Friday, July 25, 2014

CHICAGO DEADLINE

Lewis Allen, 1949
Starring: Alan Ladd, Donna Reed, June Havoc, Irene Harvey, Arthur Kennedy

Chicago reporter Ed Adams just happens be in an apartment building when a young woman is found dead. Though no foul play is suspected, Ed snoops around and finds the diary of the woman, Rosita Jean d’Ur, and becomes fascinated by her. In her diary, there is a list of more than 50 names, so Ed decides to call each one and get to the bottom of Rosita’s life – and death. Curiously, no one he speaks to admits knowing her and they all hang up suspiciously. He soon discovers a criminal conspiracy that Rosita seemed to be at the heart of and gets some clues from one of her friends, Leona, who also becomes Ed’s girlfriend. She begs Ed to give up and leave Rosita in peace, but he is determined to finish what he started.

Chicago Deadline is basically a later Alan Ladd vehicle – after his four-film partnership with Veronica Lake – and it’s easy to see why his career took a downtown. He’s not particularly bad here, but unlike the excellent This Gun for Hire, he’s miscast and is paired with an awful, clumsy script. Ladd’s Ed is just not a believable character in 1949 noir cinema (this is really only loosely noir, or perhaps would have been with a more competent screenwriter). He’s supposed to fit into the hard-nosed, plucky reporter character type, but this feels about 15 years out of date, particularly in light of the impending Ace in the Hole (1951) and While the City Sleeps (1956), both incredibly bleak examples of newspaper noir.

Chicago Deadline – outside of its ambiguous, somewhat absurd title as Ed is not on a deadline of any kind – has all the right elements, they’re just lost in the shuffle. The plot is full of gangsters, prominent businessmen, boxing, beatings, illicit romance, spousal abuse, and more. Unfortunately, there are simply too many clichés, flashbacks, plot arcs, and side characters. At several points during the film, Ladd has to stop and actually explain the events, including a long summary at the end of the film. While this works for the great, charming, and wonderful William Powell (I like him a lot, if you couldn’t tell) in The Thin Man series, it falls utterly flat here.

The film’s initial premise – investigating the life of a dead woman through their most recent contacts – is an interesting concept, certainly one used to great effect in films as diverse as Laura (1944) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s obscure but enjoyable New York mystery, Two Men in Manhattan (1959). As with Laura, the main character is investigating a dead woman and becomes somewhat obsessed with her. As with Two Men in Manhattan, the investigator is trying to contact the dead person’s romantic paramours and social contexts to get the story of their last days and is meeting with a hard time.

Donna Reed fares better than Ladd as the tragic Rosita, though the film isn’t quite sure what to do with her. She is sometimes viewed as a troubled woman with a life gone wrong, other times as a tragic heroine, and finally as the victim of a series of unhappy and complex events. Like the real-life Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, Rosita’s life is exaggerated by the press and she’s painted as promiscuous, possibly an escort, but at least a loose woman who cohabitates with disreputable men. Ed fortunately fights against this notion that she had it coming to her and this becomes his motivation to tell the story of her life. He does get a somewhat troubling start. Rosita’s death isn’t initially suspicious and is explained away as a complication of tuberculosis. Ed, who happens to be in the same building when her body is found by the cleaning lady, “investigates” her room anyway, steals her private property, and essentially begins harassing anyone associated with her. While Laura points a finger at the detective’s obsession with his dead client, Chicago Deadline fails to pursue this morbid aspect.  

I can’t recommend the film, though anyone who enjoys more ridiculous detective films might want to see this out. Keep an eye peeled for Gypsy Rose Lee’s sister, June Havoc, who is actually very likable as Leona, the vapid, melancholy blonde, and it’s a shame she wasn’t given more screen time. The film also has a high body count with seven people dead, including Rosita and seemingly every man that has ever encountered her (except her brother). This film is not available on DVD, like much of Ladd’s other work, though you can find it online if you look hard enough.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

SAIGON (1948)

Leslie Fenton, 1948
Starring: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Douglas Dick, Luther Adler

At the end of WWII, three soldiers decide to stay in the East after Major Larry Briggs learns that his close friend, Captain Mike Perry, is on death’s doorstep, thanks to a terminal brain issue after head wounds suffered during the war. Instead of telling Mike the truth, he and Sergeant Pete Rocco decide to give Mike a hell of a farewell party – a few happy months before his death. To fund this, they take a flying job from Zlec Maris, a sleek, charming businessman who may not be entirely on the up and up. At the time of take-off, Maris is nowhere to be seen and the three former soldiers are stuck with the lovely, but icy and discreet Susan. When Maris shows up being pursued by policemen and gun fire, they take off without him. Though Susan is in a hurry to locate her boss, she has a briefcase full of suspicious money and he blackmails her into sticking around, because Mike has fallen hard. Though Susan and Larry bicker at first, Susan’s good-nature and sympathy wins out. But though she pretends to love Mike, she only has eyes for Larry.

