“If I were a cop, and not a very bright cop at that, I’d say that your story was as phony as a three dollar bill.”
The quality of a film can usually be gauged by a few key elements. A quality director? A capable writer? A cast of talented actors? If the answer is yes to most of, if not all these questions, than the chances are you have a good film on your hands. Once in a while, though, the odds backfire. A brilliant team of creators come together to make something that, for all intents and purposes, falls flat. A disappointment. Something like 1953’s Angel Face.
I want to preface this by acknowledging that my stance on Angel Face is an unpopular one. The film is regularly hailed as a classic of the film noir genre, and was even screened at the most recent Noir City Festival in San Francisco, where I had the pleasure of revisiting it. Even with the benefit of a live audience and a glowing 35mm print, however, my issues with the film remain staunch. It is, to my critical eye, a rare miss for both director Otto Preminger and star Robert Mitchum.
Let’s start with the premise. Frank Jessup (Mitchum) is a sleepy ambulance driver who gets called out to the Tremayne mansion on a false alarm one night. There he meets Diane (Jean Simmons), a young woman whose beauty is rivaled only by her fantastic wealth. She takes a liking to Frank, and soon, she has taken over his life and gotten him a job as the family chauffeur. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Diane’s parents are killed in a freak driving accident, and Frank winds up the prime suspect.
It’s a decent little yarn, with screenwriters Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard reheating beats from better James M. Cain stories like The Postman Always Rings Twice. The interplay between Diane and her parents, particularly her doting father (Herbert Marshall), offers some unique insight into her character, and the script does genuinely raise the question of whether she feels remorse for her parents’ death.
Where things start to come apart for me is the relationship between Diane and Frank. Beyond the obvious physical attraction, there is very little chemistry to suggest that they would risk life and liberty to be together. Frank seeming outright annoyed with her in some instances, and a crucial scene between them actually occurs as he is packing his things and preparing to quit as chauffeur. She talks him into staying, and they embrace, but it feels less like a change of heart and more of a convenience for a lazy character.
Author Eddie Muller once summed up Mitchum’s screen persona as “passive vulnerability”, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Angel Face. He catches Diane telling one bold-faced lie after another, and yet his character shrugs it off as though she won’t do it again. It’s really quite astonishing. She ruins Frank’s relationship with his nurse girlfriend Mary (Mona Freeman), and after promising to get her stepmother to finance a competitive race car for him, she pretends that her mother ignored the offer (she didn’t). Frank discovers all of this throughout the film, and yet he is still fool enough to take Diane at her word when she claims that they can run off together without consequence.
Mitchum was coming off a terrific film noir streak when he agreed to star in Angel Face. His previous titles included Where Danger Lives, His Kind of Woman, The Racket and the underrated Macao. In each of these films, he played characters who seemed indifferent but were secretly heroic. For all his sleepy-eyed posturing, there was a streak of integrity that ran through his acting, and kept the viewer invested in his decisions. Even when he went on the run with a femme fatale like Faith Domergue (Where Danger Lives), it came from a desperation to save his own neck.
Angel Face is the rare Mitchum vehicle that requires him to act dense in order to sell the story. He’s not madly in love with Diane, nor is he forced to play ball with her until later in the film when they’re charged with murder. Why then, does he stick around? It’s this fundamental disconnect that keeps Angel Face from clicking into place at any of its given story breaks. If we as viewers cannot buy the relationship between the lead characters, we don’t care what happens to them.
It’s a shame, really, because I think Simmons’ performance could’ve been marvelous in different context. The British actress brings a dreamlike quality to the character, delivering many of her lines though in a trance. Some of the film’s prettiest and most atmospheric moments are when she’s left alone in the Tremayne mansion, teasing the piano while Preminger’s camera wanders around her.
These scenes offer a brief glimpse into the film that could’ve been had Preminger spent more than 18 days shooting, or had producer Howard Hughes been focused on the film and not making Simmons’ experience as unpleasant as possible (Hughes and Simmons had previously dated, and he specifically hired Preminger because of his reputation for bullying actresses).
I will continue to give Angel Face the benefit of the doubt, and perhaps one day, the strengths of the film that evade me will present themselves. As it stands, however, it’s a technically solid piece that’s undermined by the weak chemistry of it’s characters. C
TRIVIA: Despite Simmons’ unpleasant experiences with Hughes and Preminger, she and Mitchum got along famously and remained good friends afterwards.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir aficionado and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.