[Fresh on Blu-ray] ‘BLACK ANGEL’ and ‘MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN’ offer film noir aficionados something seasoned and fresh

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

Nothing tops film noir

It’s my favorite type of film, and it isn’t even a genre. It’s a movement. Inexplicably talked about in conversation as if it were a genre, film noir pertains to a specific period when the visual style of German expressionism was applied to Hollywood-produced crime dramas. This look, along with stories full of cynicism, flawed men and manipulative women, would define the 1940s and 1950s. They were like a shot of hard liquor, causing your esophagus to burn as dizzying visions bounded across your eyeballs. They reflected the Great Depression malaise but arrived as the Greatest Generation came home from war, trying to conceal those horrors as they tried to be decent, upstanding family men. 

After the 1950s, the classic period of film noir ended, and neo-noir was born. The classification for what does and doesn’t qualify as a noir picture, be it from the classic period to the films released today, is worth debating. 

What I can tell you is this: Arrow Academy’s release of BLACK ANGEL sees one of film noir’s great antagonists do an about-face. And Edward Norton’s MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is a good addition to the neo-noir library, and an unfortunate casualty of a marketplace riddled with too many superheroes and not enough gumshoes.

Dan Duryea, left, and June Vincent star in 1946’s ‘BLACK ANGEL,’ which has been restored on Blu-ray through Arrow Academy. Courtesy photo.

BLACK ANGEL (1946)

Not rated, 81 minutes.
Director: Roy William Neill
Cast: Dan DuryeaJune VincentPeter Lorre, Broderick Crawford and Constance Dowling

Roy William Neill’s BLACK ANGEL is a B-level noir with an A-level cast. It has a nice visual eye and a snaky plot. 

Dan Duryea, who played the heavy in such noirs as SCARLET STREET and CRISS CROSS, goes against type as Martin Blair. He is seen as a once-promising songwriter and piano player who is now a strung-out drunk after his marriage to famous singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling) dissolves. Picture a combination of Ryan Gosling’s characters from LA LA LAND and THE NICE GUYS, and you have Martin Blair. 

When Mavis ends up dead, Martin is now the primary suspect. Kirk Bennett (John Phillips), who was having an affair with Mavis and is a victim of blackmail, is the fall guy and ultimately convicted of murder. Kirk’s wife, Catherine (June Vincent), who knows in her heart that her husband didn’t do it, dabbles in some amateur sleuthing, which leads her to partnering with Martin to find the real killer.    

BLACK ANGEL pulls a swerve when it comes to avoiding commonplace tropes. Catherine isn’t a blonde temptress who corrupts Martin to do her dirty work, and Martin isn’t the intrepid type to get his hands dirty. He’s emotionally distressed at the start. If anything, Catherine helps reform Martin, getting him off the sauce and back to writing songs again. Sober and rejuvenated, Martin ultimately falls for Catherine, feeling the friendly partnership could be mutually amorous. This type of subtext was quite uncommon for noir, and its placement in ANGEL helps delineate Duryea’s character, adding a measure of frailty.  

Now throw in Peter Lorre as a slick club owner, for whom Martin and Catherine eye as a suspect, and Broderick Crawford as the investigative cop, and you have some pretty top-notch support for a noir that pushes its boundary constraints while falling victim to limitations set forth by the Motion Picture Production Code. Ironic, then, that the film’s ending is true to the spirit of Cornell Woolrich’s source novel while most of the changes made to BLACK ANGEL were not to the author’s liking.

For its arrival on Blu-ray, Arrow Academy includes the following set of extras: Audio commentary by Alan K. Rode; “A Fitting End,” film professor Neil Sinyard’s 20-minute appreciation for Roy William Neill’s noir picture; the original theatrical trailer and image gallery; and an insert booklet that contains an essay by Philip Kemp, excerpts from original 1946 film reviews, and information about the video transfer. 

Writer’s Note: Arrow Academy has acknowledged that the original pressing of the Blu-ray disc presents BLACK ANGEL in the wrong aspect ratio (1.28:1 instead of 1.37:1). The distributor is issuing replacement discs as a result.    

