Review contains spoilers
Poor Robert Mitchum, how those sleepy bedroom eyes always seemed to get him in so much trouble with the ladies. In John Brahm’s “The Locket” he tossed himself out a window because of Lorraine Day, in “Out of the Past”, he had to go face to face with the wicked Jane Greer, while in “Where Danger Lives” he is a chump for Faith Domergue, and in “Angel Face” the porcelain gentile beauty of Jean Simmons sends both of them to a plunging death in Otto Preminger’s final film noir.
“Angel Face” was late in the cycle of classic noir and at first glance seems to be a redundant rehash of everything that came before it: the male pawn, the deviant femme fatale, sexual obsession and snippets of incest; all common themes. Even the courtroom scene here it has been pointed out by various writers is a facsimile of the courtroom scene in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” to the extent that the prosecuting attorney in both films is portrayed by Leon Ames. Yet in watching this film, it yields many fine and unique elements beginning with a simmering dark perverse performance by Jean Simmons, one of her finest. Throughout the film, Simmon’s character Diane Tremayne remains a bleak, depressed, manipulative and seriously dangerous femme fatale deriving little pleasure from any of her actions. She’s a blank slate. In luring Mitchum’s chump ambulance driver, Frank Jessup into unknowingly conspiring in murder; she derives neither personal joy nor any odd sexual satisfaction. The film’s surprising and shocking ending reflects and confirms Diane’s determination for control even if the price of that power is death. It was one of the most daringly cynical endings ever be put on film up to that time.
Mitchum’s Frank Jessup is an egotistical smoothie who believes he can get by purely on charm with the ladies. He strings along his nice girlfriend Mary (Mona Freeman) while allowing himself to be seduced and manipulated by Diane believing he can pull out anytime he wants. When he finally decides he wants Mary back, it’s too late; she wisely, gave up on him and is seeing one of Frank’s friends.
A recurring motif in the film is the use of the automobile. For Frank it is a way to get ahead in life toward a brighter future. When we first meet him he is an ambulance driver, and former race car driver whose dream it is to open up a repair shop for high end sport cars. Frank wants to combine his love of automobiles with a profitable business, a sensible goal. For Diane, the automobile becomes an object of destruction, a murder weapon ensuring she and Frank will be together for eternity.
A sense of loneliness, or maybe it is emptiness, seems to entail many of Preminger’s characters. Here we see it with Diane as she waits for Frank silently in her large now empty house. I keep thinking perhaps “Damaged Angel ” may have been a more appropriate name for this film as Diane seems to be representative of other damaged Preminger heroines like Eleanor Parker in “The Man With The Golden Arm” and Lee Remick in “Anatomy of a Murder.”
Diane’s relationship with her father, a once successful author, now living off his second wife’s fortune borders on the uncomfortable. Is she daddy’s little girl or is there a more perverse attraction going on, fueling the jealousy the simmers between Diane and her stepmother.
Preminger, who was toward the end of his contract at 20th Century Fox, and on the verge of becoming an independent producer, was lent to Howard Hughes’ RKO for 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.
While Simmons and Mitchum enjoyed working together, Simmons disliked Hughes immensely even to the point of cutting her hair short just to spite the eccentric billionaire. Hughes returned the hatred making Simmons life hell for the period she remained under contract.
According to IMDB “Angel Face” opened in the U.S. in December of ’52, most likely Hollywood. It opened in New York to mixed reviews in mid 1953 (The New York Times review called it, “turgid psychological claptrap”), and lasted only a couple of weeks at one Broadway theater. Over the years though it has rightly gained in reputation placing it firmly today as a finer example of director Otto Preminger’s work.