I saved ANGEL FACE for last in this week’s look at RKO/Robert Mitchum films because it’s been hailed as a near-classic by many film noir fans. It’s certainly different from HIS KIND OF WOMAN and MACAO; much darker in tone, and features an unsympathetic performance by Mitchum. It’s more in the noir tradition of bleak films like DETOUR and BORN TO KILL. But better than the other two? That depends on your point of view. Let’s take a look:
An ambulance screams its way to the Tremayne home in ritzy Beverly Hills. The wealthy Mrs. Catherine Tremayne has been subjected to a gas leak of unknown origin. One of the ambulance drivers, Frank Jessup, comes across beautiful Diane playing the piano. She bursts into hysterics, and Frank smacks her, receiving one in return. After she calms down, Frank and his partner Bill head home. Frank has a date with his girl Mary tonight. But Diane has followed him, and he blows Mary off as the two end up going out for a night of dinner and dancing. Diane tells him her father was a novelist, and remarried after her mother was killed in the London blitz. She asks a lot of questions about Frank, who confesses he was once a race driver before the war, dreaming of the day he can open his own garage to work on sports cars like Diane’s fancy Jaguar XK.
Next day, Diane meets Mary for lunch. She tries to play coy, offering Mary a grand to help Frank achieve his dream of opening a garage. But Mary ends up fighting with Frank, and he takes a job as the Tremayne family chauffeur. Catherine pans on investing in Frank’s garage, but before she can, she and her husband are killed in a suspicious auto accident. Frank is questioned by the police and before you know it, the two are on trial for murder.
To go any further would spoil the plot for those of you who’ve not seen ANGEL FACE. I’ll just say there are lots of twists and turns to come, and that the ending will hit you with full force! It took me by surprise, which is pretty hard to do. Writers Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard (with an uncredited assist from Ben Hecht) crafted a marvelous screenplay, and Otto Preminger directs with style. Preminger was one of film noir’s top directors, having lensed the classic LAURA, as well as WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS and WHIRLPOOL (all of which are sitting in my DVR, waiting to be reviewed!) The director was responsible for the controversial (at the time) THE MOON IS BLUE, and top-notch films like RIVER OF NO RETURN (with Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe), THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (one of the first mainstream movies to deal with heroin addiction), and ANATOMY OF A MURDER. But by the Sixties it seemed Preminger’s time had passed, and films like HURRY SUNDOWN and the excruciating SKIDOO bombed t the box office. Preminger also acted in film and TV, most notably as the Commandant in STALAG 17 and as the chilling villain Mr. Freeze on BATMAN. Preminger died at age 80 in 1986, no longer a Hollywood A-lister. His film work is worth rediscovering for anyone unfamiliar with it.
Jean Simmons plays Diane, the ANGEL FACE of the title. Her character, like the best femmes fatale, is both beautiful and deeply disturbed. Diane’s a scheming, pathological liar, willing to go to any lengths to get what she wants. Simmons is one of the screen’s great beauties, a talented actress whose films include David Lean’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Olivier’s HAMLET, THE ROBE, GUYS AND DOLLS, and SPARTACUS. Robert Mitchum’s Frank isn’t very likable here, easily seduced by Diane. It’s to Mitchum’s credit that he does manage to elicit some sympathy for Frank, considering how he dumps Mary so unceremoniously, then expects her to take him back with open arms. It’s a tricky role, but our boy Bob is more than up to the task.
The supporting cast features solid actors like Leon Ames, Herbert Marshall, Barbara O’Neil, Kenneth Tobey, Mona Freeman, and Jim Backus. A special Cracked Rear Viewer shout out goes to Bess Flowers in the tiny role of Ames’ secretary. Miss Flowers didn’t do many speaking parts; she was known as “Queen of the Hollywood Extras”, appearing mainly in background scenes in over 800 film and TV appearances! Her list of credits is WAY too extensive to go over here. Her best known and largest role is probably as the rich wife who hires Moe, Larry, and Curly as interior decorators in the 1938 Three Stooges short TASSELS IN THE AIR.
So is ANGEL FACE better than the two previous Robert Mitchum films I’ve reviewed this week? As a film noir, the answer is yes. It’s dark and downbeat, like the best of the noirs, with that foreboding sense of doom inherent in the genre, right up to the powerful ending. But for me personally, I prefer the anarchic spirit of HIS KIND OF WOMAN, which takes the genre and turns it on its ear. Like I said earlier, it depends on your point of view.