I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Otto Preminger is an underrated filmmaker. His films are a highly enjoyable mixture of all different stories and characters, and each unique film is crafted with such miraculous skill and fervor. His 1952 film noir, Angel Face is no exception.
Frank (Robert Mitchum) is a displaced man trying to find his place in America since his return from WWII. Working as an ambulance driver, he arrives at the home of a wealthy family where the mother may or may not have been the target of a murder plot. Frank meets the woman’s stepdaughter, Diane (Jean Simmons), and she instantly becomes interested in Frank on many levels. When Frank leaves the house, Diane follows him to a diner where she begins some not so innocent flirting. She succeeds in getting Frank to take her, and not his girlfriend, Mary (Mona Freeman), out to dinner.
Diane plots to take Frank away from Mary and is more than willing to do anything to achieve her goal. She convinces him to quit his job at the hospital and come work for her family as a chauffeur. Once he is living over the garage they begin a more intimate relationship, even though Frank suspects that Diane may be attempting to kill her wealthy stepmother in order for her father to gain the inheritance.
Angel Face is a first rate film noir with a delightfully wicked story. The plot works well because Robert Mitchum plays the prototypical Mitchum character, with his bravado and confidence shinning in every scene. He acts exactly the way we expect, he speaks the way we expect and he even smiles the way we have seen him smile a hundred times before. That’s what makes Mitchum so wonderfully enjoyable to watch. We know what we are going to get, and he doesn’t disappoint.
Jean Simmons, on the other hand, is unusually out of character for this film. At several points all of the evidence points to her being a selfish, conniving femmes fatales, but because it is Simmons in the role and not a “Gloria Grahame” style actress, it is hard to believe she is capable of any of the atrocities. She just seems so pure, innocent and sweet. She’s superb in the role and it certainly stands out among her best.
Otto Preminger had mastered the art of the “mystery thriller” at this point in his career. At many different times he seems to be toying with the audience, and you can almost picture a smile on his face. Preminger was constantly pushing the limits of what could be shown in a movie, and Angel Face is no exception. For a film in 1952, there is a sexual frankness and understanding between everyone that is unparalleled. Frank and Mary openly speak about the nature of their relationship in a way that no other film would even try. I was shocked when Diane asked Frank to describe Mary, and he tells her that, “She weighs 105 pounds, stripped.” I can’t think of any other movie from that time that would be that open about a relationship. Leave it to the rebellious Preminger to find some way to sneak something taboo into his film.
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