Angel Face April 29, 2017
The dignified, waifish Jean Simmons is not an actress who immediately comes to mind when envisioning the ultimate femme fatale. I’m partial to believing that most cinematic women with icicles in their hearts look like Lana Turner and sound like Lauren Bacall, made only of curves, wit, and deviousness.
But in Angel Face, Otto Preminger’s excellent 1953 crime thriller, Simmons redefines the stereotypical deadly female. Contrasting to most features in the same caliber, which usually prefer to reveal that the leading lady is a no-good schemer late in the movie, it’s immediately apparent that something is distinctly off about this woman. She resembles a model given a spread in Vogue circa 1957 – impossibly chic and unequivocally beautiful. But she’s also remote, an uncharted desert isle of femininity about to be overtaken by a hurricane. Her skinny frame suggests fragility, but her saucer eyes imply malevolence.
What she’s up to in Angel Face is of utmost interest, and the screenplay, written by Frank Nugent and Oscar Milland, keeps us captivated as the film shifts from sinuous romantic melodrama into the basic murder-for-money plot perfected by Double Indemnity (1944).
The film opens with a tragedy. Or, rather, a tragedy barely avoided. In its first few moments, we find that wealthy socialite Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O’Neil) has been harmed by gas poisoning, so much so that an ambulance has been called in an attempt to save her life. Upon arriving, though, the vehicle's drivers, Frank (Robert Mitchum) and Bill (Kenneth Tobey), discover that the woman has already been treated by the police.
Noticing that Catherine’s stepdaughter, Diane (Simmons), has taken to hysterics in response to the situation, Frank tries to calm her with a slap to the face. Diane slaps him back. And from there begins a twisted sort of relationship, despite the fact that Frank has a lady (Mona Freeman) waiting for him at home.
After some time unofficially courting, Diane, who despises her stepmother, starts manipulating her lover – now also working as the family’s chauffeur – into believing that her father’s (Herbert Marshall) wife is a snake. She contends that Catherine would fire Frank if she found about their relationship. That she finds his business endeavors laughable. She even goes as far as saying that the gas incident was an attempt by Catherine to take her life.
Frank, of course, is suspicious. But only days after he quits the chauffeur position – he’s had enough of the youngest Tremayne’s manipulations – stepmom and pop mysteriously die in a bizarre car crash which horrendously sees them zoom off a cliff (in reverse, no less) at top speed. It’s obvious to law enforcement officials that foul play was a major factor.
Given that Diane is set to inherit the entire Tremayne fortune, she promptly becomes the prime suspect. But because the fuzz also took note of Frank’s packed bags, he’s suspected, too. Most believe that he and Diane schemed to murder the Tremaynes and run away together. Makes sense.
And this popular opinion briefly transforms Angel Face into a courtroom drama, perhaps the most stagey genre of them all. And yet nothing about the movie is predictable: this is one of the finest film noirs ever made, a backer of the belief that the cruel hands of fate really are cruel and that you cannot escape the repercussions of a misstep or a moral misgiving. Its storyline is fairly conventional, but Preminger infuses enough sexual anxiety and general otherworldliness to make it something of a hellacious dream, all porcelain beauty swimming in a sea of instability and danger.
Every frame is a canvas for Preminger to paint his wildest cinematic desires – Angel Face is noir fodder so deliberately composed, so besotted with materialism and shimmering elegance, that it more often than not feels like fantasy shrunk down to the size of a crime thriller. I’m reminded of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), which, despite being among the great detective movies, seems oddly ethereal.
“While The Big Sleep (1946) slithers by with witty dialogue and lethal underbellies, Kiss Me Deadly seems to have more in common with 1958’s Attack of the 50-Foot Woman," I wrote in my 2015 review of the former. “This shouldn't suggest that it's a shoddy film – it should suggest that it's in love with itself, fond of its penny-dreadful exterior.”
These feelings proliferate when viewing Angel Face. It should be orthodox, formulaic even. But it’s untouchable, wondrous. I’d like to think it mostly has to do with Preminger’s phantasmic mise en scène. But I’m more inclined to believe that the film’s inexplicable way of hypnotizing us purely has to do with Simmons, whose performance goes far beyond what’s expected of an actress in a film noir. Most have to simply be unfathomably gorgeous, supplemented by cruelty or intangible angelicness – whichever one-dimensional character trait is required.
Simmons gives a completely different performance altogether. One initially wants to group her Diane Tremayne with other classic femmes fatales of the era, like Velma Valento or Cora Smith. But Simmons doesn’t so much to be embodying a type as she is embodying a severely disturbed young woman with a saintly face and an abhorrent interior. In Angel Face, she lies, cheats, and steals – the lives of others, that is. But she isn’t necessarily a detestable villainess. She is a naturally wicked young woman fascinating because she cannot live a day without manipulating, without harming. To her, nefariousness is a mundane feature of her identity. The film is merely an inside look into her downfall. Or, more horrifically, the way her downfall is preceded by her kickstarting the downfalls of those supposedly the closest to her.
Simmons is so delicately beautiful that we aren’t so much scared of her presence as we are haunted by it. There’s a nearly silent sequence toward the end of the movie which showcases the actress wandering around the Tremayne household, the lights dim and the atmosphere eerie. No one lives there anymore – she finished them off. She moves in and out of every room like a ghost, dead-eyed and floating. What we’re seeing is not Cathie Moffat lite. We’re seeing evil personified,
The finale bruisingly fatalistic, one can only stare at Angel Face in wonder, glassy-eyed and taken aback. What we should be witnessing is a no-frills genre picture. And yet we feel as though we’re drifting in front a work of nightmarish pop art, a drawing which both sees the reverie in the thrills presented and also the horrors. It’s unforgettable, and, like its titular fiend, irresistible. A