A storyline concerning a man’s obsession with a mysterious woman would be taken by Alfred Hitchcock to the heights of its glory in the classic Vertigo (1958), but director Otto Preminger had already explored the obsession with a beautiful woman in Laura (1944) and also in Fallen Angel (1945). In Angel Face however, Preminger turned the tables and presented a woman (Jean Simmons) obsessed with a man (Robert Mitchum).
It started like any other night: ambulance driver, Frank Jessup (Mitchum) is called out on a routine job that seems to be an accidental gas poisoning at the house of wealthy Charles Tremayne. But Frank has no inkling of where his chance meeting with Tremayne’s sensuous step-daughter, Diane (Simmons) will take his life. Subsequently Frank takes a job as the Tremayne chauffeur, but his worldly knowledge soon detects danger lurking beneath the sweetness of Diane. When he tries to shut down their relationship, Diane starts scheming to get him in so deep he’ll never get out … Don’t you just hate it when that happens, guys?
GENRE and PERFORMANCE
This subtle yet outrageously Freudian narrative forms the basis of an unusual film noir: Mitchum is the archetypal noir-hero confronted with a femme fatale though here in a setting of crisp, bright drawing-rooms rather than the streets, bars and bedrooms of the criminal underworld; once he moves in as family chauffeur, Frank can’t bring himself to admit that the angelic Diane is anything but angelic. Director Otto Preminger flattens the melodrama with cool clarity, emphasizing the story’s noir-ish, psychological complexities while allowing the violence to emerge with shocking matter-of-factness.
Mitchum gives one of his most restrained and lyrical performances in this feature, perfectly offset by the intensity of his co-star. Some say Jean Simmons never received her just desserts in Hollywood, but here she commands the screen, holding our attention and reminding us, perhaps, of a young Elizabeth Taylor.
One of the film’s most powerful aspects is the chilling score, composed by Dimitri Tiomkin. It includes a turbulent minor-key piano and is especially effective during a lonely night-time scene (when Simmons’ character revisits the windswept site of her parents’ horrific death): a wordless chorus swells as Tiomkin’s theme returns, making it one of cinema’s most memorable moments. This tension and the surprising and shocking imagery makes this a highly recommended film for all except, perhaps, young children and sensitive adults.
It received little attention in 1952 but become a classic over time: in 1963 Jean-Luc Godard named Angel Face the 8th best American Sound film of all time and The Chicago Reader more recently saw it as “one of the forgotten masterworks of film noir… a disturbingly cool, rational investigation of the terrors of sexuality… Preminger’s moving camera traces the sets, characters and actions in a straight line to the final cliff top for one of the most audacious endings in film history.” AMC film critic, Paul Brenner, observed that its otherwise “clichéd story line is pared down to an elemental level – there is not a wasted scene in the film — and the story’s familiarity breeds an aftertaste of inevitability and doom.”
This was Jean Simmons final film under her contract with producer Howard Hughes (he’d bought it without her knowledge from J. Arthur Rank Studios in England). Her displeasure with Hughes had led her to cut her hair, knowing that Hughes preferred long-haired leading ladies. She thought this might prevent him from using her before the end of her contract but Hughes was not deterred; he put her in this film and had her wear a wig throughout.
Hughes also promised director Otto Preminger a bonus if he finished shooting before Simmons’ contract expired – a condition on which Preminger was able to collect.
During shooting Robert Mitchum got fed up with repeated re-takes in which Preminger ordered him to slap Jean Simmons across the face. Mitchum finally turned and slapped Preminger, asking the director, “Is this the way you wanted it done?” Preminger furiously demanded the producer (Howard Hughes) to replace Mitchum.