The story goes something like this: When Beverly Hills ambulance driver Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) and Bill (Kenneth Tobey) respond to a call at the Tremayne residence, they find that Mrs. Tremayne (Barbara O'Neil) has been poisoned. Jessup meets Mr. Tremayne's (Herbert Marshall) daughter by his first wife, Diane (Jean Simmons), who becomes infatuated with him and begins her pursuit of him. Under her influence, Frank soon becomes the Tremaynes' chauffeur, but he begins to suspect that he is in danger, and eventually she destroys Frank's relationship with his girfriend, Mary (Mona Freeman), who starts seeing Bill. When the Tremaynes are killed in a not-so-accidental car-plunging-over-the-cliff incident, Diane's lawyer convinces the two to marry as this will hopefully enable them to beat the rap. Successful in this, the two return to the Tremayne home but Frank wants no part of Diane. Their relationship comes to a shocking and destructive finish.
What a brilliant movie!! There is a moment in Angel Face, the classic film noir directed by Otto Preminger, when the viewer realizes that Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum), the film's prize chump, has fallen in too deep and the night curtain is about to come down. The scene occurs when Frank is alone in his room, and is trying to hook up with his true love, Mary (Mona Freeman). Mary is out with another guy and Mitchum proceeds to loosen his tie, take a long drag on his cigarette, and allows the coffin nail to hang from his lips as he gazes into the abyss with a stark, haunted, and hopeless expression. He then loosens his tie a bit more.
In what I believe is one of Mitchum's final performance in film noir, he portrays the doomed man with such down-home style and with a subdued attitude in his manner, that it is easy to see how he becomes infatuated with Jean Simmons's Diane Tremayne, and thus becomes just another patsy fated to suffer and die, as many film noir heroes (I use the term here, but more on that later) do. The dichotomy of the two women in Angel Face - the good and safe Mary (Mona Freeman) and the evil, not-so-innocent Diane (Jean Simmons) - is one that is typical of film noir and the manner in which femmes fatale are brought to the fore, but here director Preminger takes things a step further. The fascination that the lower-class Frank develops for the spoiled, wealthy Diane not only evokes the traditional noir motivations of sex and money, but also the danger of obsessive relationships. Preminger's style of imagery and the haunting music score by Dmitiri Tiomkin highlights the differences between the two women, as the moody Diane likes to sit at her piano and play almost dirge-like pieces, while the vibrant Mary is given more brightly lit shots and somewhat upbeat music.
Jean Simmons's role of Diane bears commenting on a bit more here, too. Angel Face, the title of the movie is steeped in irony, the bitter and cold kind. 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’s Diane is in some ways an atypical femme fatale. 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 film 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 no real friends to speak of, Diane is a truly resentful, forlorn figure. 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.
Yet oddly enough, Mitchum’s Frank Jessup is an archetypal Preminger noir homme. He's a rational man enticed and ultimately destroyed by an irrational woman. Nevertheless, Jessup is no prize himself, with his non-committal attitudes towards love and 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.
While the film was largely unappreciated on its initial release, Angel Face has grown steadily in its reputation. This film is a coolly complex psychological noir highlighted by Simmons’s often thoroughly despicable, falsely angelic femme fatale. It is well worth viewing, and features a vicious climax that is simple, shocking, and totally alluring.
The DVD also features a superb commentary by film noir historian Eddie Muller, who relates a great Mitchum anecdote: Preminger, in his sadistic glory, had Mitchum repeatedly slap Simmons harder and harder in take after take. Finally, at the end of his rope, Mitchum, when prompted by Preminger to slap Simmons yet again, instead turned around and, slapping the surprised Preminger with full force, inquired, "Is that the way you want it, Otto?" Priceless!
Overall, I give this film a 9.0 out of 10. It is not perfect noir, but it comes pretty close to it.