Thursday, May 23, 2013

ANGEL FACE 1952

As a child, the only film directors whose names and faces I recognized were Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger. Hitchcock: for the obvious reasons (Honestly, was there ever such a talented, yet at the same time, tirelessly self-promoting, self-mythologizing director? One had to wonder when he found time to plot out all those famously intricate shots while still having the energy to chase Tippi Hedren around the set); and Otto Preminger: for his frequent, colorful and quotable appearances on television talk shows like Merv Griffin, but especially for his portrayal of supervillain, Mr. Freeze, on the Batman TV series.
Based on the quality (or, more accurately, the lack) of his latter-career output (Hurry Sundown, Skidoo, Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, Such Good Friends), for the longest time I considered Otto Preminger more an eccentric TV personality than a serious director. It wasn't until my late-in-life exposure to some of his earlier films on TCM that I came to appreciate the diversity of this filmmaker’s output and the strides many of his films made in the battle against censorship. 
Although I still only enjoy but a handful of the films Preminger directed in his nearly 50-year career, among my favorites is Angel Face. A film, if Hollywood legends are to be believed, green-lighted by RKO studio head Howard Hughes specifically to make life miserable for soon-to-depart contract actress and recent Hughes object of obsession, Jean Simmons. (Check out IMDB’s Trivia section for details, or better still, the commentary track on the DVD.)  
Jean Simmons as Diane Tremayne
Robert Mitchum as Frank Jessup
The plot of Angel Face is your typical 50s femme fatale film noir to the point of déjà vu. Yet, one enlivened considerably by a particularly unsympathetic turn by genre stalwart, Robert Mitchum, and the pleasingly against-type assaying of the role of an alluring psychopath by the beautiful, but to me, usually ineffectual, Jean Simmons.

Ambulance driver Frank Jessup (Mitchum) falls for dark-eyed socialite/siren, Diane Tremayne (LOVE that name!) when called to her estate to look into a suspicious case of gas inhalation suffered by Diane’s wealthy stepmother. With surprisingly little effort on her part, the distraught but grateful heiress insinuates herself into the life of Frank and standby girlfriend, Mary (Mona Freeman), successfully opening up a chasm between them she’s more than willing to step into. In record time, and without alerting the suspicions of the shrewd but somewhat opportunistic Frank, Diane not only gets the laid-back lothario to detail for her the particulars of his love life and professional aspirations (a former race car driver, Frank dreams of opening a garage of his own), but unsubtly unburdens herself to him her own woeful tale of how she and her beloved father (Herbert Marshall) have fallen under the despotic sway of her bridge-club-addicted, purse-strings clutching, wealthy evil stepmother, Catherine (Barbara O’Neil).
Family Plot
Ever-leery moneybags, Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O'Neil), listens guardedly as Diane (Jean Simmons) transparently campaigns to have hunky ambulance driver Frank Jessup taken on as a personal chauffeur. Meanwhile, emasculated novelist and fulltime lapdog Charles Tremayne (Herbert Marshall) just hopes he's not doing anything to draw his wife's ire...like breathing.
Faster than you can say “Double Indemnity” and before that postman has had a chance to ring even once, Frank and Diane find themselves suspects in a nasty case of double homicide. Was it really an accident? Were they in on it together? Did you ever doubt it for a minute? To fans of the genre, the who, what, where, and whys of the plot won’t come as much of a surprise. What really makes Preminger’s steamy goulash of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain so much black-hearted fun are its characters. The dark alleys of obsession and fixation Angel Face takes you through are murky with hidden agendas, neurotic pathologies, and the kind of moral cynicism that made noir films such a narrative oasis during Hollywood’s postwar years of suburban conformity.
"Do you love me at all? I must know."
"Well, I suppose it's a kind of love. But with a girl like you, how can a man be sure?"

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
I really love film noir. And while I deeply enjoy the intrigue, double-crosses, plot twists, and 11th hour surprise reveals that are characteristic of the genre, the element that most appeals to me has always been their core of nastiness that served as a brazen challenge to the Production Code-mandated moral conventions of the day.
In today’s climate of moral relativity, iniquity exists without stakes. Barring an overriding imperative of decency, the kind of bad behavior exemplified by Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, Linday Lohan, and the whole reality show, “betray each other to win,” mentality exists in a sour vacuum. That's why I have no patience with contemporary films that revel in the display of bad people behaving badly (cue, Quentin Tarantino). The overriding misanthropy of these enterprises merely buttress what I already consider to be the deeply desensitized attitudes of the populace. Film noir works as the yin to the yang of America's idealized self-perception during the 40s and 50s. A time when movies, TV, and advertising all promoted a kind of standard, middle-class conformity typified by those “social guidance films” shown in schools back then. 
The Ladies Who Lunch
Diane not-so-innocently sets up a lunch date with Frank's girlfriend, Mary (Mona Freeman), to let her know that Frank was not at all where he said he was the previous night.
In contrast to the many pat, repressive, happy ending films of the day, film noir was the antidote. It was almost exhilarating to see movies in which people are flagrantly self-interested and unconcerned with bettering society or helping their fellow man. Where women were dangerous, sexually aggressive, and exerted power over their lives. It's the extreme cultural contrast posed by the genre that gives film noir its kick. Without that, it's like movies and dramatic television today: just a bunch of unsympathetic people meeting bad ends.

