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During his hey-day, Otto Preminger was one of the few famous directors whoseface was immediately recognizable to the average movie-goer, due mostly tohis success at playing vicious Nazi commandants in World War II pictures.But few people realized that he was actually Jewish. Preminger was always ahard man to pin down. There was a perverse streak running through almostall of his film work, both in front of and behind the camera. Honestly-name another accomplished filmmaker who would have agreed to play Mr. Freezein the original Batman TV series!
Angel Face, which Preminger directed in 1952, stands as one of hismore memorable projects. The "Angel Face" of the title is Diane Tremayne(Jean Simmons), the apparently innocent daughter of a wealthy businessmannamed Charles Tremayne (Herbert Marshall.) Diane may seem like a sweetieon the surface, but she also happens to be a psychotic who will stop atnothing to maintain her own happiness, including killing her stepmother(Barbara O'Neil.) Diane also sets her sights on the family's hunkychauffeur, Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum), even though Frank already has agirlfriend (Mona Freeman.) Suffice it to say that things don't go well forFrank and Diane. You'll need a very broad definition of "happy ending" tosmile at how this one wraps up.
The film's harshness isn't surprising, really. Preminger wasn't the onlyrisk-taker who was connected with it. Howard Hughes, who owned RKO at thetime, set the whole thing up, and for very strange reasons. Preminger wascontracted to 20th Century Fox when Darryl Zanuck told him that he had beenloaned out for one picture to Hughes. When Zanuck handed him the script,which was then inventively titled Murder Story, Preminger was aghast.He thought it was awful and refused to be involved. No matter how muchZanuck insisted (and he welded enormous power in Hollywood), Preminger held his ground.He wouldn't have anything to do with the movie.
But he didn't count on a dose of Howard Hughes-style persistence. The nextmorning, at 3 a.m., Hughes phoned Preminger and told him to get out of bedand be ready to leave the house 30 minutes later. Hughes promptly showed upin his noisy old Chevy, and the two men tooled around the empty streets ofLos Angeles for several hours, discussing the project. Hughes explainedthat Simmons was only under contract to RKO for 18 more shooting days, andhe desperately wanted to get another film out of her before she left. Heand the actress recently had a violent argument, and she took a pair ofscissors and cut her hair to the quick, knowing that her boss hated shorthair on women. "I'm going to get even with that little bitch," Hughes toldPreminger, "and you're going to help me." Hughes told Preminger he couldhave carte blanche on the film; he'd even let him have complete control ofthe script, so long as he didn't hire any "Commies" to do the re-writes!All Hughes asked was that Simmons would be forced to wear a long black wigthroughout the picture. Preminger accepted on those terms.
In the end, Simmons basically won the battle. She gives one of thestrongest, most unexpected performances of her career in Angel Face.And Preminger took some abuse of his own on the set, which may well havebeen karmic retribution for agreeing to push Simmons around as a favor toHughes. One day, Preminger slapped Simmons in a fit of anger, and Mitchumstepped in to correct his mistake: he punched the director right in thenose. Later, in his popular autobiography, Preminger insisted that he verymuch enjoyed working with Simmons. He never mentioned the slap, or gettingbelted by Mitchum. Maybe he just forgot.
Produced and directed by: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: Frank Nugent (based on a story by Chester Erskine)
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Sr.
Editing: Frederic Knudtson
Art Direction: Carroll Clark and Albert S. D'Agostino
Costume Design: Michael Woulfe
Principal Cast: Robert Mitchum (Frank), Jean Simmons (Diane), Mona Freeman(Mary), Herbert Marshall (Mr. Tremayne), Kenneth Tobey (Bill), RaymondGreenleaf (Arthur Vance), Griff Barnett (The Judge), Robert Gist (Miller),Morgan Farley (Juror), Jim Backus (District Attorney Judson.)
BW-92m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara