Saturday, September 30, 2023


RKO Radio Pictures, 91m 53s

A film noir experience sure to carve out its place in your memory, ANGEL FACE was directed and produced by Otto Preminger, one of the deans of noir directors with LAURA (1944), FALLEN ANGEL (1945), WHIRLPOOL (1950) and WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950) to his credit prior to the release of the title under review. Though I do not consider ANGEL FACE to be on quite the same level as that fab four, his 1952 effort is a significant title in terms of its allegiance to film noir genre conventions and assumptions. As the opening theme music by Dimitri Tiomkin makes perfectly clear, this is no feel-good picture. An unshakably downbeat tone is maintained from start to finish with its cynical people in a joyless world. This Preminger noir is as good an example as any as to why film noir is not for everyone. Even among classic Hollywood film fans, a certain percentage of viewers is sure to be turned off by this type of material. If made today, ANGEL FACE likely would be manufactured and marketed as a horror movie.

Set in Beverly Hills, California, our story opens on a high hill at a vast estate with opulent furnishings. Paramedics Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) and Bill Crompton (Kenneth Tobey) are on the scene, where Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O'Neil) suspects she has survived attempted murder by asphyxiation, though the circumstances of her near death leave the impression of an attempted suicide. Frank pauses before he leaves the Tremayne home when he is intrigued by the piano playing of Catherine's stepdaughter Diane Tremayne (23-year-old British actress Jean Simmons). Given the setup, the viewer instantly pegs Diane as a potentially dangerous woman, positioned like a mythological siren summoning Frank to his doom. Their relationship begins on an alarmingly violent note:  Frank slaps her in an effort to subdue her hysteria, then Diane slaps him back! Later after his shift, Frank heads to a diner where he is a regular only to learn Diane has followed him. As she strikes suitably alluring poses, the mysterious Diane's presence causes Frank to alter his plans that evening with Mary Wilton (Mona Freeman in an exceptional supporting performance). Removed from his auto racing career due to WWII, these days Frank drives an ambulance to make ends meet. But with new business start-up money the Tremaynes obviously have the means to contribute, Frank sees an opportunity to up his game. A veteran who drove a tank during the war, Frank trades a job of clockwork monotony for a seemingly cinchy chauffeur position with the Tremaynes. Little does he suspect cars located at the Tremayne property will prove far more dangerous to him than any wartime combat vehicles he maneuvered or any race cars he drove.

Archetypal females meet:  the good blonde and the bad brunette

In essence ANGEL FACE is a separation of wealth story, with wealth (especially the inherited kind) diametrically opposed to working class ideals. The Tremayne residence makes for a forbidding film noir landscape, a hilltop locale that neatly summarizes the affluent family's obvious social status. The mansion perched near the edge of a precipitous slope also comes equipped with obvious connotations about the Tremayne family trajectory; the very location of the Tremayne place factors in their demise. Beneath the elegant exteriors there is something rotting inside. During the opening sequence a major warning shot is fired that something is wrong:  Catherine and her husband Charles Tremayne (Herbert Marshall) have separate bedrooms. The family matriarch seems to possess a certain emasculating power over her novelist husband, who has slipped into a state of stalled productivity since the day he met her. A kept man, he is a writer who no longer generates anything for publication. Herbert Marshall was an inspired casting option to portray such a man. While serving in WWI he lost a leg and had to be fitted with a wooden leg. His deliberate gait perfectly fits the noir world, where men often have mobility issues that reflect diminished patriarchal power.

A rare femme fatale whose actions do not revolve around money, Diane already is an elite individual, next in line to control the family fortune. Thus material gain does not play a role in her thought process as she acts out her impulses. Her crimes, like those of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Alfred Hitchcock's transitional horror noir Psycho (1960), are of passion, not profit. Especially for its era, ANGEL FACE is undeniably disturbing in its creepy implications about its father/daughter connection. Diane's perverse affection for her father adds an unsettling element to this film noir, though she is not completely unsympathetic:  her mother was killed in an air raid during WWII. Since that time Diane lives a circumscribed existence with an ersatz mother she never wanted and admits she was just 10 years old when she first imagined her stepmother dead. She used to daydream about all of the things she and her father could do were Catherine not part of the equation. Diane is not evil incarnate so much as a sexual pathology case; she clings to her departed father's memory much like a loving widow might. We feel her painful tension and lack of purpose as she reviews artifacts left behind by the father she unintentionally destroyed. No evidence is provided that her fractured frame of mind can be repaired.

Diane plays the piano when she has murder on her mind

Long way to love

"You can be so sweet at times."

A stunning dissolve

When Diane acknowledges her culpability and attempts to atone for her crimes, she is out of step with the moral vacancy that characterizes the classic film noir femme fatale. Diane possesses enough moral fiber to admit wrongdoing, but not without lingering psychic wounds that make her dangerous up to the very end. She first wants to confess while in a hospital bed, but her smug attorney Fred Barrett (Leon Ames) finds her confession to be irrational. In further testimony to the complexity of the film's central female character, the courtroom sequence with Barrett and District Attorney Judson (Jim Backus) is fascinating in that neither lawman reveals any understanding of her crime as it actually transpired. The smartest guys in the room both have it wrong. Later Diane is even more determined to offer herself up for punishment only to learn the law will not allow it (Barrett cites the Double Jeopardy Clause in the Fifth Amendment). The best she could hope for is to be institutionalized. That prospect might actually be an improvement upon her marriage to Frank. Maybe she loves him, but his motivation to marry her is purely to avoid a prison sentence. Their phony kiss-the-bride moment speaks volumes. If Diane's parents were trapped in a meaningless marriage, the union of Frank and Diane is cause for even less celebration. It is fitting that the young noir couple should perish in the identical manner as their elders, neither marriage sustainable on an emotional level.

Robert Mitchum is a foundational figure of film noir given his contribution to the classic period of the mid-to-late 1940s in familiar noir offerings such as THE LOCKET (1946), PURSUED (1947), CROSSFIRE (1947), OUT OF THE PAST (1947) and THE BIG STEAL (1949). His attendance in ANGEL FACE plays no small part in the film's artistic viability. Frank is not an easy guy to like, but Mitchum is even more difficult to dislike, even when he portrays a reprehensible sort. As Frank goes from opportunist to fall guy, Mitchum does not play the character any differently, which makes perfect sense in the fatalistic world the narrative implies. The noir film is noteworthy for its many unlikable, even repellent personalities who are called into action as lead characters. "I've been slapped by dames before," Frank casually confesses early in ANGEL FACE. Not long after that, he coldly stands up his obviously devoted girlfriend, who had prepared a nice dinner for two. He is the brand of noir character who really earns the distinction "lead protagonist." The term "hero" surely does not fit. Clearly Frank is in the game only for himself, though he does not seem to have the drive to reach for anything much beyond what he is. As a rule Frank keeps feverish activity to a minimum. A rare boost to his enthusiasm level comes when Catherine agrees to invest in his auto racing repair & maintenance business model, something he was unable to initiate before encountering the Tremayne family, though in the midst of a chat with Mary he openly questions his association with them ("I've been thinking about quitting. It's a weird outfit. Not for me."). Eventually he becomes insensitive, borderline callous toward Diane, though not without reason. He does not buy her story that Catherine tried to kill her, though he recognizes Diane might want to off Catherine. When Frank follows through on quitting, Diane short-circuits. Frank is probably a better person than Diane, but not strong enough to stay away from her in the first place. He had a good woman in Mary but could not resist the temptress, which makes Frank the narrative's homme fatal, the type of man Mary is best served to avoid. Even the decent woman Mary is not without her share of noir cynicism; after being stood up the prior evening, she is quick to assume Frank found his way into bed with Diane! That revelation provides one of the film's most memorable moments of dialog.

The noir marriage:  arranged by necessity, not mutual love

The idealized film noir portrait often stands for
a person of the past who maintains control over the present

Diane's alienation is emphasized in the film's closing moments

Wait for it...

An adaptation of an original story by Chester Erskine, ANGEL FACE was written for the screen by Frank S. Nugent and Oscar Millard, with an uncredited contribution from Ben Hecht. This team must be credited for the creation of one of the most passionless couples in cinematic history. Compared to the benchmark noir couple in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), for instance, Diane and Frank never experience the mutual fiery excitement for each other the genre tends to deliver. Nor does Diane get off on her bad behavior like the femme fatales of GUN CRAZY (1950) and SCARLET STREET (1945). Diane becomes one of film noir's walking dead, as dead as the parents she murdered. Frank walks among the dead as well, he is just less aware of it than Diane until the movie climaxes in convincing crescendo to the tune of a 150' descent.

Like the purest examples of the film noir, ANGEL FACE is rich in irony and fatalism. Consider that opening sequence:  had that call for medical assistance been phoned in just five minutes later, Frank would have been off duty! His profession in itself is interesting; he can rescue others, but not himself. Not only that, his fondness for auto mechanics and racing contribute to his (quite literal) downfall. The film's title treatment harbors another irony, revealed when Catherine touches her stepdaughter Diane's face, which instinctively displays the cold emptiness of a heartless killer. Her classical piano playing, though tasteful and skilled, is associated with jealousy and death. And in one of the film's greatest ironies, Diane unintentionally kills the father she so adores.

This year's dual-layered Blu-ray edition of ANGEL FACE released by Warner Archive presents the film in a sharp new transfer that yields excellent contrast. The source material must have been in very good condition. Framed at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, the fluent cinematography of Harry Stradling Sr. is now well preserved for film noir collectors. Compared to the 1.33:1 Warner DVD first issued January 23rd, 2007, this new Blu-ray boasts improved clarity and a more appropriate level of film grain:

Warner DVD (2007)

Warner Blu-ray (2023)

The audio commentary track by Eddie Muller was ported from the Warner DVD. In this unusual case, the commentary is matched to the standard version of the film, which runs 91m 43s. As film critic Gary Tooze reported, the original camera negative contained additional frames absent from the source materials utilized for the DVD transfer. Therefore the old transfer is included here to ensure Muller's comments best match the onscreen dramatics.

This is one of Muller's most perceptive commentary tracks, and he has an assortment of fine work to his credit. From start to finish it is a treat to be a listener. Muller is loaded with insights but never sounds like he is lecturing. He makes it easy to appreciate the film as much as he does. From a cultural/historical perspective, Muller reviews how ANGEL FACE somehow survived all kinds of things working against it. The production was a troubled one, as was often the case with projects engineered by Howard Hughes. A well-documented womanizer, Hughes put Jean Simmons under contract but was interested in more than just a professional relationship. Simmons sued him and agreed to a three-picture deal to get released from her contract. A stipulation Simmons demanded was a tight window for those final three films to ensure Hughes could not prolong the working relationship. The end result was that ANGEL FACE, her final film for Hughes, would have to be completed within an 18-day shooting schedule. Hughes convinced director Otto Preminger to take on the project, for which the filmmaker would be granted complete creative control on a budget of just under $1 million, though Hughes continued to meddle. Hughes showed so much concern for Simmons's hairstyle she chopped off her hair in retaliation, an act which necessitated a number of wigs to make her look more presentable for filming. Preminger called for repeated takes for the scene in which Robert Mitchum slaps Jean Simmons. The director pushed the issue to the point Simmons was in tears, which prompted Mitchum to slap Preminger and ask him if that was the sort of effect he was after. That tumultuous event set the tone for the production's duration. Nonetheless, Muller credits Preminger for elevating what very well could have been a routine potboiler into a well-paced cult classic. Preminger was a master at blocking, with a keen sense for depth in his coordination of foreground, middle-ground and background action. As Muller builds a case for Mitchum as an actor of subtle talent, Muller notes Mitchum's unusual ability to combine confidence with passivity. The actor might have been playing himself much of the time; Muller contends Mitchum as a person managed his personal and business affairs with the identical approach.

In terms of film noir themes, Muller notes the women of the film command most of the power. This theme even extends to the Japanese servants Ito (Frank Kumagai) and Chiyo (Max Takasugi) employed at the Tremayne estate. And in the film's final act, the supporting character Mary takes authority over the two men in her life. With the heiress Diane on the way out, the working girl Mary proves her worth. Muller is in top form as he calls into question feminist film noir studies, in particular film theory that explains the femme fatale's emergence in noir as a reaction to women who took over for men in the workplace as required during World War II. As Muller correctly points out, the film noir suggests good girls work for a living and bad girls do not. That certainly is what is going on in ANGEL FACE, where inherited money defines the femme fatale and workforce participation enforces the constitution of the female worth preserving.

Reviews were less than flattering at the time of ANGEL FACE's original theatrical run, but the time since has been kinder to the film's reputation. None other than Jean-Luc Godard ranked ANGEL FACE at #8 in his "Ten Best American Sound Films" for the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma (December 1963 - January 1964 issue).

A theatrical trailer (2m 17s) is the only other supplement.

No comments:

Post a Comment