Angel Face

 I don’t pretend to know what goes on behind that pretty little face of yours; I don’t want to. But I learned one thing very early. Never be the innocent bystander; that’s the guy that always gets hurt.

The femme fatale, the deadly woman, the one whose duplicity, self-interest and machinations lure the protagonist towards danger and doom is widely considered to be a staple of film noir. I’ve even seen some argue that such a figure is an essential element of this style of filmmaking, though I wouldn’t go as far as that myself. And yet she is an important figure, one who has achieved iconic status and entered the everyday vocabulary of even casual film fans. There have been outstanding examples of the femme fatale committed to film: Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Jane Greer in Out of the Past, Ava Gardner in The Killers and Yvonne De Carlo in Criss Cross to name just a handful of notables. Those women were all devious, alluring and lethal, and all of them were entirely conscious of their inherent malice. But what of those characters who fall almost accidentally into the category of the fatal woman? What if a woman, by her actions, becomes a femme fatale while her motivations and psychological profile are wholly different? As far as I can see, Angel Face (1952) provides an example of just such a case – a dangerously attractive female of deadly intent who’s also a mass of complexities and contradictions.

An ambulance is called to a Beverly Hills mansion late at night. Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O’Neil), the owner, has almost died in a gas-filled bedroom. It might have been an attempted suicide or an attempted murder, but in the end everyone seems satisfied that it was probably just one of those unfortunate accidents that occur in the home. With the emergency apparently over and people about to head home, Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum), one of the ambulance drivers, pauses in the hallway, his attention caught by the figure of a girl at the piano in the drawing-room. This is Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons), the owner’s stepdaughter. As Frank stops to offer a word of reassurance, we get a glimpse of the fragile instability of the girl; she’s edgy and prone to hysterics. But more than that, there’s an impulsive, neurotic side to  her. The former is immediately apparent when she follows Frank and essentially picks him up as he ends his shift. The latter, the neurosis, is revealed more gradually as she sets about seducing Frank and drawing him ever deeper into the complicated affairs of the Tremayne household. Diane’s father (Herbert Marshall) is – or rather was – a celebrated writer who has let his talents go to seed, mostly as a result of the pampered lifestyle brought on by a comfortable marriage. In Diane’s eyes her father is, and always will be, her whole world. As such, Catherine is the enemy, the cause of her father’s creative decline and her own consequent dissatisfaction. Almost every noir scenario revolves around the weakness of the protagonists, often their inability to accept responsibility for their own situation in life. And so it is with Diane, everything could be hauled back onto an even keel if only Catherine weren’t there: her father would recover his desire to write and she would be free to make a life with Frank. However, fate has an unfortunate tendency to throw a big awkward spanner in the works and even the best laid plans can go disastrously awry.

It’s very often the case that the most compelling movies had a troubled production history. I don’t know whether it’s down to behind the scenes tensions lending an air of urgency to events on the screen or the people involved becoming more focused on their task. Either way, there are plenty of examples of a poisonous atmosphere bringing about a fine movie. With Howard Hughes in charge of RKO there always seemed to be ample opportunity for discord on the set. Angel Face was essentially a film born of pettiness. Hughes wanted Jean Simmons but she’d recently married Stewart Granger and was having none of it. The upshot of all this was Simmons struck a deal to make a handful of films quickly and thus get out of an unpleasant contract. Her dislike of Hughes and his unwelcome attention was so great that she even chopped off her hair crudely and so was forced to play her role in the film with a slightly odd-looking wig. On top of all that, there were issues with director Otto Preminger. Simmons’ first scene in the picture involved her descending into hysterics and Mitchum bringing her out of it with the application of that cinematic staple, the open-handed slap. Well Preminger apparently didn’t like the way Mitchum pulled the blow, claiming it was going to look phony in close-up. So he had him do it again, and again, and again. With Simmons in tears and Preminger relentless, Mitchum apparently turned on the director and either gave him some of the same treatment or threatened to do so – for more on the tumultuous production, see Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don’t Care by Lee Server pp 288-291. Maybe nobody was having a particularly good time on the set but the end result was the taut, highly strung atmosphere of the Tremayne house and that feels completely authentic.

