Film Reviews

Angel Face Otto Preminger

Rating - 8/10

From the mid-Forties through to the early Fifties, Viennese director Otto Preminger created a series of lushly composed, melodramatic film noirs distinguished by their psychological undercurrents and thematic dalliances with obsession and perverse love. Preminger’s final iconic noir, 1953’s Angel Face exemplified the acclaimed director’s interest in enigmatic female characters capable of seducing compliant men into their fateful webs of intrigue. 

The cherubic visage referenced in the film's title belongs to Diane Tremayne (a deliciously cold Jean Simmons), the spoiled twenty year old daughter of Charles Tremayne (Herbert Marshall) an acclaimed English novelist. When Diane’s wealthy stepmother Catherine (Barbara O’Neill) almost dies from asphyxiation in their opulent Hollywood mansion, young ambulance driver Frank Jessup (the superbly laconic Robert Mitchum) is called to the scene.
Almost immediately Frank falls under Diane’s spell. An ex-race car driver before the war, Frank is enticed by Diane’s love for exotic sports cars. Within a matter of weeks, he proceeds to ditch both his job and his relationship with hospital secretary Mary (Mona Wilton) in order to become the Tremayne family chauffeur. But the magic soon dissipates, as Diane’s concealed psychoses rise to the surface.
The title of Otto Preminger’s 1953 noir is one steeped in cold irony. Despite Diane’s carefully cultivated projection of sweetness and virtue, her actions throughout the film are generally characterized by selfishness, iniquity and spite. Nevertheless, Simmons’ Diane is in some ways an atypical noir femme. Her egregious motives are not directed towards greed or extortion, but instead ambiguously appear to be driven by loneliness and a desire for attention.
Unlike noir’s regular stream of crafty women, Diane acts and reacts like a spoiled teenage brat. She exaggerates and plays people against one another with little understanding of the ramifications of her exploits. Her aspirations appear to lack grounding in pragmatic thought.  With seldom few friends, Diane cuts a resentfully forlorn figure. 
She loathes her stepmother for apparently causing her father’s writer’s block and disrupting their deep father-daughter relationship. Frank’s arrival offers some temporary relief via a fleeting romance. But when Frank begins to question his own reasons for staying at the Tremayne mansion, Diane clamours for Frank’s sympathy; by lying and scheming about her stepmother’s treatment to the point were Frank begins to question whether Diane’s hyperbolic claims are actually rooted in fact or fiction.  
Like many of Otto Preminger’s noirs, Angel Face subtly examines the genre through a class-based approach. In Angel Face, this dichotomy is mostly visible in spatial terms: the compact tightness of Mary’s apartment or Frank’s residence at the Tremayne mansion is juxtaposed against the empty, spaciousness of Diane’s family home.
Money is mentioned incessantly throughout the film as Frank struggles to save funds for his garage and realizes that taking Mary out for a steak dinner will expend his entire paycheque. This is contrasted with Diane’s prolific spending habits and her willingness to lavish her parents’ money on Frank’s unfulfilled garage project. When Diane and Mary meet at a restaurant, Diane’s overt insistence to pay for the meal offends Mary; as the twenty-year old's keenness to demonstrate her ability to buy anything, possibly extends to Frank’s love. Yet as demonstrated throughout Angel Face, Frank has increasingly little care for money, as he quickly realizes riches can neither solely provide him with happiness nor contentment.
Through his detached objectivity, Preminger observes his character’s actions in Angel Face, but never wholly critiques their moral inclinations. But as with his other noir films such as Laura and Whirlpool, Preminger appears to almost encourage the audience to openly sympathize with the devious femme rather than the deceived homme in spite of her transgressions. Furthermore, Angel Face deftly exhibits the pervading theme of obsession haunting his noirish melodramas.
Where Angel Face differs from many of Preminger’s other noirs is that it is Simmons’ femme, rather than Mitchum’s homme that overwhelmingly displays an obsessive nature. Able to obtain virtually any material object she wishes, Diane covets Frank Jessup to the extent that she even meets Frank's girlfriend Mary in order to suss out the latter’s romantic commitment to him. Yet Diane’s motivations toward wanting to keep Frank are somewhat enigmatic; and seemingly limited to the desire to possess the sole man other than her father, who appears to have taken a slight interest in her.
Mitchum’s Frank Jessup is an archetypal Preminger noir homme: a rational man enticed and ultimately destroyed by an irrational woman. Nevertheless, Jessup is no prize himself with his non-committal attitudes to love or work. Initially lured by Diane’s beauty and affluence, Frank soon becomes ensnared in her trap. The perverse fusion of possessive romance and hysterical violence contained in their relationship is evident from their first encounter. But when Frank tries to escape Diane’s clutches, he eventually succumbs to her emotional displays and surrenders to his preordained destiny.
In contrast to other directors in the genre, Otto Preminger’s noirs always seemed to exhibit a visual brightness at odds with the dark, psychological material contained within. Angel Face is no exception. Buoyed by Preminger’s emphasis on fluid camera movements courtesy of Harry Stradling, Angel Face is also noteworthy for its repeated motifs; chiefly Dimitri Tiomkin’s haunting piano-led score which is forebodingly used during Diane’s piano-side moments of solemnity and regret. This effect achieves its greatest emotional punch during the film’s first jarring death sequence and its recurrence in the film’s coda. 
Unappreciated on its initial release, Angel Face has grown steadily in its reputation. Made at the behest of then studio head Howard Hughes to fulfill Jean Simmons’ truncated contract at RKO, Angel Face is a coolly complex psychological noir highlighted by Simmons’ often thoroughly despicable, falsely angelic femme fatale. Preminger’s crisply nuanced style is filtered through an ironic detached gaze, which makes the bright aesthetic aura of Angel Face even more delightfully wicked from its opening scenes to its cruelly vicious climax.