PERFORMANCES:
Years before I ever saw Angel Face, I’d read so many accounts of how unhappy Jean Simmons was during the making of the film that I leapt to the assumption her portrayal of a wicked vamp was one of those against-type embarrassments like Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun (Simmons' embarrassment would come many decades later, as Helen Lawson in the 1981 TV version of Valley of the Dolls). I couldn't have been more wrong. Although I've only seen Simmons in a handful of films (she’s particularly appealing in 1953’s The Actress), her Angel Face femme fatale is one of her strongest, most persuasive screen performances. 
As the always-plotting Diana, Jean Simmons' somewhat remote, coy appeal is used to great effect in Angel Face 
Of course, Simmons’ performance is greatly enhanced by the chemistry she shares with co-star, Robert Mitchum. A sleepy-eyed hunk o’ burnin' love a person doesn't need Method Acting to believably express a sexual obsession over. Mitchum may not be an actor with a particularly broad range, but within that range, there’s not another leading man who can touch him. In the films I consider to be his best: Angel Face, Out of the Past, His Kind of Woman, Cape Fear, and The Night of the Hunter, Mitchum's slouching brand of masculine charisma has always revealed a hint of vulnerable malleability or, at times, outright sexual menace. In each instance he dominates the screen with a natural ease that makes him always so fascinating to watch.
Fave character actor Leon Ames plays defense attorney Fred Barrett. A reversal of his chores in 1946's The Postman Always Rings Twice.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Fans of film noir generally agree that much of the genre’s predominately male perspective is fueled by a fear of women. Perhaps that’s what makes them so entertaining. It's like the male id unleashed...a woman with any kind of power perceived only as a threat to manhood. Indeed, unlike the self-sacrificing heroines of the popular “women’s films” of the day, the women of film noir tend to call all the shots and are as likely to kill a man as kiss him. Angel Face consistently juxtaposes Frank's loutish neglect of his girlfriend, Mary, with his being manipulated and led around by the nose by the scheming Simmons. At a time when women held very little social power and were inevitably relegated to supporting, serving, and supplicating, film noir was the only place you could see women with some moxie and guts. Alas, because the vast majority of these films were written and directed by males, women with power were always seen as dangerous, pernicious and more than a little scary. 
なぜあなたは死んでドロップしない!
Roughly translated, Tremayne household maid, Chiyo (Max Takasugi) tells her put-upon husband, Ito (Frank Kamagai) to "Drop dead!"
The world of Angel Face is one where the natural order is corrupted by domineering women (Diane, Catherine, and Chiyo) and emasculated men (Frank, Charles, and Ito, the household butler who laments, "The only trouble with America...it spoils the women!").
Revealing herself to be a far more self-possessed and level-headed character than initially perceived, Mary, having had enough of Frank's seesawing emotions, opts for the solid and loving Bill (Kenneth Tobey), a man who doesn't make her compete for his affections.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS: 
If I were to pick my absolute favorite Otto Preminger movie, it would have to be the much-maligned Bonjour Tristesse (1958). That film is just a dream. But for pure noir bliss, I rate Angel Face above even the superior Laura (1944), which in spite of its excellence, has always seemed a tad too cool and never really has done much for me. Angel Face has the feel of a cheap pulp novel brought to life, complete with its economy of narrative and straight-to-the-point characterizations. While falling short of being a true classic of the genre, it stands as an example of the genre at its best. A fast and dark thrill ride through the Hollywood Hills...but I'd skip the short-cuts if I were you.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

8 comments:

  1. I've had this film lying about at home without having watched it. (I have a stack of dvds waiting to be seen.) When I saw that you reviewed "Angel Face" I brought it out. I love film noir too and am a big fan of old "hunk of burnin love" Mitchum so I enjoyed this thriller. It's interesting what you write about the film genre and how it was a rare chance to portray women in film as sexual and commanding.

    I love watching older Hollywood films when they had to disguise things because of censorship. When Mitchum says that he "hit the sack" the night before, his girlfriend Mary says she can believe that, knowing that he spent the night with Diane... I also like Diane's quote later on when she innocently says that "she's no trouble"!
    - Wille

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    1. Hi Wille
      You hit on one of my favorite things about older movies as well: without the ability to be explicit, movies were indeed much more ingenious with language and the conveyance of sex and sin. Those two examples you cite are perfect.
      The colorful slang adopted by gangsters in Production Code-era film noir is always so much snappier than hearing all those "fuck you's" from those Martin Scorsese gangster pics.
      I'm glad you like this film, too. Simmons is really terrific and you can't go wrong with Mitchum (except on an lp). Thanks, Wille