Extras: The Arrow Academy Blu-ray release (available through mvdshop.com) includes a brand new restoration from the original film elements, new audio commentary by writer and film scholar Alan K. Rode, a new video appreciation by the film historian Neil Sinyard, an original trailer, gallery of original stills and promotional materials and reversible sleeve featuring two artwork options. And for first pressing copies only, there’s an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Philip Kemp.

Grade: B

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN

Rated R, 144 minutes.
Director: Edward Norton
Cast: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-RawAlec Baldwin,
Bobby Cannavale
, Willem Dafoe and Bruce Willis

Jonathan Lethem’s novel MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is a book I purchased with the intention of reading but never did. I started it, which is more than I can say about many books that are spread across my bedroom. Lethem’s style just didn’t work for me at the time. The same thing occurred when I tried reading AMERICAN PSYCHO. Again, a problem with style and prose. 

Upon seeing Edward Norton’s adaptation of Lethem’s National Book Critics Circle award winner, and later discovering that Norton took some major creative liberties with the novel, I didn’t feel too bad by not reading the novel and having its material interfere with my viewing experience. 

First off, Norton ditches modern-day New York City in favor of the 1950s. He plays Lionel Essrog, a clever private investigator afflicted with Tourette’s who is trying to solve the murder of his boss and long-time friend Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). The deeper Lionel digs into Frank’s last case, the more he discovers how rotten the Big Apple’s political core is. Full of insidious politicians and veiled gentrification. 

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is a total passion project for Norton, who, until now, has had a reputation for being difficult on movie sets. But since he’s calling the shots – with writing, directing, producing, and starring – Norton can do whatever he wants. He has only directed one other film (the 2000 comedy KEEPING THE FAITH), so to see him make a straight-up noir in his second stint behind the camera is ambitious, to say the least. 

BROOKLYN has a great look, compelling performance from Norton, and fantastic sound. It also has time. Too much time. Clocking in at close to 150 minutes, there is some considerable padding in the film’s mid-section that could have used some liposuction.    

It starts with Lionel trying to solve Frank’s murder, and it balloons into this elaborate labyrinth story that includes genealogy and a development project that would make New York a more attractive city but also less colorful (if you get my meaning). Come to find out, Norton concocts an entirely new convoluted conspiracy surrounding Minna’s death, creates a new adversary, and eliminates characters from the book entirely (like Lionel’s girlfriend, Kimberly). About the only things that appear unchanged are the city the story takes place and that Lionel Essrog has Tourette’s. Lovers of the novel will likely not be fond of Norton’s changes. 

Story changes notwithstanding, MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is about evoking a certain mood. It’s a callback to noir in the best possible way on a technical level. Daniel Pemberton’s excellent score and Thom Yorke’s ear-worming “Daily Battles” set the stage, which is captured finely by Mike Leigh’s long-time cinematographer Dick Pope (who also lensed THE ILLUSIONIST, starring Edward Norton). Its biggest drawback is its length, making BROOKYN’s hard-boiled prose a tad soft. Still a worthwhile entry for noir aficionados.    

Extras: Because of its poor reception at the box office, Warner Bros. did not grant the film a domestic 4K release. But the studio still included a few supplements on the Blu-ray to keep you busy. 

The best is Norton’s commentary. It give us the behind-the-scenes scoop on making his second feature. Topics like securing the rights to Lethem’s novel before publication, those drastic time period and story changes, film noir and Lionel’s narration, getting the cast and its visual style all come up. Sonny Corleone’s toll booth receives a mention, too.  

If the audio commentary is the dessert sundae to watching MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, then “Edward Norton’s Methodical Process,” a promo featurette, is its cherry. There is some overlap with the commentary, but it adds more detail to the long development and differences between the novel and the finished film. We get interviews with Norton, film producer Bill Migliore, cinematographer Dick Pope and actors Bobby Cannavale, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.   

Rounding out the extras is a section with four deleted scenes where we get more of Lionel Essrog in gumshoe mode.

Grade: B-

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