The last of four collaborations between Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, Saigon can only be described as film noir in the loosest possible sense, though it is usually lumped in with their other three noir efforts, This Gun for Hire, The Glass Key, and The Blue Dahlia. Though the plot is essentially about a dirty businessman pursuing his ill-gotten quarter-of-a-million dollars, he is only briefly in the first and third acts. Most of the story focuses on the contentious relationship between Lake’s Susan, a smart, attractive, no-nonsense secretary carrying around a briefcase full of money, and Ladd’s Major Briggs, a tough-as-nails former soldier hoping to show his dying friend a good time.

The film is better than it should be, thanks solid performances from Ladd and Lake, but it suffers from some pretty blatant racism, Mike is cloying and two-dimensional, and the plot wanders around aimlessly for a while. Though the print I watched was from a VHS tape and looked fuzzy and awful, there was still some nice scenery, particularly the depictions of the lush Vietnam. While there are shots of rivers, rice fields, and more, I wish Saigon was more of a presence in the film. Similar to Macao and Calcutta (also with Ladd), it’s fairly obvious this was filmed on a sound stage, but that’s the best you’re going to get in 1948 Hollywood. Considering that this is Ladd and Lake’s final collaboration and one of Lake’s last films for Paramount, it’s fitting that it ends on such a somber note – at Mike’s funeral in Saigon, a particularly lovely cemetery set.

There are some frustrating plot elements that are difficult to overlook. First, Susan is presented as intelligent and self-sufficient. She is the only member of the group who can speak Vietnamese and is not afraid to travel on her own. It’s frustrating that the script didn’t show more of this aspect of her character, which is quickly overwhelmed by the back-and-forth and bickering with Ladd’s Larry. There is a scene where he expresses his dislike for her so much that he makes her leave the hotel and find a room on a boat by herself. He immediately turns around and has to search for her, because Mike pines and wonders where she went. It’s this sort of sloppy writing that holds the film back from its full potential and serves to slow down the pacing.

One of my biggest pet peeves in early Hollywood cinema – and thus with this film – is the casting of Caucasian actors as Asians: Peter Lorre in the Mr. Moto series, Warner Oland in the Charlie Chan films, Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy in The Mask of Fu Manchu (though I love the film), Gale Sondergaard in The Letter, and so on. While Luther Adler’s Lieutenant Keon is, thankfully, a decent, kind-hearted, and resourceful depiction of a Vietnam detective, it doesn’t change the fact that Adler is obviously a white person playing yet another generic Asian detective.

Saigon is not available on DVD, though you aren’t missing much. It’s worthwhile for fans of Ladd and Lake, and anyone interested in WWII or post-war era adventure cinema.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

THE BLUE DAHLIA

George Marshall, 1946
Starring: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix

“Bourbon straight with a bourbon chaser.”

Three Navy pilots return home to California from the war in the South Pacific: Johnny Morrison, George Copeland, and Buzz Wanchek, whose lingering head wound causes him agonizing headaches and periods of black out. Instead of an enthusiastic homecoming, Morrison learns that his wife, Helen, has adopted a lifestyle of constant partying. She has had at least one affair and killed their young son when she drove drunk one night and crashed the car. Feeling murderous, he leaves her. Buzz, meanwhile, gets a call from Helen and goes to her hotel to look for Johnny. Not knowing who she is, he buys a drink and is coerced back to her room. She is also dropped in on by Eddie, her no good boyfriend, and “Dad,” the hotel detective. Later that night, she is killed and Johnny is the main suspect. Johnny, meanwhile, has found a new hotel and has crossed paths with the attractive Joyce. They hit it off, but she also happens to be Eddie’s estranged wife. Can he figure out who Helen’s killer is before he’s arrested?

This is the third pairing of film noir duo Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake after the excellent This Gun for Hire and the mediocre The Glass Key. The Blue Dahlia falls somewhere between the two, thanks to a hardboiled script from the master, Raymond Chandler. Chandler had an odd screenwriting career. Aside from The Blue Dahlia, he adapted James Cain’s Double Indemnity with director Billy Wilder and worked on Strangers on a Train with Hitchcock for a time, though his own novels – Lady in the Lake, The Big Sleep, and Farewell, My Lovely – were all adapted by other writers. He was nominated for an Academy Award for The Blue Dahlia, though he got stuck on the script and had to go on a massive drinking binge to finish it (he had a life-long struggle with alcoholism and was trying to abstain at that particular time in his career). It is his great dialogue that makes the film, with lines like “You got the wrong lipstick on,” when Ladd punches his wife’s lover in the jaw.

