Angel Face

by Glenn Erickson Jul 04, 2023

There’s a new name for ‘Murder’: Diane Tremayne. Few noirs put the blame on Mame more firmly than Otto Preminger’s All-in-the-Family tale of cold-blooded killing. RKO’s star Robert Mitchum is excellent as a mellow guy blinded by romance, but Jean Simmons’ warm / icy performance brings it all to life. The behind-the-scenes production story surely added to her emotional authenticity — all she had to do is pretend that her victim was Howard Hughes. This winner benefits from a terrific shocking finale, plus a creepy music score from Dimitri Tiomkin.

Angel Face
Warner Archive Collection
1952 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 92 min. / Available at MovieZyng / Street Date June 27, 2023 / 21.99
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Mona Freeman, Herbert Marshall, Leon Ames, Barbara O’Neil, Kenneth Tobey, Jim Backus, Theresa Harris.
Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Art Director: Albert S. D’Agostino, Carroll Clark
Film Editor: Frederic Knudtson
Original Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Screenplay by Oscar Millard, Frank Nugent story by Chester Erskine
Produced and Directed by
Otto Preminger

A low-key, unusually tense domestic noir,  Angel Face checks the ‘excellent’ box in several categories. It’s a top-rank Otto Preminger film, the last of his string of early noir thrillers that began with 1944’s Laura. A solid entryfrom Robert Mitchum’s RKO period, it co-stars the impressive London import Jean Simmons. The new disc can boast a fine Eddie Muller audio commentary, which covers the film’s eye-opening production stories — it’s a key picture for behind-the-scenes intrigues at Howard Hughes’s RKO.

In story terms Angel Face follows the same vague lines as Double Indemnity. Both examine quiet murder in the Hollywood Hills, where it’s altogether too easy to succumb to temptation. Robert Mitchum’s Ordinary Joe is not a schemer, just ambitious. He knows a good opportunity when he sees it. Some people live better than others, and get to follow their dreams instead of punching a clock. What’s wrong with that?


Ambulance driver Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) meets the wealthy and beautiful Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons) while on a call to tend to her stepmother Catherine (Barbara O’Neill), who may have tried to commit suicide. Frank quits his job and strays from his fiancée Mary Wilton (Mona Freeman) to become the Tremayne’s chauffeur — and be close to Diane. The longer he hangs around, the more he realizes that Diane despises Catherine and idolizes her father Charles (Herbert Marshall). But Frank is blinded by twin desires — his attraction to Diane and the better living he could have in her house on the hill.

Robert Mitchum’s films seem to fall into two categories: those to which he commits himself as an actor, and the ones he cruises through on autopilot. For every masterful Mitchum performance there are two ‘look handsome and say the lines’ efforts. He was highly motivated by Jacques Tourneur’s  Out of the Past, Charles Laughton’s  The Night of the Hunter and David Lean’s  Ryan’s Daughter. But in  My Forbidden Past,  Foreign Intrigue and Robert Aldrich’s  The Angry Hills, he looks bored out of his skull.

Angel Face belongs in the motivated category. Mitchum’s dour anti-hero can’t help but fall in love with a woman who has everything. The war stalled Frank’s ambitions as a professional race car driver and his postwar need to earn a buck delayed them further. He’s had to settle for driving an ambulance in Beverly Hills. He already has a steady girl in ambulance dispatcher Mary, but she pales against the vision of a future with Diane Tremayne, that could end Frank’s workaday blues and put him back in the racing business.


Otto Preminger’s Angel Face examinesFrank’s values but avoids outright moral judgments, a trait typical of the director’s later dramatic epics:  Anatomy of a Murder,   Advise and Consent,   In Harm’s Way. Frank follows the line of least resistance and doesn’t sweat the details. He first catches sight of Diane as she broods at the piano. He all but ghosts his fiancée, the steady girl back down the hill. What was her name again?

Diane Tremayne is broodingly attractive, not obviously deranged. She kills not for money but as an expression of mad love for her father Charles, a famous author — life was perfect until stepmother Catherine came into the picture. Father and daughter have already formed a petty conspiracy against Catherine, making disrespectful jokes about her addiction to bridge games. Diane also blames Catherine for Charles’ cessation of writing since their marriage. When Catherine almost dies from asphyxiation in her bedroom, even Frank can see that something is off-balance in the family dynamics. If the police suspect that the incident wasn’t accidental — attempted suicide or attempted murder — they keep it to themselves. The Tremaynes’ wealth intimidates them, and they do nothing.

