Angel in Exile (1948)

vt Dark Violence
US / 86 minutes / bw / Republic Dir: Allan Dwan, Philip Ford Scr: Charles Larson Cine: Reggie Lanning Cast: John Carroll, Adele Mara, Thomas Gomez, Barton MacLane, Alfonso Bedoya, Grant Withers, Howland Chamberlin, Art Smith, Paul Fix, Tom Powers, Ian Wolfe, Elsa Lorraine Zepeda, Mary Currier.

Adele Mara as Raquel Chavez.

The movie sets out its stall early, declaring right there in the opening credits that

This is the story of a miracle. To those who do not believe in miracles, we can offer no explanation. We can only point out that the man to whom this one occurred . . . . didn’t believe in miracles either . . .

Like me, he probably didn’t know either why the first ellipsis was there. Whatever the truth about that, the stress on the “miracle” aspect of the plot—here and in most of the rare reviews—is probably why I overlooked Angel in Exile when drawing up the entry list for my Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir: the movie isn’t a film noir, but it has sufficient noirish interest to have qualified it for inclusion in that book.

Spring 1939 in California, and Charlie Dakin (Carroll) is released after five years in stir for his part in a heist that netted a million dollars’ worth of gold dust. He’s met at the gate by Ernie Coons (Smith), his partner in the heist, who’s been keeping the loot safe all through Charlie’s enforced absence. Ernie reckons the two of them can now split the proceeds; trouble is, the other two participants in the heist, Max Giorgio (MacLane) and Carl Spitz (Fix), have a different idea.

John Carroll as Charlie (left) and Art Smith as Ernie.

Ernie’s cunning plan for laundering the gold is to buy for a song an abandoned mine in the Arizona mountains, stow the dust there, then pretend to dig it up. It’s a good plan, too, until Max and Carl turn up. Another problem is that a local land-management officer, J.H. Higgins (Chamberlin), swiftly guesses what’s going on and demands to be cut in as well.

A further complication is the involvement of the inhabitants of a local village populated by immigrant Mexicans, San Gabriel—notably general practitioner Dr. Estaban Chavez (Gomez), his lovely teacher daughter Raquel (Mara) and the local Mr. Fixit, Ysidro Álvarez (Bedoya). The villagers have long believed the Durango mine is haunted by the Blue Lady, a manifestation of the Virgin Mary. That Charlie should have discovered gold in a mine everyone’s long known to be barren is proof, they reason, that he’s a miracle worker . . .

Alfonso Bedoya as Ysidro.

There’s a lot of good to be said about Angel in Exile, notably the ambition of its premise: most movies of the era would have been content to leave this as a straightforward crime outing in which reformed thieves battled it out with their unreformed counterparts. The addition of the extra layer to the story is refreshing: this isn’t a fantasy or in any way really fantasticated, but we’re given just enough by way of teasers—as when Charlie’s wholly fictitious tales of encounters with the Blue Lady have the effect of saving villagers stricken during a typhus outbreak—to allow us to think that perhaps there might be something more than the mundane at work.

Thomas Gomez as Dr. Chavez and Else Lorraine Zepeda as his youthful patient Carmencita Gonzales.

But then there are the downsides, as epitomized by the performance the directors demanded from Adele Mara.

To say there’s an irkdom in seeing Adele Mara play a childlike, airheaded ingenue, a beautiful simpleton, is to understate matters. In reality she was of course anything but that—she was a highly intelligent actor. The stereotyping of Mara seems to be an encapsulation of the movie’s attitude toward Mexicans in general. There’s a liberalism of attitude regarding the Mexican characters in Angel in Exile that’s arguably commendable for its era, but the attitude itself still seems patronizing today. Of course it’s a million times better than the modern MAGA myth, as espoused by people of limited intelligence, that all Mexicans, including toddlers, are rapists, drug dealers and murderers, but it still grates quite a lot—at least for me. It seems to be an example of well intentioned racism, as if the movie’s makers wanted to get it across to audiences that Mexicans are good guys (and gals), but in order to sugar that pill for the cinemagoing boneheads had to portray Mexicans as genial nitwits. Raquel, let’s remember, is supposed to be a doctor’s daughter and a schoolteacher, yet she’s portrayed as having the intelligence and emotional maturity of a twelve-year-old.

Adele Mara as Raquel.

Mara was, by the way, married for nearly half a century (until his death in 2002) to the writer Roy Huggins, an icon of hardboiled/noir fiction in both print and screen form. He created The Fugitive (TV series 1963–7, plus the 1993 movie), co-created The Rockford Files (TV series 1974–80), wrote I LOVE TROUBLE (1948), based on his 1946 novel The Double Take, co-scripted The LADY GAMBLES (1949), scripted PUSHOVER (1954), co-scripted WOMAN IN HIDING (1950) and, as something that’d have guaranteed him noir immortality on its own, scripted TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949; vt Killer Bait), based on his own novel Too Late for Tears (1947). Huggins’s standard TV screenwriting pseudonym, John Thomas James, represents the names of the three sons he and Mara had together.

The Mara/Huggins household must I think have been one of those it’d have been fascinating to be a fly on the wall of. They were two astonishingly talented individuals.

Barton MacLane as Max (right) and Paul Fix as Carl.

Although Raquel is portrayed as an innocent, it’s clear the moviemakers were aware Adele Mara shared a certain characteristic with Tabasco sauce. There’s an exchange where this is made plain:

Raquel: “Well, what shall we do for an hour, Charlie? Would you like to go back and talk to father, or maybe you would rather see San Gabriel.”
Charlie: “I’d rather look at, uh . . . town.”

In print this might seem innocuous enough, but on screen, during that ellipsis, he not only stares at Raquel’s inescapable bosom but also briefly points that way. Yes, it got past the Hays Office but I’m sure there were outbursts of laughter and/or outrage among the audiences in 1948.

Howland Chamberlin as Higgins.

As well as Mara, Angel in Exile boasts a very fine cast. Art Smith is a site favorite, and doesn’t disappoint here. Thomas Gomez delivers everything you’d expect, as does Barton MacLane. Howland Chamberlin is really quite splendid in a Vincent Price sort of a way: his character, Higgins, is a total sleazebag, but difficult to dislike. I’m not a huge fan of John Carroll, and this movie didn’t do much to change my mind on this. Yes, I know, he’s been compared to Clark Gable, so let me rephrase things: at least he’s better than Clark Gable. That’s not saying a great deal, for me.

Angel in Exile is by no means a major piece, but I’d suggest it’s one that demands to be watched because of its undoubted narrative drive and its admirable desire to be better than a standard B-movie.

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One thought on “Angel in Exile (1948)

  1. Pingback: Exposed (1947) | Noirish

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