Directed by: Otto Preminger
Written by: Chester Erskine, Oscar Millard, and Frank S. Nugent
Produced by: Otto Preminger and Howard Hughes
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons
Black & White, 91 minutes
The seeds of Film Noir may have been planted by the German Expressionists of the 1920's, but it was Hollywood that wound up reaping the harvest in the following decades. Angel Face may have shown up a few years too late to leave much of an impression, but it does unite three of the key players involved in the shaping of American Noir. Preminger,of course, was responsible for the 1944 classic Laura, Mitchum had starred in Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past in 1947, and Hughes was the main driving force behind Howard Hawks' Scarface, all the way back in 1932. The impact left by each of those three films is still being felt today, and comparatively speaking, it's easy to see why Angel Face has been forgotten.
Let me just start out by saying that Robert Mitchum is one of my favorite actors. He created what could be the greatest screen villain ever in Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, and his work in Out of the Past is the very definition of a heroic noir figure. His work here, while still great, is much more restrained, and the film suffers because of it. On the other hand, however, Jean Simmons is at her very best. Her performance is cold and calculating while being undeniably sexy. Simmons was fortunate enough to work with many of the best filmmakers of her era, from Lean to Powell and Pressburger to Kubrick, but it was in this very minor film that she was given the freedom to cut loose.
Frank Jessup (Mitchum) is a former race car driver who is now making ends meet as an ambulance driver. One night he happens across young Diane Tremayne (Simmons). The two have coffee and go for drive. Jessup tells her about his plans to raise enough money to open his own automotive shop. Diane has already fallen head over heels for Jessup, and she is able to talk her rich stepmother into hiring Jessup as the family chauffeur. After spending a few weeks with the family, Jessup realizes that Diane harbors a grudge against her stepmother, and is waiting for the right moment to permanently dispose of her. Jessup does his best to talk Diane out of murder, and the two make plans to run off together. The next day, Diane's stepmother backs her car off a cliff, killing her and her husband. Jessup and Diane are put on trial for murder, and a bizarre set of circumstances lead to film to a tragic, oddly satisfying conclusion.
Now, I'm not one to give away too many plot points to a film, but it's hard to describe this film in any sort of detail without giving too much away. The story is eloquently paced, but in the end there is about an hour's worth of plot stretched out over 90 minutes. Preminger and his cinematographer Harry Stradling indulge in elaborate tracking shots and carefully placed setups, but style does not make up for the lack of substance here. The more noirish elements play like leftovers of Laura, while the courtroom scenes feel like a dry run for Preminger's 1959 masterpiece, Anatomy of a Murder.
While it isn't anything to write home about, the film does stand as a very interesting curio. For a noir film, Angel Face lacks may of the genre's usual trappings, and it's very nice to see Simmons get a chance to burn up the screen. It is well known that Hughes was obsessed with her, and he forced her to do this film in order to break her contract with him and RKO. Another interesting piece of trivia is the fact that Preminger made Mitchum actually slap Simmons in one scene, and when asked to do a retake, Mitchum turned around and slapped Preminger instead. All in all, though, the back story is much more interesting than what is onscreen.