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In terms of story alone Angel Face would seem to be yet another Double Indemnity retread, but Preminger and his screenwriters fashion a distinctive conflict: Up in the thinner air of the ritzy Hollywood Hills, an ambitious member of the middle class succumbs to temptation.
Synopsis: Ambulance driver Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) meets the wealthy and beautiful Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons) while on a call to tend to her stepmother Catherine (Barbara O'Neill), who may have tried to commit suicide. Frank quits his job and stands up his fiancée Mary Wilton (Mona Freeman) to become the Tremayne's chauffeur -- where he can be close to Diane. The longer Frank hangs around, the more he comes to suspect that Diane idolizes her father Charles (Herbert Marshall) and wants to murder her mother. But Frank is too much in love with Diane to do anything about it.
Robert Mitchum's films are easily divided into two categories: Those he commits to and the ones he sleeps through. For every sharp performance as in Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past, there are two 'look handsome and say the lines' efforts. Angel Face falls solidly into the first category. Mitchum plays Frank, a dour anti-hero who can't help falling in love with a woman who has everything. The war cooled Frank's ambitions as a professional racecar driver, and now he's stuck driving an ambulance in Beverly Hills. He already has a steady girl in ambulance dispatcher Mary, but she pales against the vision of a future with Diane Tremayne. Diane is beautiful, young and rich, a combination that could end Frank's workaday blues and put him back into the racing business.
Angel Face critiques Franks' values but avoids outright moral judgments. Frank doesn't 'decide' to take his new opportunity as much as the opportunity takes him. He follows the line of least resistance and doesn't sweat the details. He simply dumps his fiancée and ignores hints that Diane may be big trouble. This refusal to pigeonhole the characters is a trait typical of Preminger's later dramas.
Frank first catches sight of Diane as she broods at the piano. He's immediately hooked, but we can also tell that the Tremayne wealth is a big part of his attraction. Interestingly, Diane kills not for money but as an expression of mad love for her father Charles.
Diane is fascinatingly complex. She and Charles have formed a petty conspiracy against Catherine, making disrespectful jokes about her addiction to bridge games. Diane sees Catherine as a competitor for the affections of her father, a famous author. Since remarrying, Charles has stopped writing, and Diane blames Catherine. When Catherine almost dies from asphyxiation in her bedroom, even Frank can see that something is wrong in the family relationships. The police have reason to suspect that the incident was either an attempted murder or an attempted suicide, but the wealth of the Tremaynes intimidates them, and they do nothing.
Frank eventually becomes a prime chump when Diane suckers him into passively participating in murder. He foolishly believes that Diane's questions about car transmissions indicate an interest in his racing plans. She's simply looking for more reliable method than gas to kill her stepmother and make it look like an accident.
Otto Preminger's direction of Angel Face is near flawless. His dynamic blocking makes simple scenes look complex, expressing the relationships between characters without resorting to psychological explanations. Even the topography is important. The Tremaynes live up in the hills where the money is, but it's a bleak-looking area without many trees. In the third act's murder trial, Preminger makes Diane and Frank seem like minor players in a much bigger arena of scandal and legal showmanship. Lawyer Leon Ames' trial games are a cool replay of the cynical manipulations seen in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Sitting at the defendant's table, melancholy Diane and the irrelevant Frank watch silently as a phony ploy extricates them from the consequences of their acts: To win the sympathy of the jury, the lawyer has had them submit to a jailhouse marriage.
Unlike a standard Noir femme fatale, Diane derives no pleasure from her crimes, only misery and solitude. Poor Frank underestimates Diane every step of the way, not realizing that he's only along for the ride. Frank's shallow opportunism is best expressed when he lamely tries to go back to his old girlfriend. The sensible Mary has instead taken up with Frank's fellow ambulance driver Bill (Kenneth Tobey). She politely tells Frank that she prefers a mate that won't stray at every new opportunity, and sends him packing. Frank's a special kind of Noir protagonist in that he's handsome, self-possessed, ambitious -- and a total loser. The shock ending is bleak in the extreme, a violent coda that comes out of nowhere.
Warners' excellent transfer of Angel Face brings out the creepy atmosphere in Harry Stradling's B&W cinematography. It also lets us appreciate Dimitri Tiomkin's swooning, delirious score, motivated by Diane's moody piano playing. In a scene that parallels Preminger's Laura, the score rises to a tragic crescendo as Diane wanders the empty rooms of her house. She's like a heroine in a horror story, sick with the knowledge that she's doomed herself to isolation.
The only extra is Eddie Muller's sharp commentary. It mixes analysis of the film -- he points out the emphasis placed on money and the film's female-dominated relationships -- with a production tale that belongs in Hollywood Babylon. Young Simmons had to struggle to keep Howard Hughes from making her into a personal possession, and Angel Face was the result of a legal effort to settle her contract. Hughes retaliated by making the production as miserable as possible for the actress. To put a stop to being harassed by unnecessary hairstyle tests, Simmons cut her hair off with shears -- necessitating that wigs be made. Simmons' costar became a strong ally in the fight with Hughes, and with director Preminger. When Preminger insisted that he really slap her in one scene, repeatedly, Mitchum at first did as he was instructed. But when he figured enough was enough, he turned and slapped Preminger instead.
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by Glenn Erickson