssen have disappeared. Realizing her husband has prematurely died, Dagover is about to commit suicide. She finds herself in an othewise impenetrable place with Death who takes her to a room full of candles. As obvious as the symbolism may be, the image the two characters surrounded by candles is still impressive.

Continuing with the flickering candles as lift metaphor, the film continues with three stories of characters represented by three candles. Taking place in renaissance Venice, and extremely imaginary Persia and China, Dagover portrays three women trying to change the fate of her doomed lover, again portrayed by Janssen. Co-scripted by Thea von Harbou, the two latter episodes remind one of how, for better and worse, Lang was the Steven Speilberg of his time. The Persian episode has a proto-Indiana Jones character wooing the Caliph's sister. The Chinese episode is uses the most special effects including a miniature army emerging from a box, a scroll that takes on the characteristics of a snake, and a flying carpet. While Dagover is motivated by the biblical phrase that "love is stronger than death", the lesson learned is not the one expected. Destiny is both cornball and moving, made a year before Lang started making his best silent films, starting with the first Dr. Mabuse.

Black seems to have been a favorite color for Cornell Woolrich. The film Black Angel may not have been true to the novel, but there are still recognizable elements such as an innocent man accused of murder, the search for the real murderer, and a character suffering from amnesia or alcoholism or both. Universal cupcake du jour Constance Dowling is the victim. Dan Duryea and June Vincent are the pair trying to prove that bit player John Phillips is innocent.

Black Angel was the final film for Roy William Neill who died at age 59. Mostly known for directing the series of Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone, Black Angel demonstrates an artistry that never had the opportunity to fully develop. Still there are enough unexpected twists and turns, plus humor, intentional and not, with Broderick Crawford as a laidback police detective, perennial creep Lorre plus professional lug Freddie Steele. Constance Dowling's role in Black Angel is brief, as was her career. Dowling's relationship with Cesare Pavese is certainly the stuff of legend. Dowling may have been a victim in Black Angel but she also proved to be a real life femme fatale.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 17, 2005 10:42 PM