' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Angel Face (1952)

Friday, May 09, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Angel Face (1952)

Diane Tremayne certainly has the face of an angel. Perhaps it’s my Iowa bias showing but in Otto Preminger’s seriously hard-boiled 1952 noir, Jean Simmons often evokes Donna Reed at her most gregarious, if Donna Reed had been born in Lower Holloway. That face, however, belies a sinister interior. The only message this angel seeks to spread is narcissistic mayhem. Still, what hope does Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) have? He’s an ambulance driver called to Diane’s house because her stepmother, Catherine (Barbara O’Neil), has suffered gas inhalation. She suspects Diane may have be the culprit, a suspicion which should immediately provide Frank pause. Alas, when he meets Diane tickling the ivories of the family grand piano, the femme fatale’s song, as it so often does, proves irresistible.

Quickly, slyly and beguilingly Diane insinuates herself into Frank’s orbit. They go to dinner and then dancing, and the next day she asks Frank’s gal, Mary, to lunch to tell the truth and purposely drive a stake right through the heart of their relationship. She pledges to have her stepmother help fund Frank’s dream of opening his own mechanic shop, but when Catherine relents, Diane portrays it as an evil attempt to keep them apart. Diane convinces her father to hire Frank as chauffeur, and soon enough Frank is living on the Tremayne grounds, making it all the easier for her to saunter into his room and work her wiles.

The rest of the story, involving death and an ensuing arrest and trial that put the pseudo-lovebirds on the spot, are rife with melodrama, yet Preminger minimizes it with a no-frills approach, an atmosphere of slowly accumulating dread and shots underpinning its psychology. When Diane delivers a monologue regarding both her real mother and stepmother, Preminger films it as a single take, but has Simmons start in the background and then walk into the foreground and then into the background and then into the foreground, which is where it concludes. As in, Frank tries to brush her off and she forces her way right back in.

Early on Frank refers to himself as not wanting to be an “innocent bystander”, an apt comment because isn’t that how a movie audience often feels? Like innocent bystanders? The events on the screen are a place apart, seen, maybe even felt, but disconnected from the reality we inhabit. But with “Angel Face” I never felt innocent or as if I were merely standing by. I felt involved. More than that, I felt tempted, seduced and ensnared by Diane Tremayne. (Or, was it Jean Simmons?) But I did not feel betrayed. One shot finds Diane slipping into Frank’s trench coat and sleeping through the night, all wrapped up in her own psychosis, yet I confess to becoming wrapped up it in too.

Mitchum excelled in this genre specifically because his laconic cool melded so acutely with its fatalistic air. “How big a chump can you be?” he asked rhetorically in “Out of the Past” voiceover. “I was finding out.” Which is to say, he knew his string was being pulled as it was happening. He always drove himself off the cliff, never the other way around. But for once, in “Angel Face”, Mitchum finds himself getting driven off the cliff. An early moment is telling. Diane becomes hysterical and in keeping with the times, Frank slaps her. Diane slaps right him back. He thinks he’s in control. He’s not. Neither was I.

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