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  2. I love the ending of "Angel Face". A bit predictable but satisfying.
    Have you heard Mitchum sing? I was surprised when I listened to his LP. He could at least carry a tune.
    If you like Leon Ames check out another film noir called "Lady in the Lake" with Robert Montgomery and Audrey Totter. It's quite strange but it's one of my favorites in that genre.
    -Wille

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    1. Hi Wille
      I love the film's ending, too. Truthfully, the first time I saw "Angel Face", the ending took me totally by surprise! But as a longtime fan of old films, I've developed a somewhat preturnatural ability to suspend my own sense of disbelief for the sake of enjoying movie.
      Given Mitchum's beautiful speaking voice, I think I was disappointed he didn't sound like Dean Martin when sang. Although I don't suppose it's wise to base my opinion of his singing ability solely on a single listen to "Mama Looka Boo Boo."
      And I've seen and enjoyed "Lady in the Lake" (especially Audrey Trotter), but I forgot Leon Ames was in it.
      Thanks, Wille!

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  3. I love Angel Face, too -- a strange noir psycho-drama! Yes, Jean Simmon's career-best performance. Mitchum will always be my all-time favourite actor. A nice companion piece to Angel Face is another great and more obscure Mitchum noir, Where Danger Lives (1950) where he's menaced by another unstable siren (Faith Domergue -- a much better actress than I'd been led to believe!).

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    1. Hi Graham
      I had to look up "Where Danger Lives" to see if I had seen it before (I hadn't. One of the tough things about scanning genre DVD sections is that noir films have such similar titles -and plots- that I'm never sure if I've seen it before). Anyhow, it sounds great and appreciate the recommendation!

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  4. While not quite in the top rung of noir with Out of the Past or Double Indemnity this is an justifiably esteemed film. At its black heart this is one of the nastier noirs out there and Jean's glacial beauty a perfect reflection of that. Beautiful on the outside immensely twisted within it is one of her best pieces of work. Her talent for playing a venal character as she did here was never properly utitilized by the studios, the same thing happened to Ann Blyth (not as good an actress as Jean) after Mildred Pierce when they stuck her in one pallid part after another ultimately limited her screen image and wasting a valuable part of both ladies gifts.

    Mitchum is great as usual, was there any other actor who did so little and have it come across with such impact. Have you seen The Lusty Men? It a terrible title for a great film about the rodeo life that contains three of the best performances Mitchum, Susan Hayward and Arthur Kennedy, another vastly underrated actor, ever gave.

    I agree that Preminger was an inconsistent director able to turn out excellent films like this, Laura, The 13th Letter and Anatomy of a Murder and then turn right around and churn out junk like The Moon is Blue and that mint julep mess Hurry Sundown although that one is a hooty delight in its overearnestness. He was by most reports a horrible man to work with indulging in screaming fits and verbal intimidation. Linda Darnell hated him so much that when Joe Mankiewicz wanted to illicit a look of disgust in a scene in A Letter to Three Wives he replaced the picture she was supposed to look at (unseen to the audience) with a photo of Preminger without her knowledge, he got the desired reaction.

    I have also read about Jean's troubled mental state during the filming, surely Preminger's involvement couldn't have helped but it was mostly Hughes relentless and unwanted attention that was the culprit. Nowadays I'm sure it would be actionable but back then shackled as she was by a contract that Hughes had bought without her consent she had to deal as best she could. Which unfortunately where not the best ways, I know that's a wig she wears throughout the film having cut her hair off out of spite and depression and it was during this period her heavy drinking began eventually leading to a state of chronic alcoholism that took decades to conquer.

    Angel Face also has some great supporting actors in it. I'm particular fond of Leon Ames, he was able to slide back and forth from being the upright paternal good guy to a slimy snake with ease. Herbert Marshall really doesn't have much to do here but he was a wonderfully classy leading man to a lot of actresses of the golden age. However unlike George Brent and many others he seemed to recede into the background for them but gave subtle interesting performances like the one in The Little Foxes against that juggernaut that was Bette Davis as Regina Giddins.

    We'll have to agree to disagree about Jean Simmons, I don't think I've ever been disappointed in one of her performances. I've particularly liked her in All the Way Home, The Grass is Greener, Elmer Gantry (holding her own against the double barreled onslaught of Burt Lancaster and Shirley Jones), So Long at the Fair, Hilda Crane, The Actress, This Earth is Mine! (a favorite soap opera/trash wallow) and on TV she was incredibly moving in The Thornbirds. As well as two films I didn't care for but thought she was great in Home Before Dark and The Happy Ending.

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    1. Yes, it's a pity Jean Simmons' dark side (or Ann Blyth's for that matter) wasn't explored in other films. She is so effective in this film.
      I've never seen "The Lusty Men" but Mitchum giving one of his best performances is a promising prospect.
      Like you, I really enjoy Leon Ames a great deal as well and it's nice that you always take special note of the supporting performances in this film.
      It certainly is a must-see entry for fans of noir and fans of Simmons. (I like her a lot in "The Actress")
      Thanks for commenting, again, Joel!

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