Angel Face (1953)
, produced and directed by Otto Preminger.
An ex-soldier, now a paramedic, wants nothing more than to become a race car mechanic and maybe settle down with his girl. When he meets the intense rich girl who drives a Jaguar and hates her stepmother, well what's a guy to do in a story where powerful women drive the plot?
This is just six years after Out of the Past (1947)
The look is the same:
...but the plot has turned over into something entirely new. Just as Hamlet found himself in a revenge story he wanted to escape, so Robert Mitchum understands that he's in Double Indemnity (1944)
and doesn't want to play the Walter Neff part.
How do you escape film noir doom and evade the lures of the femme fatale? Don't play the game. He tells her:
I don't pretend to know what goes on behind that pretty little face of yours -- I don't want to. But I learned one thing very early. Never be the innocent bystander -- that's the guy that always gets hurt. If you want to play with matches, that's your business. But not in gas-filled rooms -- that's not only dangerous, it's stupid.
And he packs his bags. Well, he can't actually get away. Partly it's his own fault, partly his "I just can't win" destiny.
Something else is new: she has regrets and tries to confess, sacrificing herself for him. That's not allowed, either. Neither can win.
Dimitri Tiomkin tragic, cascading piano score permeates the film, wonderfully accenting a strange late sequence where Jean Simmons wanders from room to room in the empty mansion, life now without meaning. Tiomkin was a pianist and is very strong with this type of score. I hear hints of it in later Morricone music.
The story is efficiently told, one of Preminger's skills. It bogs down in a standard courtroom scene; I wish they would just cut to the summing up and verdict for those sequences. The final moments of the film are a bit "abrupt".
The film has a backstory: briefly, RKO head Howard Hughes bought Jean Simmons's contract, that being his method of buying women. Neither she nor husband Stewart Granger found the idea very appealing and took him to court. As a settlement she would do three films for RKO, wisely stipulating they had to be done by a certain date, else he would have strung her out for years.
So, the deadline was approaching with 18 days left to make another picture. Hughes got Preminger because (a) he worked quickly, and (b) was a tyrant on set and would be his tool for punishing Simmons. It was an unpleasant experience.
Available on DVD with a fun commentary track by author Eddie Muller. He says:
- Famously, part of Simmons' punishment was being slapped take after take by Mitchum, who got tired of it and turned around and belted the director a good one. "Is that how you want it, Otto?"
- Preminger immediately went to Hughes and insisted Mitchum be fired. Didn't happen.
- Mitchum became protective of Simmons and you can see this in their chemistry. He offered to rough up the director some more if he didn't lay off her. I imagine this made for a chilly working relationship, but they made River of No Return (1954) the next year. Another difficult project and Marilyn Monroe hated doing it.
- Preminger messed with Simmons' hair so much that she finally cut it off with shears and wore a wig for the film.
- Decades later she was unable to sit through a showing. Still too painful.
- Muller discusses the theories of why the femme fatale villain became so prominent during this period. Some have said it was the returning veterans' resentment of women who had taken their jobs during the War. He points out the characters already existed in fiction before the war and thinks it is more of a class distinction. None of the prominent femme fatales work for a living; the Good Girls all have jobs and have their heads screwed on right.
My own thoughts: I wonder if it wasn't actually a desire for more sexual equality. Women were traditionally portrayed as more passive; if both men and women wanted that to change ("step up, make an effort, put some passion into it") then a fantasy of the powerfully alluring dangerous woman might appear.
Or, it's just a masochistic desire to be betrayed and punished.