Angel Face is Jean Simmons’ picture all the way, and gave her one of her most interesting and complex roles. As I said in the introduction, she’s unquestionably the femme fatale of the film, her actions causing chaos, death and misery. Yet she brings an emotional immaturity and insecurity to the part that sets Diane Tremayne apart from the classic interpretation of the femme fatale. If her behavior is seen as selfish, then it’s only a childish form of selfishness. Her hatred for her stepmother only exists as a result of her love and devotion for her father, and her ultimate destruction of Frank is an unwanted side-effect – there’s no malicious calculation involved. Where Simmons really excelled was in her portrayal of the brittleness of the character; her every gesture is suggestive of a young woman tiptoeing around the rim of a moral abyss. Mitchum of course was a past master by this stage at playing the kind of weary types who had bid farewell to hope long ago. The deceptive sleepiness and detachment he’s often accused of perfectly suits the character here – a disillusioned veteran half adrift in a world that he only thinks he’s got a handle on. The supporting cast all do fine work too, the highlights being: Herbert Marshall’s dissipated joviality, Barbara O’Neil’s cool take on the society matron, and Leon Ames as the twisty, unctuous lawyer.

Angel Face is available on DVD via Warner Brothers in the US, and the disc sports a very nice transfer. Everything’s crisp and clean and Harry Stradling’s cinematography always looks good. The DVD also carries a commentary by noir specialist Eddie Muller. Otto Preminger’s noir films are all worthwhile, classy efforts. This one may have had something of a sour background but what we see on screen is hard to fault. For me, the performance of Jean Simmons in a difficult and demanding role is the best thing about it all, but that’s just the icing on the cake. I reckon it’s a must see film noir.

33 thoughts on “Angel Face

    • Without wanting to get into major spoilers, I know what you mean Jenni. I would say though that I didn’t really notice this on my initial viewing – I was too stunned not only by what had taken place but by its abruptness.


          • Haven’t seen this for ages . Must catch up with it again.
            I love Jean Simmons in The Big Country. ( and am reminded of your fine review)
            Would also like to see A Bullet is Waiting which she did with Stephen McNally and Rory Calhoun. Do you know this western?


            • Oh yes, I’m familiar with A Bullet is Waiting and may well feature it at some point. It’s what we could call a modern western I guess. I have the film on a DVD from Spain, full frame sadly. It’s also available as a MOD disc in the US. I also noticed it’s getting a release in Italy here, in what is supposed to be widescreen format.


  1. Great post Colin – the Preminger Noirs are a great little group (do we include DAISY KENYON? I usually so …) – this is probably the one, after LAURA, that I remember best, not least for that wonderfully bizarre ending – once seen, never forgotten!


  2. With a cast that included Jean Simmons and Robert Mitchum, “Angel Face” was a memorable film noir that presented a surprising conclusion; one that, upon reflection, was most appropriate for the genre.

    I am a great admirer of Miss Simmons and her acting achievements. She played a similar
    “unstable” role in Mervyn LeRoy’s ” Home Before Dark” (1958) for which she was nominated in 1959 for “Best Motion Picture Actress – Drama” in both the ” Golden Globe” and “Golden Laurel”

    As usual, Colin, you have provided a thoughtful and articulate review. Thank you.


  3. Nicely done. As a big Mitchum fan I have of course seen this film on more than one occasion but for some reason never find it that enthralling. Like Simmons as well. A true beauty. I guess I just prefer Mitch in some of his other Noir’s. His bio from Lee Server is a must read!


    • Although Mitchum is regarded as a major noir actor Mike, I actually think he probably did better work in westerns. I guess in this film the spotlight is largely on Simmons though.

      And yes, Lee Server’s biography is very good – thorough, informative and highly readable.


