Saturday, June 7, 2014


Director Otto Preminger was one of the chief architects of the post war cycle of American films that have come to be known as film noir. LAURA (1944) ranks as a bonafide masterpiece while such films as FALLEN ANGEL (1945), DAISY KENYON (1947), WHIRLPOOL (1949) and WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950) are all solid noirs and his hard-hitting, adult courtroom drama ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959) has noir undertones. His big, epic films include EXODUS (1960), ADVISE AND CONSENT (1962), THE CARDINAL (1963) and IN HARM'S WAY (1965).

Like many filmmakers, not everything Otto Preminger made was a great, or even a good film. His SKIDOO (1968) is a genuine wtf? movie that, while I haven't seen it, is widely regarded as his worst film. I submit that another contender for worst Preminger film is ANGEL FACE (1953), a noir starring Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons. My buddy Kelly Greene and I watched this one the other day and we were both left scratching our heads when it was over.

Produced at RKO studios by Howard Hughes, ANGEL FACE has pedigreed talent in front of and behind the camera. It's competently shot and acted but there's just nothing here, no surprises, no narrative twists, no "wow-that's-a-great-shot" moments, no suspense and no sense of urgency. It's leaden, almost glacial in it's pacing and the story is strictly by-the-numbers. If you're a film noir fan, you've seen all of this before and in better films.

Mitchum is an ambulance driver (along with partner Kenneth Tobey) who is called to a palatial Beverly Hills mansion one night. A woman (Mona Freeman) has been overcome by gas but was it a failed suicide attempt or something sinister? Herbert Marshall is Freeman's husband, a blocked novelist, whose beautiful daughter Simmons doesn't get along with her step-mother.

Before you know it Simmons basically throws herself at Mitchum (even though he has a girlfriend). She starts spinning a web in which Mitchum is caught. Simmons engineers the automobile accident deaths of her father and step-mother and she and Mitchum stand trial for the crime. They're acquitted, Mitchum says he's leaving and Simmons kills them both by plunging their car over the same cliff that was the scene of her parent's deaths.

ANGEL FACE has echoes of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE but without the sexual energy that fueled that James M. Cain classic. It's routine, slow and boring. It's noir but it's not good noir and it's not a film that I would ever want to sit through again.

Here's the amazing thing about ANGEL FACE. In 1963, Jean-Luc Godard named it the 8th best American Sound film, while critic Robin Wood placed it in his top 10 films shortly before his death. Did they see the same film that Kelly and I did?

And how about this from film critic Paul Brenner: "Preminger transforms a second rate James M. Cain murder plot, re-orchestrating this textbook tale of passion and murder into a haunting and haunted refrain. The by then cliched storyline is pared away and brought down to an elemental level--there is not a wasted scene in the film-and the story's familiarity breeds an aftertaste of inevitability and doom. The hallucinogenic nature of the proceedings is accented with Preminger's  direction and camerawork, having actors drift from foreground to background or having the camera track to fluid and suffocating close-ups. Preminger, ever the mesmerizer, weaves his style into a half-dream haze of nightmare."

And this from Dave Kehr: "This intense melodrama by Otto Preminger is one of the forgotten masterworks of film noir...The film is a disturbingly cool, rational investigation of the terrors of sexuality...The sets, characters, and actions are extremely stylized, yet Preminger's moving camera gives them a frightening unity and fluidity, tracing a straight, clean line to a cliff top for one of the most audacious endings in film history."

With all due respect to both Brenner and Kehr, I must disagree with their assessments of this film. They both see things here that neither Kelly nor I saw. ANGEL FACE just isn't as good as these gentlemen make it out to be. In fact, it's not good at all. Thumbs down.


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