If ”Angel Face” had been made, say, six year earlier, in the mid-forties, I would not have hesitated calling it a masterpiece. As it is I will just say that it is a very clever and effective implementation of the film noir genre.
The trouble is that I feel we have already been here before. “Double Indemnity” springs to mind, but really, I get this nasty feeling that Otto Preminger, the director, had been watching a lot of film noir, decided that this was the recipe and then set out to make a movie strictly adhering to said recipe. This sort of thing happens all the time in Hollywood, before and since, so there is nothing new or even wrong with that. That just means that you cannot take credit for being original and that you have to make it even better in order to justify the movie and be noticed.
While I do not think “Angel Face” is on par with the best film noir it is a solid effort and you can at least say that he stuck to the recipe to an extent where you could probably use this movie as a case example of the genre. It is a good place to start, but probably not fair to the movies that broke the ground.
The story is maybe even more bleak than usual. Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) is the solid, hero-material guy who gets ensnared by the beautiful, manipulative and seriously disturbed Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons). He meets her when he as an ambulance driver visits the Tremayne building on what may or may not be an attempt on Catherine Tremayne’s (Barbara O’Neil), Diane’s stepmother’s, life. Diane quickly finds out that Frank may be a tough guy, but with a backbone made of rubber when it comes to women. Suddenly Diane is everywhere in Franks like and although he consciously resent it, it is not difficult for Diane to manipulate him. A sweet smile and a kiss seems to do the trick.
Diane has an agenda. No surprise there, we know early on that she is up to something and that it concerns her stepmother. See, Diane has something Freudian going on with her father. She sees Catherine as competition to her father’s (Herbert Marshall) affection and blames her for everything wrong in her life. This is despite the fact that Catherine is the source of wealth in the family, while her own father in an author who does nothing but play chess and drink brandy. Or maybe be this is why. Diane is a truly idle woman. Her only apparent activity outside of plotting against her stepmother is playing the piano and that we only see in the opening of the movie. With all that time on her hand it would be a wonder if she stayed normal.
Diane needs an ally against her mother and this is where Frank comes into the picture. It is unclear exactly what she has in mind for Frank because he calls her bluff early on and will have nothing of it. Therefore instead his help becomes indirect as he inadvertently gives her the means to kill her step mother through some tampering with the car.
Unfortunately for Diane her father perishes as well in an unplanned complication of the assassination. This is a big wake up call for Diane who is ready to confess it all. Her defense lawyer (Leon Ames) however will have none of that. He never lost a case and is not about to. Besides losers pay poorly and he is better off with the Tremayne estate intact. As a star defense lawyer he could have cleared Attila the Hun and he employs all his tricks including getting Frank and Diane married to get her off the hook. Somehow Frank and Diane are talked into this plot so we get an impromptu wedding in the hospital.
The two of them are hardly back from court before Frank’s better senses gets him to quite the farce and leave. Diane however have now exchanged her love for her father onto Frank and if he will not have her in life then she will make sure that they will stay together… in death.
Diane is of course the femme fatale who very literally lures men into her net and their doom. Frank is the flawed hero, whose flaw sends him to his doom. And the Lawyer, Mr. Barrett, is maybe the biggest asshole of them all and in that function represents the dark and rotten circumstances, the underbelly of society, that stage the tragedy.
In this analysis it all look routine and predictable and I suppose it is when you have watched your share of film noir, but given that all this is a set stage it is still beautifully done.
Frank is really the kind of guy who on the one hand has integrity enough to say and do the right thing, but also fall for a sweet smile. His dopiness is believable, it speaks to his male vanity. It also helps that I love watching Robert Mitchum on the screen. He has a presence and a voice that is as made for film noir.
Jean Simmons is a bit more problematic. Her character is completely mental, that she does very well. There is a broodiness to her that fits that state. My problem is that she is not good enough to disguise that inner snake when she is around Frank. We know and Frank knows very well that she is up to no good and I would have loved if her “special power” had had a little more weight. As it is it is only Frank’s flaw that makes her scheme works, but we are told that she can run that trick on anybody and that I just do not believe.
The lawyer, Mr. Barrett is as mentioned a real ass and I get the feeling that someone in the production have very low feelings for lawyers and the justice system. It seems almost a given that with the right money and the right lawyer you can get away with anything and that truth is the first victim to sophism. Also the lawyer primarily suits his own interests and less those of his client. Certainly the film fits all the prejudice against that stand. The court as a game where the clever (and rich) wins is a common theme and one that in general makes me sick of courtroom dramas.
It was fun to see Herbert Marshall again. It has been a while and he has grown older, but he is still a man of suave elegance and a pleasure to watch. Only we see too little of him
“Angel Face” was a movie I enjoyed almost despite itself. I think it would have worked better had I seen it earlier on, but I like film noir in general so I can live with all the tropes and the giveaways and, and that is not a small point, I like a movie that takes place in the present of the time it was filmed. The cars, the phones, the cloth, it is all so 1952.