Angel Face (Otto Preminger, 1953)

by Douglas Buck December 11, 2017 5 minutes (1179 words) 16mm Cinémathèque québécoise, part of the Films noirs, films d’angoisse series

“You know something? You’re a pretty nice guy – for a gal.”

-Jeff (Robert Mitchum) trying to win good girl Mary (Mona Freeman) back after a fling with the emotionally unstable rich girl Mona (Jean Simmons)

Gotta say, while the CQ’s films noir series is nowhere near exhaustive (it’s a pinch of Hitchcock, a dab of Lang, a sprinkle of Preminger and Ray and voilà!), at least they picked all cream from what was an abundantly fertile genre crop (or perhaps ‘stylistic’ crop, rather than ‘genre’ – depends on which noir scholar you ask), a period of (mostly American/Hollywood) filmmaking that as important a filmmaker (and one-time critic smarty-pants who was a proponent of ‘film noir as style not a genre’) as Paul Schrader once called the most consistently high quality of any single period of Hollywood filmmaking (admittedly, I’m paraphrasing a bit as I can’t remember his exact words, but it’s pretty close to that). And you can quibble with the inclusion of Hitchcock’s engagingly clever and enjoyable passenger train-set murder mystery thriller The Lady Vanishes (1938) that neither fits the noir time frame (usually considered early 40’s to late 50’s), nor has the bleak, paranoid and cynical worldview (it’s just too fun for that!) or characters operating out of destructively sexual impulses; but, eh, it’s Hitch so tangentially it’s kinda there somehow (considering as he’d eventually make later films not only much more akin to noir, but also two masterpieces that acted as bridge movies between noir and the later established neo-noir, Vertigo and Marnie).

I guess you could say I’m a film purist, in that I still argue that there is an innate quality to the 24-frames a second flickering image experience and the inherent textured quality of the medium itself, with the limitations on things like contrast/lighting ratios creating a decidedly unique character that is different from even the best of digital; specific qualities and sets of characteristics that the great filmic artists at the time were designing their work for, not some later transfer over into much higher-resolution digital mediums. Saying that, it’s hard to argue the value of screening all of the films in this current series as 16mm dupes (not legitimate transfers), especially as there are some quality blu rays available of almost all of them. The sound was so intermittently muffled and warbly on the muddy You Only Live Once dupe it led to a number of the patrons hobbling out (it’s a Cinematheque, so the place isn’t exactly basking in youth!), to complain. So it’s not the best way to experience the works, and yet, for me, even with a number of these films on disc at home sitting on my shelves amongst any number of other choices that I may or may not get to, seeing them in the theater makes the choice sometimes for me (and I’m always happy about it)… while also allowing some of that communal experience that was once important to the cinema (though if I hear even a minor cackle from a nearby hyena, I grow immediately annoyed – count me amongst the aging and disgruntled, I guess). Or perhaps this is all just rational for my OCD behavior. Either way, I’m going to see them.

All to the point, even in muddy and muffled conditions (the only other time I saw Angel Face was on a really poor VHS copy, so it’s just a continuation of my experience with it), as a tale of obsession, shifting gender power dynamics (as referenced in the odd quote above and in tons of other wonderful lines throughout, as well as in all of the relationships in the film, whether it be the central triangle of Mitchum’s Jeff and his two broads or the bickering Asian servant couple, with the man in frustration over his newly empowered wife explaining to Jeff that the problem with America is it ‘spoils the women’) inherent class struggle (and envy), and sexual impulses driving the tale, Angel Face is a serious noir gem (even if it veers into a courtroom drama for its second act). Watching King of Cool (and I mean ‘busted for marijuana possession in 1948’ ahead of his time cool!) Robert Mitchum’s ambulance driver Jeff falling dangerously for a rich, dangerously impulsive girl and risking ruining his relationship (and future marriage) to the hard-working nurse (who is also beautiful, mind you) he’s with (It’s elite indulgence vs common middle class values! Exciting volatile desire vs stability and safety!), with the two competing females, over the course of the film, displaying surprising shadings of complexity and nuance not normally granted noir femmes, is a fascinating interplay. The great filmmaker Ingmar Berman once said he felt the inclusion of music in films was barbaric, and Angel Face is a perfect example of how little to no musical score in a film can add to the intimacy and drama, drawing an audience in further, demanding they to evaluate motivations and actions on their own, without the help of an orchestra emotionally leading them by the hand.

Freeman plays the ‘good’ marrying-type girl Mary (the name’s meaning is obvious) with a clear-eyed intelligent practicality. She’s no weak powder puff. She’s able to verbally spar at Jeff’s level, seeing his dishonesties and justifications more clearly than he does himself. She’s willing and able to find someone else if he doesn’t settle down with her. She even retains her sexuality (starting a relationship with Jeff’s ambulance co-worker friend – proving one thing – if you find yourself in a film noir type situation, remember, you can’t trust anyone! Not even your supposed best friend!). Perhaps most surprisingly (and powerfully), she doesn’t take Jeff back at the crucial moment he – and we — are expecting, even though she supports and stands by him during his trail for an eventual murder that he and Mona get mixed up in. Mona, the ‘bad’ girl with a serious Elektra complex (you know, wanting to kill step-mommy to have the love of daddy to herself), on the other hand, isn’t as manipulative and cruel as we first suspect… she even comes to recognize some of the things she has done wrong (including murder) and tries to clear Jeff (unlike, say Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Double Indemnity or even Jane Greer’s character in Out of the Past, which also had Robert Mitchum as that familiar noir male whose impulsive desires lead him down a path of destruction, even when he knows better).

Mona’s motivations ultimately come from a destructive emotional weakness and vulnerability … which Jeff fatally doesn’t recognize, leading to one of the most startlingly abrupt (and sensationalistically brutal) endings, lingering on destruction in a way that seems more reminiscent of a 70’s Corman exploitation film than anything I thought they could even get away with in a Hollywood film of the 50’s. And it’s crazy good.

_Angel Face_ (Otto Preminger, 1953)

This review is archived under the “Buck a Review” column, written by Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. To read more of Buck’s smart and snappy reviews, click on the column sidebar link.

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