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Robert Mitchum is going to be a feature of these pages. He’s a sleepily convincing presence. A man who half expects to be kicked by life but who is able to put the boot in as well. In Angel Face, he first appears as an attendant, Frank, an ambulance driver called to a house where a woman has almost been gassed to death. It might have been an accident, or an attempted suicide or attempted murder for that matter. Her step-daughter Diane (Jean Simmons) has a hysterical fit and Mitchum delivers the legally required slap, but is rocked on his heels to get one right back.
Something is definitely up but Mitchum is too flattered when Diane follows him to a local bar and picks him up. Frank has a girlfriend, but he lies like a rug and gets out of their date. He tells Diane all about his ambitions to open a garage, but Diane immediately takes the opportunity to insinuate herself with Mary (Mona Freeman). There’s deviousness and manipulation here that Frank is no match for. He’s being led into a Postman Always Rings Twice plot and is at least aware enough to want to get out belatedly, but by that time Diane is ready to commit her crime.
Otto Preminger was persuaded to direct the film by Howard Hughes who had bought the property based on a true murder case. He demanded a rewrite but succumbed to a fairly tight shooting schedule. There’s a lean quality to the film. And yet every detail is well drawn. The relationship between Diane and her father, as well as her step mother. In the end, everyone is not quite bad enough to get away with what they do. The menace is lurking in the fact that no one thinks Diane, with her clipped English accent and her wide eyed porcelain beauty, is capable of the violence which she obviously is. When the violence happens, it is sudden and shocking. The world-weary (or just plain weary) Mitchum never cottons on, unaware of how dangerous Diane is.
Simmons is the real star of the film. She’s a complicated femme fatale. She has moments of reflection and remorse. And it wasn’t an easy role for her. Coming from Britain, as one of Arthur Rank’s well spoken young starlets, she married Stewart Granger and moved to Hollywood where Howard Hughes bought her contract. According to legend, she turned Hughes down, who – true to form – had expected to sleep with her. Fuming, he encouraged Preminger – though that ox need little encouragement – to be hard on her. During the scene where Mitchum slaps her, the scene was repeated again and again on Preminger’s insistence, until a furious Mitchum turned around and punched the director.
Jean Luc Godard chose Angel Face as one of his top ten US films and it deserves a place on anyone’s favourite Noir list.
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