I don’t pretend to know what goes on behind that pretty little face of yours; I don’t want to. But I learned one thing very early. Never be the innocent bystander; that’s the guy that always gets hurt………
Angel Face is a 1952 black-and-white film-noir is one of an exceptional Freudian melodrama directed by Otto Preminger, which stars handsome Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons.
This intense movie is one of the forgotten masterworks of film-noir. The film is so unnervingly cool and explores the rational fears of sexuality that sets the character in an extreme stylized manner as the eye of the lens capture those cinematic movements in its theme of uncertainty and a fear-provoking concord tracing a straight, clean line to a cliff top for one of the most daring climax in film history. This is largely shot on location in Beverly Hills, California. This film stayed critically esteemed. Jean-Luc Godard named it as one of the top 10 best American Sound film ever made.
I have a great affection for the Film-Noire genre- This may have been planted by the German Expressionists of the 1920’s, which was arguably far ahead of cinema in Hollywood, and the influence was so much and the developments in style and technique, which were established during then had impressed contemporary film makers from elsewhere and were incorporated into their work and so did the Hollywood. The body of work can be seen so ferment from the 1930s onward.
Angel Face may have shown up a few years too late to leave much of an impression. There are quite a key players held responsible for the Noire influence in Hollywood like Howard Hawks’ Scarface’, all the way back in 1932; then we had in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past’ in 1947,and of course the film-noire interpretation of cinema-as-art would go on to influence some of the most important filmmakers of the 20th century, including Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, Carol Reed and Michael Curtiz introduced the Expressionist style to crime dramas of the 1940s & 50s, not to mention Otto Preminger as one of the influential film-maker expanding Expressionism’s influence in their craft.
Later in wings, we also have film-makers like Werner Herzog, and Tim Burton in the style of seminal expressionist artists such as Erich Heckel, Wassily Kandinsky, and Emil Nolde perfectly lent itself to cinematic reinterpretation, as one that spoke to the most prevalent cultural conditions of the time, and so are the stimuli still prevail even today.
Angel Face in its first glance of the characters twigs the male pawn, the deviant femme fatale, sexual obsession and scraps of incest, in a way that the theme crops an adequate and distinctive elements beginning with a festering dark obstinate performance by Jean Simmons, one of her finest. All through the movie, Simmon’s character Diane Tremayne remains an austere, unwelcoming, depressed, manipulative and completely risky femme fatale springing little pleasure from any of her actions. She’s a blank slate.
Robert Mitchum in the character of Frank Jessup, an ambulance driver on a call to a Beverly Hills mansion where Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O’Neil) appears to have attempted suicide. Her husband Charles (Herbert Marshall) is a writer. Frank notices Catherine’s beautiful English stepdaughter Diane playing a melancholy piano piece and assures her that her stepmother will be fine. When Diane becomes hysterical, Frank slaps her face to calm her. Confused, she slaps him back, and then apologizes.
Soon after getting off his work, Frank goes to a nearby diner and tries to call his girlfriend, Mary Wilton (Mona Freeman), a hospital receptionist, but gets no answer. Diane, who had followed him in her sports car, enters and strikes up a flirtatious conversation with him. When Mary shortly returns his call, Frank begs off on the dinner she has already arranged at her home, claiming that he is too tired. Frank takes Diane out, and over dinner she tells him her father is a well-respected novelist but has not finished a book since her mother’s death during World War II. Diane then asks Frank, a former race car driver who dreams of owning his own garage, about Mary, and he reveals that Mary has been saving her money to help him. On the subsequent day- Diane invites Mary to lunch and, while pretending that she wants to contribute to Frank’s garage fund, lets her know that he spent the evening with her. Seeing through Diane’s tactics, Mary rejects her offer but admits that her faith in Frank is shaken. That night, Mary is about to go out with Frank when he lies again about his date with Diane.
Mary, who is offended & sad with Frank, goes out with Bill (Keth Toby), a longtime admirer. Later, at the diner, Diane finds Frank, who chastises her for speaking to Mary. When Diane suggests that he drive her car in an upcoming race, however, Frank forgives her and agrees to talk further about her idea. Diane then convinces her parents to hire a chauffeur and, while kissing him on a moonlit drive, persuades Frank to accept the job. Soon after, Diane informs Frank that she has talked to her stepmother about investing in his garage, and he presents Catherine with a written proposal. Although Catherine is suspicious of Diane’s motives, she tells Frank that she will consider the offer. Catherine then calls her lawyer, Arthur Vance (Raymond Greenleaf) for advice, but learns that he is out of town. Later, Diane meets secretly with Frank and tells him that Catherine threw his proposal in the trash. Diane also confides her fear that if Catherine were to find out about their romance, she would fire him and lock her up. Frank tries to reassure Diane that Catherine has no power over her, but Diane insists that Catherine will take her anger out on her beloved, weak father if she is defied. In the middle of the night, Diane then comes to Frank’s room and tells him that Catherine tried to kill her by turning on her gas fireplace. Frank refuses to believe Diane’s story and orders her back to bed.
