Noir City at SIFF – Angel Face
The title of Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1952) works perfectly in describing the seemingly innocent façade of both its characters and the film itself. This is a great film noir, a story that keeps us guessing even when we think we have everything locked down. There are deeper levels at work here, different layers at play that make this more than your average B-movie. Like the main leads, the film has a fascinating way of pretending to be sweet and pure, but deep below its surface there’s a dark menace that slowly reveals itself, almost without us noticing. The dark themes quietly wrap themselves around us, pulling us into this story of love, anger, and madness. Eventually, we find ourselves inside of the asylum, unaware of how we even arrived there.
The film begins with Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum), a paramedic called to help revive a wealthy woman named Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O’Neil). Mrs. Tremayne was victim to a terrible accident: the gas line to her fireplace had been turned on, and if help did not arrive as soon as it did, she could have been in real serious danger. After stabilizing Mrs. Tremayne and ruling out any sign of wrongdoing, Frank picks up his gear and decides to head home. But as he heads down the Tremaynes’ stairwell and toward the front door, he runs in to the “Angel Face” of the film, Catherine’s step daughter Diane (Jean Simmons). Diane’s introduction into the story is a great one, with her playing a haunting melody on a grand piano. Frank is immediately curious about this person, and through their early conversation we can easily see that these two have a kind of connection between them. However, Frank is already in a relationship with a woman named Mary (Mona Freeman), and decides to get away from this possible affair.
Frank, after clocking out at his job, decides to take a detour before heading home, and ends up in a local diner. But before he even has time to sit down for a drink, Diane, the woman he met just hours before, ends up in the same diner as well. Of all the places in the city, how did she end up here, in the exact same place Frank was? Unfortunately, Frank does not ask himself this question, and instead continues the interaction they started, forgetting about Mary waiting for him at home. They drink, dance, and converse, with Diane obviously infatuated with Frank, and him really more oddly fascinated with this young, rich, and beautiful person. During these scenes of courtship, we learn of Diane’s loving relationship with her father Charles (Herbert Marshall), her hate toward her stepmother, and her enjoyment of automobiles. Frank, who has an interest in opening a car shop of his own, grows closer to Diane after learning of this. The rest of the film involves Frank’s slow and steady involvement with this family, eventually working for the family as their driver, having Mrs. Tremayne help fund his garage, all the while with Diane watching intently in the background.
The biggest strength that the film has is how Otto Preminger slowly allows us to see, through Frank’s eyes, the menace bubbling under this family’s exterior, particularly with Diane as its center. Although on the outside, she is a friendly, warm, and stable person, she always seems to be involved with everything that happens to Frank, ever since their first meeting. It was Diane who would inform Mary of their involvement, explaining that she only did it because she wanted to help pay for his garage. It would be through her persuasion that the family would hire Frank as their driver, allowing him to always be at her side. It would be Diane who would give Frank the bad news that Catherine would not fund for his garage, and it would be because of Diane that Frank would eventually find himself in the middle of a terrible situation involving the law. Diane is an interesting character, a femme fatale that doesn’t so much seduce us with her sexuality, but rather with her apparent naiveté and overtly sweet nature. But underneath, she is one of the more multilayered characters that you’ll see in a film noir. She is not simply motivated by lust or greed, but through a resentment of her mother and undying love for both her father and for Frank. This is a very tricky character. We find ourselves both afraid of what she can do, and at the same time surprisingly sympathetic when we learn of the reasons behind her actions.
This character could not have been believably pulled off without an actress that can successfully portray the opposite ends of its spectrum. Although Robert Mitchum is the first-billed actor, and although he does a very good job of playing his role, this film belongs entirely to Jean Simmons. She is the focal point of all that happens; her character is the driving force behind the film. This is a great performance by Simmons. She has the ability to play her character with all the poise, charisma, and charm that would allow us to fall in love with her, but then pull a complete one eighty and turn her in to a cold, calculating, and dangerous threat. This is not a character that is written as a mere sexpot, but a complex person of real issues and problems. It’s a high wire act of emotion that Simmons has to play, and I was completely convinced of her arc, from the joy of the early courting scenes to the dramatic descent into madness nearing the film’s end. By the climax, with Diane walking alone through this house of darkness and stark shadows, we can understand how she ended up at this moment, but are still unnervingly anxious to see what she’ll do next.
Angel Face is a great film that I hope will be rediscovered by contemporary audiences. The acting all around is great, the direction by Preminger is taut and efficient, and the haunting score by Dimitri Tiomkin lingers effectively after the film is over. This is a movie that, once someone starts watching, one cannot stop, until all of its secrets have been given out—it takes us in and holds us firmly in its grasp. I found myself riveted throughout its runtime, and if you give it a chance, I think you will be too.
Angel Face plays at SIFF Cinema as part of its “Noir City” series on Sunday, February 13th, 2011 at 2:00pm and 6:00pm. It is part of a double feature with The Hunted (1948). Visit www.siff.net for more details.