Otto Preminger, 1953
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Mona Freeman, Herbert Marshall
Frank, an ambulance driver, is called to a Beverly Hills mansion when the lady of the house, Mrs. Tremayne, is nearly killed by gas poisoning. Though the general consensus is that it was an accident, she doesn’t seem so sure. On his way out, Frank meets her young, beautiful stepdaughter, Diane. She follows him to a diner, allegedly desperate to get out of the house, and he lies to his girlfriend in order to have dinner with Diane and go dancing with her. The next day, Diane arranges a meeting with his girlfriend, Mary, under the pretext that she wants to contribute to Frank’s fund to open his own garage; he was once a racecar driver. Seeing right through it, Mary gives up on Frank and he lets Diane convince him to come work at the mansion as a chauffeur. Caught up in her spell, Frank soon inadvertently becomes an accomplice to the murders of Diane’s father and stepmother…
The last of director Otto Preminger’s noir efforts is one of his finest. This highly underrated film deserves to be seen as much as Laura, and benefits from stylish, claustrophobic cinematography and a shocking ending that still packs a punch. As with Preminger’s Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Whirlpool, Angel Face is driven by two key performances: Jean Simmons as a mentally ill, somewhat tragic femme fatale, and Robert Mitchum as her hapless target. Mitchum was an important player in film noir – often as a man fatally manipulated by a beautiful woman – in such films as Out of the Past, The Locket, and many more. Here he is incredibly passive and wanders willingly into Diane’s trap. He ignores the fact that she’s a rich, beautiful, young woman suddenly enthralled by a poor ambulance driver who was once into race cars. This film is as much about class and economic status as it is about sex, and Frank’s desire to fulfill his dream of opening a shop and living a better life is the carrot she dangles in front of him for much of the film, substituting it with sex or sympathy when he strays.
This was undoubtedly Jean Simmons’ (Spartacus) finest performance in a career generally filled with light-hearted, saccharine roles. Diane is one of noir’s most complex female characters; she is at once manipulative, murderous, depressed, obsessive, and loving, desperate to be loved in return. She’s one of the period’s bleakest characters alongside Gene Tierney’s equally dangerous mentally ill lead in Leave Her to Heaven. The two films would make an interesting double feature, as both characters are obsessed with their fathers, become obsessed with a handsome, but passive male character, and are homicidally jealous of anyone who gets in the way.
In addition to Diane, the film is dominated by controlling women, particularly her stepmother, but even the Japanese housekeeper who berates her husband, and Mary. There’s something unpleasant about Mona Freeman’s (The Heiress) Mary. Though she has a wholesome, girl-next-door look, she’s coldly rational and almost disturbingly practical, eschewing romance for whichever man is the most dependable, faithful, and obedient. Herbert Marshall (Foreign Correspondent, The Letter) and Barbara O’Neil (Gone with the Wind) are great as Diane’s somewhat ambiguous parents who play a continually larger role in the film until their unpleasant demise. Preminger is careful to present them in contrasting scenes. First, they have a loving relationship and Mr. Tremayne cares for his possibly delusional wife. Later, they are both depicted as prone to alcoholism and lives comprised of depressive idleness. Mrs. Tremayne also degradingly controls her husband by regularly tightening the purse strings.
Wealth and success is seen as a corrupting influence in Angel Face, a contradictory way to achieve and destroy one’s dreams. In particular, the car, a symbol of American ingenuity, industry, and freedom is used to a variety of ends. For Frank, a vehicle – an ambulance – is what brings him to Diane, but her sports car attracts him; it represents the glorious but faded past, hopeful dreams for the future, and the physical locus point of a better life. For Diane, it is a lure and a weapon. Part of what draws Diane and Frank together is the disappointing state of their current lives. They both long for the time before the war, when Diane lived in London – she explains that it is the last time she danced with a man (presumably her father, in a disturbingly incestual undertone) – while Frank says it was the last time he raced a sports car.
While Angel Face does have elements of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, particularly in terms of the planned murder, courtroom scene, and the lawyer that convinces the couple at odds to work together, but Angel Face has a unique degree of perversion, hysteria and homicidal impulses buried just beneath a wholesome, lovely exterior. There is a nightmarish, fever dream aspect with characters being roused from sleep, wandering at night, searching for something other than the mundane, deflated routine of postwar life.
Angel Face is available on DVD and comes highly recommended. Fans of film noir, Otto Preminger, and Robert Mitchum will want to seek this out, but so should everyone else.