“Angel eyes, that old devil sent
They glow unbearably bright
Need I say that my love’s misspent
Misspent with angel eyes tonight…”
In the late ’40s and early ’50s, Robert Mitchum was under contract to the Howard Hughes-owned RKO-Radio Pictures, starring in a series of film noir classics like 1947’s Out of the Past and Where Danger Lives (1950). 1952’s Angel Face is one of the last great noirs he did for the studio, co-starring with buxom British-born starlet Jean Simmons.
Simmons, too, was under contract to RKO, but had been stuck in a series of terrible films, mostly lame costume pictures, allegedly because she wouldn’t let Hughes have his way with her. Since ol’ Howie liked to use his female contract players as his own private harem, he did not appreciate Miss Simmons’ refusal to put out. His control over her career nearing an end, he finally gave her a decent part in 1952’s Angel Face, while at the same time subjecting her to the notoriously imperious direction of Otto Preminger.
The script, from a story by Chester Erskine, written by Oscar Millard, Frank S. Nugent, and an uncredited Ben Hecht, has Mitchum playing Frank Jessup, a not-too-bright former stock car racer working as an ambulance driver. He crosses paths with troubled heiress Diane Tremayne, when he comes to her home to revive her stepmother, who has nearly asphyxiated when the gas fireplace in her bedroom malfunctions.
Despite the fact that he’s already got a swell gal named Mary, a night nurse at the hospital, played by the lovely Mona Freeman, Mitchum falls under the spell of novice femme fatale Simmons. He blows off his cute steady to go dancing with the poor little rich girl. What a guy.
Mitchum’s usual laconic presence and natural charisma will have you rooting for his character, even if that character is somewhat shiftless, a bit thick, and a heel to boot. As was often the case in the movies in which Mitchum appeared following his conviction and brief incarceration on marijuana possession charges in 1949, he plays a self-serving, amoral character whose passive, what-the-hell attitude gets him into hot water.
Before long, he has been convinced by the well-stacked but completely nutso heiress to to quit his ambulance-driving job to take a gig as the Tremayne family chauffeur. She then tries to enlist his help in offing her hated stepmother, but he declines, not wanting to end up taking the rap on a murder beef. He starts to finally get the picture, that this over-privileged dish with the angel face is in the fact the devil in disguise, a one-way ticket to the gas chamber. Unfortunately, circumstances conspire against him when she decides to take matters into her own hands, and, inevitably, tragedy ensues.
The over-the-top courtroom scenes pitting high-priced mouthpiece Leon Ames against stuffed shirt D.A. Jim Backus (better known as Thurston Howell III from “Gilligan’s Island” and the voice of Mr. Magoo) are highly entertaining, if lacking in verisimilitude. In other words, they’re not exactly “Law & Order,” but they are a lot more fun.
Preminger keeps things moving, and gets great performances out of the leads, as well as the stellar supporting cast, particularly Ames as the unscrupulous attorney and Herbert Marshall as Simmons’s ne’er-do-well father. The ending is highly absurd, but not at all inconsistent with the heightened reality of the film itself.
Mitchum and Simmons would re-team for 1954’s She Couldn’t Say No, a whimsical romantic comedy not in the same league as this feverish film noir gem. Angel Face has now been restored for the DVD edition, preserving the film’s original aspect ratio and featuring an illuminating commentary track by film historian Eddie Muller. Simmons passed away last month at the age of 80.
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