Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1952) appears on Francois Truffaut’s list of the best American movies ever made. With all due respect to Truffaut, this engaging crime noir is remarkably similar to MGM’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and, in this critic’s not so humble opinion, is readily surpassed by that film noir. It isn’t that Angel Face is a bad movie. It’s a good one, in fact. But it’s hardly cutting edge or fresh in its approach of well-trodden material. Based on James M. Cain’s pedestrian murder yarn, Preminger manages to work in some minor Freudian references that generate an unsettling frost in juxtaposition to the film’s more obvious smoldering sexuality.
Our story concerns ambulance driver, Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum). Frank and his partner Bill Crompton (Kenneth Tobey) arrive at the moneyed estate of Mr. and Mrs. Tremayne one foggy evening to discover that the wife, Catherine (Barbara O’Neil) is recovering from a botched suicide attempt. Or was it murder? Cate’s hubby, Charles (Herbert Marshall) isn’t saying much but looks as though he knows more than he’s willing to tell. Ditto for the Tremayne’s cat faced daughter, Diane (Jean Simmons), whom Frank first discovers faking mournfulness and playing a dirge on the piano in the Tremayne’s stately parlour.
Frank has a girl of his own, nurse Mary Wilton (Mona Freeman). But after being belted in the kisser by Diane he’s hooked. Frank bails on a dinner date with Mary to take Diane out instead. Her flirtations are obvious. But Frank doesn’t buy Diane’s sugar and spice act for a minute. Still, with a little coaxing he dumps Mary and quits his job to become the Tremayne’s full time chauffeur. Why? Well, for the money, of course. Frank has his eye on the prize, using the Tremayne’s wealth to finance his plans for a Formula One garage.
The idea has merit and Catherine rather likes it. But Diane attempts to get Frank to despise her stepmother as much as she seems to by telling him that Catherine threw out his proposal after he left. It’s a lie and Diane’s deceptions don’t work in their anticipated hardships. But Frank starts to get ideas of his own. A botched reconciliation with Mary leads Frank right back to the Tremayne house where Diane has rigged her stepmother’s car to go in reverse when the gear is set to drive. Unaware of Diane’s tampering, Charles asks his wife to drive him into town. The two are hurled over the side of a steep ravine and die together.
Distraught over her father’s death, Diane confesses her crime but is spared a life in prison by oily attorney, Fred Barrett (Leon Ames) who gets Frank to marry Diane in order to provide them both with an alibi. Diane and Frank beat their wrap of conspiracy to commit murder. Believing that this means she and Frank can start over, Diane returns home to find Frank packing his bags. He has decided to leave her for good. Contrite and apologetic, Diane offers to drive Frank to the station; then drives them both over the same cliff side where the Tremayne’s perished. So much for plot.
Angel Face is an interesting crime/thriller. But I still don’t see it as one of the greatest of its kind and certainly not the greatest of all time. Robert Mitchum gives us another laconic performance. We’ve seen him do it before; better, and in better films like Out of the Past, Macao, Where Danger Lives and His Kind of Woman. Personally, I have a hard time digesting Jean Simmons as the feline femme fatale. She’s mousy rather than smoldering, and just a tad too simpering to be outright sinful. Again, personal taste. Simmons and Mitchum do have some strange on screen chemistry happening between them, but it’s antiseptic at best; sort of like ‘big older brother’ watching over that dotty sister he knows needs a rubber room more than a velvet glove.
Oscar Millard, Ben Hecht and Frank S. Nugent’s screenplay keeps the action moving and the mood taut and sinister. However, there are too many narrative loopholes along the way and these most certainly threaten to sink each character’s motivations. As example: Herbert Marshall’s Charles’ motivations are never entirely or satisfactorily explained away. Clearly, Charles wants Catherine’s money and is probably even willing to kill to get it. Catherine’s botched suicide has the markings of a cheap con like Charles all over it. So why ask Cate to drive him into town? Why indeed. And why does Frank go after Diane initially? There’s nothing in their flawed first ‘cute meet’ to suggest she will be better for him than Mary. In fact, Diane exhibits a fairly unstable manner from the get go.
Frank most definitely knows she is somehow involved in Catherine’s botched suicide/murder, if not initially, then by the time he accepts his chauffeur’s position with the Tremaynes. Why is any of this a turn on to him? Yet, throughout the plot this supposedly intelligent and enterprising schemer allows himself to be manipulated, first by Diane, then by Fred Barrett. No, the more the film goes on the more Frank’s motivations unravel.
In the final analysis, Angel Face is just another noir thriller, not an A-list noir that outshines most all others. Harry Stradling’s cinematography captures the oppressive mood of a deceitful web of lies. Stylistically, there’s a lot to admire. This is a very atmospheric and spooky little film. Overall then, an interesting, though flawed, B noir.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is very good. The B&W picture has a nicely contrasted gray scale. The image is occasionally gritty, rather than grainy, and that’s a problem, especially during scenes shot at night and outdoors. There’s also a hint of edge enhancement and some shimmering of fine details. The audio is mono but adequately represented. Extras include TCM’s Private Screenings with Mitchum and Jane Russell, an audio commentary and the film’s original theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)