Soon the next day, Frank stops by Mary’s apartment and states that he is leaving his job and Diane. After making a date with Mary for that night, Frank returns to the Tremaynes and starts to pack. Having anticipated his move, Diane cries and begs him to run away with her, showing him her own packed suitcase. Admitting that he loves her, Frank agrees to stay for a few more days so that she can think seriously about the situation. The following day, with Frank gone, Catherine prepares to drive herself to Santa Barbara. As she is about to leave, Charles asks for a lift, and after Catherine puts the car in drive and steps on the gas, the vehicle screeches backward over the cliff. Catherine and Charles are killed in the crash, and following some investigation, both Frank and Diane are arrested for murder. Diane, who stands to inherit all of Catherine’s wealth, has suffered a nervous breakdown, however, and is incarcerated in a prison hospital.
Lawyer Vance hires Fred Barrett, a renowned defense lawyer to help Daine. Just before the trial is to start, Fred convinces Frank and Diane to marry so that he can propose that Diane’s suitcase was in Frank’s room because they were planning to elope. During the trial, Barrett skillfully deflates expert testimony regarding the car’s transmission and steering mechanism, which appears to have been tampered with, and paints Frank and Diane as innocent lovebirds. Frank and Diane are acquitted, but once back at the estate; Frank tells Diane he is divorcing her. Diane finally talks about the jealousy and loneliness she felt when her father married Catherine and the grief she suffered upon seeing their crushed bodies. Despite Diane’s remorse, Frank insists he is returning to Mary. After Diane bets Frank her sports car that Mary will not take him back, Frank goes to Mary, who rejects him in favor of Bill. Diane, meanwhile, visits Barrett’s office and insists on confessing to the murders, detailing how she asked an unsuspecting Frank to explain the car’s transmission. Reminding Diane about the double jeopardy rule, Barrett tears up the confession. Upon returning home, Diane finds Frank packing for Mexico and asks if she can go, too. Frank says no, but agrees to let her drive him to the bus station.
I stop it here for you to watch the movie as this final plot is one of the most deriving climax. Preminger and his cinematographer Harry Stradling indulge in elaborate tracking shots and carefully placed setups, but style does not make up for the lack of substance here. The more noirish elements play like leftovers of Laura, while the courtroom scenes feel like a dry run for Preminger’s 1959 masterpiece, Anatomy of a Murder. Here’s trivia as Preminger in 1952 was set to become a producer, as his contract was at the end with 20th century fox. Hughes was firm that Preminger directs this film. Preminger was unhappy with the script that was handed to him and Hughes, in a rush to get the film completed, told him to make whatever changes he wanted. Jean Simmons was cast in the role of the crazed Diane Tremayne. Hughes had recently purchased Simmons’ contract from J. Arthur Rank which at the time only had six months left. Simmons was not informed of the contract change and became upset. She and her then husband, actor Stewart Granger, took Hughes to court.
The end result was Simmons had to make three films for Hughes of which “Angel Face” was squeezed in when she only had eighteen days left on her contract. Preminger brought in screenwriters Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard to rewrite the early Chester Erskine script originally, and blandly called “The Murder.” The story was loosely based on real life murders where two young California lovers were charged and eventually cleared of blowing up the girl’s parents aboard their yacht. Ben Hecht and Irving Wallace may have also had a hand in the script at one point or another.
Another interesting piece of trivia is the fact that Preminger made Mitchum actually slap Simmons in one scene, and when asked to do a retake, Mitchum turned around and slapped Preminger instead. All in all, though, the back story is as interesting as the onscreen. The final cessation though half-expected is still a shocker. But on balance, Preminger’s sarcastic detachment, which usually finds favor with film critics, makes the film look linear. The other interesting twist you can notice is the tyranny of forbidden sexual desire on the day a fatal plot is executed is well balanced and as an audience it’s a mind-blowing cinema embodies the issue of trauma buried deeply into the psyche, and the struggle to keep the despair of its existence at bay. Truly a thrilling fare.
- Directed by Otto Preminger
- Produced by Otto Preminger
- Screenplay by Ben Hecht; Oscar Millard & Frank.S.Nugent
- Story by Chester Erskine
- Starring: Robert Mitchum; Jean Simmons; Mona Freeman & Herbert Marshall
- Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
- Cinematography by Harry Stradling
- Editing by Frederic Knudtson
- Distributed by RKO Pictures
- Release dates: December 11, 1952 (United States)
- Running time: 91 minutes
- Country: United States
- Language: English