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Angel Face

Jean Simmons in Otto Preminger's Angel Face, 1953



The story of how Angel Face came to be made is so unusual it is well worth retelling. It all began with Howard Hughes’ determination, after falling out with Jean Simmons, to get the most out of the brief time left before her RKO contract expired. It is said that, knowing the studio boss and magnate’s predilection for luxuriant hair, the actress had cut hers radically short. After buying a script loosely based on a news story about an evil young woman, Hughes asked Zanuck (then on his payroll) to find him a director who could shoot the film in 18 days – the exact amount of time left on Jean Simmons’s contract. Zanuck immediately thought of his long-time friend Otto Preminger who he knew had nothing on at Fox at the time.

After reading the script, the director responded:

“Howard, I hate your story; please don’t make me do this film”.

“Howard” was a very persuasive man and found arguments to get Preminger to makeAngel Face. Used to meticulous pre-production planning, having a script go through several rewrites, and exhaustively rehearsing his cast, Preminger ended up taking what was for him a highly unorthodox – and never to be repeated – approach: as he described it, every night he, along with two screenwriters, wrote the script for the following day’s shoot. None of which detracts from the fact that the film’s narrative and themes are fully consistent with his other work. Even in a story in which the dark side of the intrigue is embodied in a single character, Preminger managed to muddy the waters, with multiple points of view and camera moves that embrace a plurality of positions. To which the actors under contract to Howard Hughes give added value. Jean Simmons and Robert Mitchum (who was to work with the director twice more) played completely against type (she, as fragile as china, he, rock-solid) with her now as deus ex-machina, while he is indecisive and helplessly in thrall, and Herbert Marshall and Barbara O’ Neil in effective counterpoint as the Tremayne couple.

From a Mephistopholes-like story Angel Face became an account of an impossible couple, that also relates to an equally impossible father-daughter relationship (prefiguring the relationship depicted in Bonjour Tristesse). As in the other films, the psychoanalytical implications are obvious, and give the noir a modernist aspect that contrasts with its more classical narrative structure. As in Fallen AngelWhirlpool and Bunny Lake, here too the mise en scène revolves around a (doubly) frustrated desire: to reunite with the father and to find a substitute for him. Preminger is a director who specialises in frustrated relationships: but unlike his peers his mise en scène is not intended to reconcile opposed positions, but rather tends to create a void around his characters, epitomising a discomfiture that goes beyond a merely narrative dimension. Even in the depiction of a potential romance, something in the construction of filmic space underlines the provisional nature of the situation. This is also because in his vision men and women occupy equal space and hence every attempt of either to possess the other is doomed to failure. Even when, as here, the casting makes clear who is pulling the strings and who is being manipulated, there is always a stab at independence that frustrates the attempt. Like Laura – the archetypal Preminger female character, and the voice-over narration that tells the story of her own death – Diana Tremayne is both the guilty party and a victim of her own desires and actions. A femme fatale who toys with deceiving her victim but finally ends up a casualty of her own manipulations.

In Preminger’s autobiography he recounts how Hughes got him into his noisy Chevrolet to tell him about the project. As if by imprint, the film’s soundtrack is punctuated by the sounds of cars, ambulance sirens – in the brilliant opening nocturnal sequence – to that of the sports car driven by Diane. Far more than a simple prop, the car functions as an additional character. Reversing the automobile’s conventional role as means or accessory in the hands of the male protagonist, it becomes a mirror with which Diane dazzles and attracts Frank. It is she who kisses him, it is she who gets her hands dirty with the car’s engine to convert it from means of transport to instrument of death … If the angel face recalls the young girl hidden inside every woman, the car reminds us of the complex mechanisms that a polished outward appearance can sometimes conceal.

Carlo Chatrian

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