While it isn’t Otto Preminger’s best-known exercise in film noir, Angel Face may be his best. In 1952 Howard Hughes was apparently so intent on forcing Jean Simmons to make one more movie for him that he was prepared to give Preminger complete artistic control if he could guarantee to shoot it in 18 days, which was all that remained of her contract after a rather acrimonious legal battle between the star and Hughes. Preminger jumped at the chance. The result is a movie that is both a superb example of noir, and a slightly unconventional one.
Robert Mitchum is ambulance driver Frank Jessup, who is called out to the home of a writer, whose wife has almost died from the effects of a gas tap being let on. Was it an accident? The wife doesn’t think so. In the course of this call-out he meets the writer’s daughter Diane (Jean Simmons), whose reactions to these events are odd to say the least. Jessup has a girlfriend, Mary, but Diane pursues him and he finds himself fascinated by this beautiful but puzzling young woman.
It seems like a classic noir setup, with Mary as the good girl and Diane as the femme fatale, but Preminger (who was able to have the script rewritten to his own requirements) doesn’t give us anything quite so straightforward.
Angel Face is particularly interesting because it’s a fairly rare example of a classic period film noir made by a director who was in the position (thanks to the eccentricities of Howard Hughes) of being able to impose his own vision on the movie, of being able to be a true auteur. Preminger is famous for his “detachment” and “objectivity” – his reputation for allowing the audience to come to its own judgment about the characters in his films, rather than having those judgments made for them by the film-maker.
What I notice about his films (and it’s useful to compare Angel Face with his non-noir Bonjour Tristesse, made a few years later and dealing with a similar situation) is that his characters do things for reasons that seem to them to be good and sufficient reasons. They may do things that could be seen as wrong, or they might do things that turn out to have evil consequences, but in their minds these actions are not merely justified, they may even seem necessary.
In both Angel Face and Bonjour Tristesse we see characters performing actions that they see as being essential for their own protection or for the protection of someone they love. They may be wrong, but that’s how they see things. This is something that becomes more evident in Preminger’s movies during the 50s as he gained increasing artistic freedom. In some of his earlier noirs, such as Whirlpool, there are clear-cut villains who are aware of doing wrong. There are no clear-cut villains in both Angel Face. If you look at the behaviour of the one character who could be construed as villainous, her actions can be seen as reasonable and moral if you accept that her understanding of the situation, although deluded, is sincerely held and that it is real to her. She acts in some senses as a classic noir femme fatale, but then just when you expect her to do something that a femme fatale would do, she does the opposite.
Women take centre stage in Preminger’s movies. While many noir films portray women in a very unsympathetic light, this cannot be said of Preminger’s movies. The women in his movies are complex and are certainly not plaster saints, but they’re nothing like the scheming spider-women of noirs such as Double Indemnity and Scarlet Street.
In 1964 Jean-Luc Godard named Angel Face as one of the ten greatest American movies of the sound era. He may well have been right. It’s certainly a superb movie, and I highly recommend it to both noir fans and non-noir fans.