Monday, July 03, 2006

Angel Face (1952)

Posted by Paul M

Angel Face is one of those noirs that started life as an under-appreciated melodrama but which has garnered new respect in today's viewers' eyes. And for good reason. Directed by Otto Preminger for RKO a year after he made the noir melodrama The Thirteenth Letter, Angel Face features a stunning performance by Jean Simmons and an understated but very enjoyable turn by Robert Mitchum.

As suggested by the title, Angel Face centers around Simmons' portrayal of Diane Treymayne, a spoiled, sheltered rich girl with a murderous and pointed need to get whatever she wants. A classic femme fatale. Preminger's 1952 film is finally a much darker work than earlier 40s noirs, however, as Simmons turns out to be a complete psychopath, an "angel of death". Unlike, say, Phyllis Diedrichson in Double Indemnity, or Vicki Buckley in Human Desire, Diane has no remorse at all for her actions, no wavering moment of uncertainly or humanity. She sees no possible future that is not of her own making and acts accordingly and vengefully. Jean Simmons typically had sweet girl roles in the Audrey Hepburn vein, so seeing her go batty here is a real treat.

Mitchum plays Frank Jessup, a somewhat doe-eyed average joe who seems like an essentially nice guy, but with a fear of commitment to his blonde sometime-girlfriend Mary (Mona Freeman) that leads him slowly into the arms of our femme fatale. I actually like these type of roles for Mitchum better than when he plays the brawny adventurer, because his low-key style of acting often translates on screen as obliviousness, or innocence, and you feel he knows just a little bit less than the audience. At times you want to shake him: "Frank! Get outta there!". But Frank, a former race car driver, finds Diane's promises of financial help to make his post-war dreams come true too tempting.

In the film, Frank is an ambulance driver called to the Treymayne house after Diane's step-mother, Catherine (Barbara O'Neal) suffers what appears to be an accidental posoning from a gas leak. Diane decides she has to have him, pursues him back to the hosiptal, and in short order he becomes the Tremayne house chauffeur. It eventually becomes evident to Frank that Diane was behind the supposed gas leak accident, but not before Frank has left Mary for Diane and Diane's parents are dead from a rigged auto accident. Too late, Frank tries to get out, but Diane has other plans. And the film ends in a shocker finale which I won't belabor here in case anyone still has not seen this film.

One of the joys of seeing this film again for me was to better appreciate the performances of Herbert Marshall and Barbara O'Neal as Diane's father Charles and step-mother Catherine. Critics tend to focus on the Jean Simmons role, but Marshall and especially O'Neal are excellent too. Preminger shows us a lot of them, and it is interesting (though ultimately futile) to look in them for Diane's psychological motivation. As the film proceeds, more and more of the action takes place in the hill-top Tremayne house and the rest of the real world seems to fade away for Frank. Preminger's presentation of the parents, their treatment of each other, and of Diane, in turns indulgent and tight-fisted with money, adds to the increasingly fatalistic feel of the picture. Our sense that Frank will be trapped, just as Diane and Charles are in their relationship with Catherine, increases accordingly.

One other comment: Angel Face is interesting to watch, not only as a melodrama played out between two lovers, but as a class indictment wherein it is clear that the noir malaise extends to all classes of American society.