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Angel Face
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by Jay Seaver

"Great noir with disaster in plain sight."
5 stars

It's not a hard-and-fast rule, but one thing that many films noirs have in common - especially if the viewer knows going in that the film has been tagged as part such - is that you can see disaster coming. The specific way and moment it arrives may be a shock, but make no mistake, the protagonist is doomed, and half those in the audience will grudgingly admit that the temptation may have been irresistible. Trouble announces itself faster and more clearly than usual in "Angel Face", and that's part of what makes it a fine example of the genre.

Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) should know better; a race car drive before the war and behind the when of an ambulance now, it's the very end of his shift when he takes a call to the home of writer Charles Tremayne (Herbert Marshall) when his wife Catherine (Barbara O'Neil) nearly dies from a gas leak in her room. On the way out, he meets Charles's 20-year-old daughter Diane (Jean Simmons), who wastes no time getting into her little sports car, meeting Frank at a diner near the hospital, and offering him a better-passing job as the family chauffeur which could also lead to an investment in the garage he dreams of opening. That it gives her plenty of time to try and seduce him away from his lovely girlfriend Mary (Mona Freeman) is not lost on anybody, but just because you see the disaster coming...

From the very first scene, it's clear that something isn't right, and watching the film 60-odd years after its original release may add an unintended but intriguing level of misdirection to the opening: Though it's painfully clear how unlikely the "accident" story all of the men coming to Catherine's aid agree upon its, it initially looks like they're perhaps not willing to consider mental health problems on top of not taking a woman's concerns seriously. It's more than soft chauvinism, of course, and the situation becomes even more clear when Diane visits Mary and cheerfully lays out that she intends to insinuate herself into their lives, as a friend, of course. Later, Frank will see the mess he's gotten himself into, but he'll let it go until too late.

Why? As attractive as Diane may be, Frank's tragic flaw isn't the need to feel wanted by someone young and pretty; he's already got that from Mary. No, the characters seem to place far too much value on the power and usefulness of honesty and everyone knowing the score. With the rivalries in the Tremayne household out in the open, everyone thinks they are immune, while Frank takes Mary for granted, assuming that her knowing their situations means that nothing changes. That this dependence on honesty means a well-deployed lie or two can sabotage everything is not even necessarily the film's greatest tragedy; that comes toward the end when both Frank and Diane find that seeing the record straight is not going to do a damn but of good - confession is not good for the soul, and the truth will most certainly not set you free.

One would think Frank would know this by now, and maybe he does, but the possibilities Diane holds out are too tempting. Robert Mitchum gives Frank the blue-collar masculinity that was his calling-card for much of his career, finding the level where the man's selfish actions don't quite make him a lost cause. He may be trapped by his own ego, but Mitchum makes sure that Frank is never really close to arrogant enough that the audience enjoys seeing him laid low - he's just ambitious enough to be misdirected, maybe even decent enough to earn a sort of redemption in some movies.

Jean Simmons doesn't feel quite so natural as Diane - she's a little too in her diction and movement compared to Mitchum's gruff naturalism - but over the course of the film, she becomes all the more intriguing. Though just adult enough that the film isn't about Frank being seduced by a schoolgirl, she's more fille fatale than femme, smart enough to spin a web but primarily motivated but a girl's impetuousness, a brat so spoiled as to almost be a monster, and is the "almost" that makes her intriguing toward the end as she seems to struggle too late with an understanding of the world beyond her desires. She's not the good woman who has gone bad after a life of disappointment, but the unformed one whose understanding is lagging her capabilities.

The film is clearly about those two above the others, but it's nice to see that the rest of the characters aren't entirely there to serve purposes in their story. The elder Tremaynes, for instance, could be cynical constructs, but their scenes away from Frank and Diane are endearing, though not idyllic. Mona Freeman is never sick as the sort of girlfriend who barely seems to exist when not around Frank, and though there's potentially something very cringe-worthy about her last scene with Frank and others with her alternate suitor - what initially looks like another example of honesty not necessarily being compatriot a virtue ultimately becomes a callback to the film's first scenes as director Otto Preminger and the screenwriters remind the audience that, despite the feeling of inevitability, Frank did not arrive at the scene alone and that others made different decisions.

It's a nice touch in a movie full of them, especially since it's not particularly heavy-handed. Preminger and his collaborators don't always go for subtlety, and while most of the times they signal their intentions are pretty good, there's a clunky courtroom sequence with a member of the jury questioning witnesses that threatens to sink the movie's second half. There are tons to like about the trial, though. It follows in the wake of a bit of violence that not only comes a bit earlier than one might expect - things still seem to simmering rather than boiling over - but is almost exaggeratedly vicious, the sort of thing where one might expect a 1950s movie to show just enough to make its point instead of lingering for emphasis. And while Preminger is maybe not going to show a twisted, mangled corpse in 1952, bringing a wrecked car's workings into the courtroom and practically performing an autopsy on it makes a surprisingly intense substitute.

It's something that, again, lays everything that's going on right out there in front of the audience and makes it seem like the inevitable result of the machinations involved. "Angel Face" has been described as a fairy tale, and while I may see it more as a tragedy, there's just enough free will involved to make it something even better. It's a fantastic film noir that quickly gets even better with a little consideration, a genuine classic.

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originally posted: 11/20/15 11:59:48
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  19-Jan-1953 (PG)

  N/A (PG)

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