In its own way Angel Face is a less strident variation on the Dreiser / George Stevens A Place in the Sun. Mitchum’s Frank Jessup is less miserable as Montgomery Clift’s George Eastman, but his problem is similar: staying with a workaday grind is impossible when one has a shot at Easy Street. Frank’s optimism leads him to overlook subtle warning signs from Diane Tremayne — does he really think her questions about car transmissions indicate an interest in his racing plans?


Otto Preminger’s direction is near-flawless. Dynamic blocking expresses the psychology between characters without resorting to bald exposition. Even the topography is important. The money is up in the hills, but it’s  a bleak-looking area without many trees. In the third act’s murder trial, defense attorney Leon Ames’ courtroom games are a cool replay of the cynical manipulations seen in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Preminger reduces defendant Diane and Frank to minor players in this bigger arena of scandal and legal showmanship. They watch silently as a phony ploy extricates them from the consequences of their acts: to win the sympathy of the jury, their lawyer has had them submit to a jailhouse marriage.

Unlike some Noir femmes fatale, Diane derives no pleasure from her crimes, only misery and solitude. Poor Frank underestimates her every step of the way, unaware that he takes 3rd or 4th place in the things she loves. His shallow opportunism is best expressed when he lamely tries to return to his old girlfriend. The sensible Mary sends him packing: she has taken up with Frank’s fellow ambulance driver Bill (Kenneth Tobey,  a mate that won’t stray at every new opportunity. Frank’s a special kind of Noir protagonist in that he’s handsome, self-possessed, ambitious — and a total loser.


The surprise ending is a violent, disproportionate payback that comes out of nowhere. Audiences usually react violently as well — it’s like being punched in the stomach. The scene been repurposed more than once for later movies, notably Kurt Neumann’s She Devil (1957). But Angel Face’s key moment arrives a little earlier on. A music + performance set piece, it parallels the iconic scene in director Preminger’s Laura, the famous ‘I’m in love with a dead woman’s portrait’ scene. Diane has schemed herself into a Dark Corner from which there is no escape. At age 22, Jean Simmons shows that she can command a film just by wandering through the empty rooms of the house, contemplating the knowledge that she’s doomed herself to isolation

The scene is also a mini-concert opportunity for composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who lets his theremin run wild, underscoring the ironic tragedy. Tiomkin was sometimes encouraged to go too far — we’re thinking of his occasionally ‘too big’ cues for Rudolph Maté’s excellent noir D.O.A made two years previous. The eerie music here matches the operatic tone of the finale.



The Warner Archive Collection’s excellent remaster of Blu-ray of Angel Face brings out the creepy atmosphere in Harry Stradling’s B&W cinematography. The improved audio lets us better appreciate Dimitri Tiomkin’s swooning, delirious score, motivated by Diane’s moody piano recital.

Repeated from the 2007 DVD is Eddie Muller’s sharp commentary. It mixes an analysis of the film — he points out the emphasis placed on money and the female-dominated relationships — with a production tale that belongs in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. Already experienced in show biz, young Jean Simmons was as rugged in person as some of her characters on-screen. Upon arrival in Hollywood she actively resisted Howard Hughes’s effort to make her into a personal possession. Angel Face came about as part of a legal settlement to exit her RKO contract. Hughes retaliated against Simmons’ rejection by making the production as miserable as possible for her. One abusive ploy was to submit her to endless hairstyle and hair color ‘tests.’ To put a stop to the harassment, Simmons chopped her own hair off with shears — necessitating that wigs be made.

(Curiously, although the wig seems very natural on Ms. Simmons, it also reminds us of Jean Brooks’s hairstyle in the Val Lewton classic The Seventh Victim — another dark look for a similar dark, unstable woman.)

The harassment continued during filming. Simmons’ costar Robert Mitchum became an ally in the fight against Hughes, and also against director Preminger, who was already notorious for enforcing his power on the set by verbally abusing his actors. One scripted scene called for Frank to slap Diane. When Preminger insisted that the slap be real, Mitchum at first did as he was instructed. But Preminger asked for take after take, until Mitchum decided that enough was enough. He turned and slapped Preminger instead — hard. That set off some studio fireworks . . .

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Angel Face
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplement: Audio commentary by Eddie Muller.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)

Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
June 29, 2023

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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