by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I ran the movie Angel Face, a 1952 attempt at film noir from RKO (Howard Hughes is listed as the producer), directed by Otto Preminger from a story by Chester Erskine and a script by Frank S. Nugent, Oscar Millard (who four years later would write the Hughes disaster The Conqueror, directed by Dick Powell and starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan) and an uncredited Ben Hecht. Reportedly this is one of those movies RKO boss Hughes shoved in the face of its female star, Jean Simmons, as punishment because she wouldn’t have sex with him (she met and married MGM hunk Stewart Granger instead, and Hughes actually paid for their wedding but still never forgave Simmons); she plays Diane Tremayne, psychopathic daughter of rich retiree Charles Tremayne (Herbert Marshall, getting long-in-the-tooth even for father roles but still bringing a sense of dignity to his performance sorely lacking in the rest of the movie).
The film opens with Charles’ wife Catherine (Barbara O’Neil) nearly dying when the gas jet in the gas fireplace in her room is turned on without the fireplace being lit. The key that turns it on and off is found kicked under the logs, and she’d have suffocated if Charles hadn’t noticed the gas smell, come in, found the gas jet on without its key and turned it off with the identical key from the fireplace in his own room. The Los Angeles Fire Department sends an ambulance and part of the ambulance crew is driver Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum, even more somnolent than usual — as if he realized the movie was a worthless piece of shit and decided almost literally to sleep through it), and Jessup finds himself attracted to Charles’ (but not Catherine’s) daughter Diane and also to her snazzy modified Jaguar XK 140 sports car. Jessup was an up-and-coming race driver until his career was aborted by World War II, and she offers him a chance to drive the car in a race after he modifies it any way he likes. He’s planning to open a garage specializing in racing cars and that would be good promotion for it; he’s also dating another woman, Mary Wilton (Mona Freeman), whom Diane sees and offers her $1,000 to give to Frank for his shop — but all Mary notices is that this woman spent the night with her husband-to-be and Frank lied about it; he says that after his ambulance call at the Tremaynes’ he was so tired “I just hit the sack,” and she — knowing he was out with Diane because Diane told her — fires back, “I’ll bet you hit the sack!,” a surprisingly direct allusion to sex for a 1952 movie and a line quite likely the personal work of Howard Hughes.
It doesn’t take us long to realize that Diane Tremayne is actually a psychopathic bitch — though she conceals that fact with a “classy” demeanor instead of snarling through the femme fatale role like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Ann Savage in Detour — and that she attempted to murder her stepmother. Midway through the film, using knowledge about cars Frank has innocently given her, Diane sabotages the car her father and stepmother drive, killing both of them. Both Diane and Frank are put on trial for murder, and unlike a lot of crime thrillers the courtroom scenes not only don’t flag the film’s energy level but actually enliven it — thanks largely to the kinky casting of the attorneys: the prosecutor is Jim Backus and the defense lawyer is Leon Ames. Once they’re acquitted, Diane offers to dictate a statement to her attorney that she killed her dad and stepmom but Frank had nothing to do with it — she can’t be touched legally, as he explains to her, but she says she doesn’t want the stigma of a murder hanging over his head as he goes back to Mary and gets on with his life. In the final scene, Frank waits for a cab that will take him to the train station where he plans to leave for Mexico — and Diane offers him a ride to the station in that snazzy Jaguar and then [spoiler alert!] shoves both the car and her motivations into reverse, backing it down a cliff where the final fate of its inhabitants remains technically unknown but it does so many turnovers in mid-air on the way down that it’s pretty clear from the ending that they both die.
Angel Face is a frustrating film, one of those bad movies that could have been good; with a more sensitive director than Otto Preminger (let’s face it, there are rocks with more sensitivity than Otto Preminger!) and one more adept at the visual atmospherics of film noir, this film could have been a great noir and Jean Simmons’ classy version of the femme fatale might have come across as vivid and insightful ambiguity instead of merely an indifferent performance by an actress who clearly didn’t care about this trashy film. (By far Simmons’ best moment is when the script obliges her to recite a bit of Shakespeare — and we’re reminded all too well that four years before she made this piece of cheese she had played Ophelia in Olivier’s Hamlet.) As it is, Angel Face just rambles aimlessly through scene after misplayed scene, shot in standard full-lit Hollywood style (that’s Preminger for you; he had absolutely no sense of visual atmospherics, ever, and his best films are Anatomy of a Murder and Advise and Consent, stories that didn’t suffer from that lack — I’m not counting Laura because most of that film’s visual richness came from Rouben Mamoulian, whom Preminger replaced as director in mid-shoot), until an ending that if anything makes the preceding hour-and-a-half seem even trashier than it did before.