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|
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).
|"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.
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|
|Fave character actor Leon Ames plays defense attorney Fred Barrett. A reversal of his chores in 1946's The Postman Always Rings Twice.|
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.
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!").
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.