Movie: Angel Face (1952)

It is often hard to decide whether a film is noir or not.  In many regards, the 1952 feature Angel Face has the trappings of that genre.  On the other hand, it is very heavy on the melodrama.  That doesn’t automatically disqualify a film from being noir but, in my mind, it makes it more difficult for it be classified as such. 

I honestly shouldn’t be surprised the emotions run so high in this thing, as it is directed by Otto Preminger.  It seems to me he was attracted to material where he could encourage the actors to project to the rafters.

Some tidbits in a commentary track from Eddy Muller on the blu-ray concern high drama surrounding the director on the set, so I guess like attracts like.  One telling anecdote has the director ordering Robert Mitchum to slap Jean Simmons for take after take.  Finally, Mitchum wheeled around and slapped the director, asking him if that was good enough.  Preminger then went off to producer Howard Hughes in a tizzy, demanding the star be fired.  Needless to say, Hughes wasn’t about to do that.

Not that Hughes was such a good egg.  Simmons was the latest of his “proteges”, for which Hughes bought their contracts from other studios and, by doing so, thought he could make them love him.  She had the foresight to ensure her contract stipulated a certain number of movies with a certain time frame.  With days left to go on her contract, Angel Face started shooting.

She is in a femme fatale role here, as the daughter in a wealthy family.  Mitchum first meets her when he is called out to their mansion in his job as an EMT.  I’ve always liked Mitchum, but I was not fully convinced by him in his job here, given his trademark laconic demeanor.  It is hard to imagine him rushing anywhere.

The emergency is what was reported to be the attempted suicide of Simmons’s stepmother (Barbara O’Neil) by way of gas poisoning.  If not suicide, speculation has it O’Neil may have accidentally kicked the key that switches the gas line on and off. 

It’s obvious Simmons tried to kill O’Neil.  I was never exactly sure of why Simmons is so determined to get rid of her.  To the best I could determine, she was jealous of her father Herbert Marshall giving affection to anybody but her.  Creepy, I know, but it is in keeping with the insane protectiveness she will display concerning Mitchum next. 

Simmons will prove to be a force of nature when pursuing Mitchum.  He should have known she was trouble from the first time he saw her.  She gets up from calmly playing the piano while the EMTs and cops are all over the house, only to reveal she has some deliriously large belt around her waist.  It looks like something pro-wrestlers win tournaments for.

Mitchum is already attached to Mona Freeman.  Simmons tries to toss a wrench into the works by inviting Freeman to lunch and put suspicious thoughts into her mind.  I like how Freeman calls the other woman out on her bullshit, but the seeds Simmons has planted in her mind will take root and make her turn cold against Mitchum.

Which just makes it even easier for him to accept an offer from Simmons to be the family chauffeur.  He accepts this and moves into their house, even though he thinks she tried to kill her stepmother.  Still, he can’t have anticipated what Simmons does next.

It is obvious the idea comes to her while watching a cigarette packet she discards bounce down the steep hillside right next to the house garages.  Apparently, cigarette packets used to be made of far heavier, sturdier stuff, given how determinedly it bounds to the bottom of this steep embankment.  I also love how this sheer drop is right there next to the drive without so much as a guardrail. 

Simmons does some minor alterations to the mechanics of the car so that, when her stepmother puts it into drive, it actually rockets backwards off the cliff, where three different camera angles show us the incredible destruction.  These few seconds are truly jaw-dropping.

The movie then shifts down several gears, so to speak, as it briefly becomes a turgid courtroom drama.  For some reason, her attorney thinks it would be beneficial for her case and Mitchum’s if they are presented as being madly in love and get tried together.  Y’know, like married couples filing their taxes jointly, except a possible outcome here is to be electrocuted side-by-side.  It seems to me saying they were in love only gives the prosecution more evidence of their guilt.

But what I think doesn’t matter, as the verdict comes in as not guilty.  So now Mitchum is stuck with the woman he doesn’t even like, who he knows killed her parents.  Typical of their dialog, she says, “You couldn’t hate anybody who loves you as much as I do” and he responds, “No, I don’t hate you, but I’m getting out just the same.”

It’s been a while since I’ve done this, but I have a few stray observations I feel I need to make, but which I couldn’t work in elsewhere here.

First, I thought it was interesting Mitchum has what would have been regarded back then as the “girl’s role”.  He has little to no initiative and, when Simmons aggressively pursues him, he basically just lets himself be pursued.

Second, I was astonished when a juror just stands up and disrupts the proceedings with a question.  Is that allowed in any court today?  Was it ever?  And that juror asks if the alleged sabotage of the car was “so simple even a woman could do it”.  Wow, fuck you, dude.

Lastly, one of the things I most liked to see in the film is, strangely enough, the Beverly Hills fire station.  The garage bay doors are thick and stylized things that swing open instead of raising and lowering.  There’s even pointless ornamentation over those bays.  Given the disdain L.A. has shown towards its architectural history in the past, it is hard to believe the station still stands today, though enlarged and modified.  The ornamentation, especially, has been greatly reduced.

Dir: Otto Preminger

Starring Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Mona Freeman

Watched on Warner Archive blu-ray