Stuart’s Log: ANGEL FACE (1952)

November 21, 2013 § 1 Comment

When we think of the great directors who wielded a mobile camera, we often call to mind Max Ophüls’ elegant, elaborate tracking shots, Jean Renoir’s all-seeing utopian eye, or Kenji Mizoguchi’s lyrical dollies and cranes.

Otto Preminger was a different animal entirely, a filmmaker whose camera would often affix itself to one place and pan alongside his actors, eyeing them from a placid remove. His law background is often credited as fueling this proclivity for disinterested observation, devoid of sentiment or sensation, which has the effect of placing his characters on trial. In his noirs, his more elaborate camera movements allow him to fully scrutinize his doom-ridden protagonists, to keep them under unbroken observation as they make the seemingly insignificant decisions that prove to be their downfall.

Angel Face (1952) stars Robert Mitchum as an ambulance driver named Frank Jessup, who has little money to his name but is hoping to one day save enough to open a garage. On dispatch to the Tremayne family estate, where the wealthy Mrs. Catherine Tremayne is being treated for asphyxiation after an ‘accident,’ he happens upon the spoiled Diane (Jean Simmons, icy and enigmatic), who has a fixation on her burnt-out novelist father and a seething hatred for her stepmother (Angel Face, in many ways, lays the groundwork for Bonjour Tristesse [1958]). Almost immediately she lures him in, convincing him to leave his girlfriend and take on a job as the family chauffeur, and the two soon become locked into a murder plot against Catherine.

The stuff of typical noir, perhaps, but Preminger goes to great lengths to complicate the material. Frank is no mere hapless victim of sexual temptation, but a street-smart type who plays his cards carefully, leaving Diane to outmaneuver his defenses through a finely calibrated process of seduction that is largely rhetorical. She ensnares him by methodically laying out her case and appraising the pros and cons of Frank’s available choices;  it is only when she finds her logician’s authority slipping that she overturns the love card (Frank, flustered, “Well, I suppose it’s a kind of love. But with a girl like you, how can a man be sure?”).

What’s more, the murder occurs only halfway through the film and, in an unforeseen turn of events, takes Mr. Tremayne along with his wife. The fallout is even more intricate than the buildup, the moral consequences of the act every bit as important to Preminger as the twisted psychopathological motives behind it. The couple stands trial in a superb courtroom sequence that anticipates Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and when the acquitted Diane, who grows progressively more tormented, later seeks to confess to her crime there is no longer an available outlet—the moral turbulence of Preminger’s characters can never be accounted for in a legal verdict.

Angel Face ends on a grisly note that, while inevitable, is far from cheap in its fatalism. Otto Preminger is no grim determinist, but, rather, a shrewd rationalist who treats his characters’ tragic demise as the only logical outcome of his fastidious moral procedural. Coldly realistic and practically psychological, Preminger’s chilling noirs suggest that no one is a victim of circumstance—fate is simply a function of imperfectly exercised judgment. – Stuart


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