Conceived simply as an instrument of Howard Hughes' revenge, "Angel Face"'s perverse production history and mundane plotting yielded a disquieting cult classic in the deft hands of director Otto Preminger. Actress Jean Simmons had successfully sued Hughes to get out of a 7-year contract but still owed RKO a movie. Not one to let bygones be bygones, Hughes pulled an unexceptional script out of the vaults and plied Preminger to direct, promising him full creative control. It was the sort of "murder drama" that we now call "film noir", already rapidly losing appeal in the early 1950s. Preminger's rewrites, a low budget, 18 shooting days, a mission to make life miserable for Jean Simmons, and bodily conflict between Preminger and star Robert Mitchum produced a film that is not especially memorable for its story but whose eerie, disturbing undertones make it unforgettable.
Ambulance driver Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) is called to the Tremayne mansion when Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O'Neil) nearly asphyxiates from a gas leak in her bedroom. Her husband Charles (Hebert Marshall) and police speculate on how the accident may have occurred, but Catherine believes that someone tried to kill her. After a brief flirtation with Catherine's oddly unstable stepdaughter Diane (Jean Simmons), Frank heads back to the station. Diane impulsively follows, easily convincing Frank to beg off his evening with girlfriend Mary (Mona Freeman). Frank sees a lot of Diane, an idle, rich young woman who idolizes her doting novelist father and jealously despises her stepmother. She gets Frank a job as Tremayne family chauffeur. She connives to come between him and Mary. She lies. She dramatizes. Frank sees through her. But, intrigued by Diane's' lifestyle and flattered by her neediness, he goes along anyway.
Maybe the on-set strife and cruelty informed "Angel Face"'s perverse psychology. Neither profound nor clever, Diane's clumsy machinations and Frank's submission pack an emotional wallop. Diane is trouble all right, but not a classic noir femme fatale. Her motives are entirely emotional -insecurity, instability, infatuation. Her scheming is childish and transparent. Frank Jessup, very much in noir protagonist form, is foolish enough to entangle himself in it. The film is elevated by careful, though certainly cliched, writing of the supporting characters, who provide the circumstances from which Frank and Diane's self-destruction emerges: Diane's burned-out, free-spending father and indulgent stepmother. Frank's pragmatic, hard-working girlfriend. Diane barely in control of her devastating behavior and Frank thoroughly in control to no avail make a lasting impression.
The DVD (Warner 2007): There is a nice audio commentary by film noir historian Eddie Muller, who obviously admires the film. He discusses themes, Robert Mitchum's noir archetypes, the film's structure, refutes the idea of the femme fatale as a reaction to post-war working women, and provides a lot of background information on the motives, rewrites, and conflict behind "Angel Face". Subtitles for the film are available in English. Dubbing is available in French.