  4. Excellent review, Colin. Thanks, as always.

    You touched briefly on the impact that Howard Hughes had on the output of RKO Studios and it is a really interesting period of change for that great studio. I always think the RKO peak years were about 1935-50 approx although “Angel Face” comes a little after that of course. Those peak years though contained some of my all-time favourite movies, a higher ratio than maybe any other major studio. The greatest films noir are among ’em and of course they produced some of the absolute best B-westerns ever (George O’Brien, then Tim Holt).

    Then Hughes and his vanity projects….. Everything went off the boil at that point for me. Pity.


    • Quite. The output of RKO in its glory days stands up well today. Some of the Hughes era productions are quite fun but it was a messy period of decline for a once great studio.


  5. Nicely reviewed, Colin. I can scarcely recall seeing a Mitchum or Simmons film though I’ve been reading reviews of Mitchum’s westerns on some blogs. Thanks for the insight into some of the directorial elements of the film. How realistic was the slap that it’d Jean Simmons in tears?


    • Thanks Prashant. Mitchum was a great but seriously undervalued actor; even yet there are those who would try to argue he was mediocre. The truth is he was an expert minimalist who was well aware that “less is more” when it comes to screen acting. If you’re not familiar with his movies, and the same goes for Jean Simmons, then there’s a real treasure trove of stuff waiting for you to discover.

      The slap in the movie? Well according to Server’s bio, the first take saw Mitchum fake it and pull the blow. Preminger insisted he do it again for real. The director still wasn’t satisfied and made the actors do the scene repeatedly until Simmons virtually broke down and Mitchum blew up.


  6. I especially appreciated your sensitive thoughts about the kind of character Diane is, not the usual femme fatale at all. I share that response to her and it’s reflected in an entry I wrote for DEFINING MOMENTS IN MOVIES about what is arguably the film’s peak sequence–“Diane wanders through the empty house.”

    This is a superb movie, pretty near the top of Preminger, who can claim overall a very rich body of films. I can only echo what you and others have said about Jean Simmons–she was someone who I saw a lot through the 50s, my key formative early years going to movies, and meant a lot to me then and still does, so beautiful and a wonderful actress too.

    And yes, Howard Hughes ran RKO into the ground–and that’s pretty sad. Along the way, he did some really unforgivable things, especially his treatment of Josef von Sternberg (JET PILOT and MACAO are the only two movies signed “von Sternberg” that I don’t like). But of course, nothing is ever quite so neat as one might like it to be. It appears he saved Nicholas Ray from the blacklist, for one thing, and of two great films produced by the Wald/Krasna unit during Hughes’ tenure (Fritz Lang’s CLASH BY NIGHT is the other), Ray’s THE LUSTY MEN is one of my three favorite movies of all time. And with the infinitely subtle Robert Mitchum starring in this too, I might add.


    • Thanks Blake. I’ll have to dig out the book and check out the entry, I’ve really only dipped into it now and again. The sequence you’re referring to is very well realized. There’s a dreamy, ethereal quality to that latter section of the movie as a whole (before the shock ending) and Simmons is a big part of what makes it work. There’s something very close to wounded innocence in her performance, as though the enormity of her actions has finally shattered the immature shell that surrounded her up to that point.

      The business of Hughes and his influence at RKO is as fascinating as it’s tragic. As you correctly state, not all of his actions were negative but the bad choices and interference were significant enough to finish off the studio.


      • Colin
        Just took in the director’s ANATOMY OF A MURDER for the first time. Due to its long runtime it never comes up on tv. A pal sent me a copy and I loved it. Have you seen it? (probably everyone but me has seen it.


        • Not watched it for a few years now but I agree it’s a remarkable film. It must have been very frank at the time and Preminger handles the whole thing superbly.


  7. Pingback: A Bullet Is Waiting | Riding the High Country

  8. Pingback: Whirlpool | Riding the High Country

  9. Pingback: Tension | Riding the High Country

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.