Chandler’s style of writing a mystery often without knowing the ending is obvious here as the film’s conclusion feels a bit slapdash and almost ludicrously tacked on. Buzz was initially supposed to have killed Helen during one of his blackouts. The military protested and objected to this portrayal of a solider as violent, unpredictable, and loose on the home front; their objects were strenuous enough that Chandler was forced to change the ending. Unfortunately his new ending is still overshadowed by the thought of Buzz as the killer, a powerful, frightening insinuation. William Bendix, also cast as the thug who nearly beats Ladd's character to death in The Glass Key, really shines here as the brutish, yet sweet and innocent Buzz, a man who relies utterly on Johnny as the stabilizing presence in his life -- after it has been destroyed by the war.

The Blue Dahlia is ultimately a more minor noir effort that perhaps suffers from miscasting. Ladd and Lake were both an attractive, but wooden pair and the film would have benefited from a more charismatic tortured lead (Bogart) and a leading lady with a mixture of innocent, sexuality, and desperation (such as Gloria Grahame). Though William Bendix practically steals the film from Ladd and Lake, Doris Dowling (The Lost Weekend) is quite good as Johnny’s immoral wife and it’s a shame she has such little screen time. While Buzz is a somewhat realistic portrait of men driven insane by the war and tormented by post-traumatic stress disorder, Doris is a seedy glimpse of the darker side of life on the home front. She hints at numerous affairs, debauchery, and alcoholism, the latter of which is responsible for her own son’s death. Another, somewhat similar victim of post-war debauchery and violence in Los Angeles, Elizabeth Short, was allegedly nicknamed “The Black Dahlia” after this film, which played down the street from a bar she frequented. She was brutally, gruesomely murdered a year after its release.

Though The Blue Dahlia is not a film noir classic, it’s still a worthy entry and fans of Raymond Chandler owe it to themselves to seek it out. Bizarrely, there is no official Blu-ray or DVD release, though it is available in the Turner Classic Movies “Dark Crimes” box set along with Ladd and Lake film The Glass Key, and Phantom Lady, based on a Cornell Woolrich novel. Though the Production Code generally frowned upon references to drinking or alcoholism, this film is full of them – thanks to Chandler, who was allegedly paid for the script with a case of Scotch – down to the famous line where Johnny orders “bourbon straight with a bourbon chaser.” Post-war debauchery indeed.

Monday, July 21, 2014

THE GLASS KEY (1942)

Stuart Heisler, 1942
Starring: Brian Donlevy, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd

Political boss and gangster Paul Madvig decides to support a candidate, Ralph Henry, because he’s in love with Henry’s cool, blonde daughter Janet. Though she clearly thinks Madvig is a fool, she plays along on her father’s behalf, eventually accepting a marriage proposal. Madvig’s second-in-command, Ned Beaumont, doesn’t trust Janet and can see right through her motives, though he’s also attracted to her. Unfortunately Janet’s brother, an irresponsible playboy, is killed and Madvig is the main suspect. One of Madvig’s enemies, Varna, tries to make the most of this and has Ned beaten when he won’t play along. He manages to escape, badly injured, but will Ned be able to stay alive long enough to find the real killer?

This is the second version of Dashiell Hammett's novel after a 1935 adaptation starring George Raft and the second pairing of stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Though The Glass Key is an entertaining early film noir, it doesn’t quite match up to Ladd and Lake’s wonderful first film together, This Gun for Hire. Ladd does resume his role as antihero and — though not quite as captivating as The Gun for Hire’s Raven — Ned is quite a bastard. There are some very dark scenes in the film, thanks to Ned’s questionable morality. He goes so far as to seduce a man’s wife right in front of him and goads the man into suicide, which is practically shown on screen. His relationship with Madvig is similar to later male relationships throughout noir, when two men become very close and either a woman — or a crime — comes between them. Gilda is a key example of this and in both films, there is an undeniable element of homoeroticism. Ned seems to only care for Madvig’s interests and his well-being, sacrificing Madvig’s own sister, Janet and her family, and others in their political network.

During the film’s most memorable scene, Ned is being beaten by a thug, Jeff (William Bendix in a great side role), who has his arm around Ned and calls him “baby,” “sweetheart,” and other names. This is one of Hollywood’s most graphic beating scenes of the period. Compared to contemporary action films, Ed’s swollen, disfigured face and lengthy healing time in the hospital are quite believable. Bendix apparently actually knocked out Ladd and was horrified, though the two went on to become very close friends. Ladd was beaten, whipped, and terrorized in a number of his films, even more so than Bogart, and emphasizes some of the elements of sadomasochism and homoeroticism inherent in film noir.

The weaker elements include Veronica Lake’s performance. She’s not at her best here, though she’s lovely to look at, but is far too cold and unemotional to summon much interest in her character. Lake uses her facial expressions expertly by throwing disgusted, coy, or calculating glances out in nearly every scene, I only wish there was more of this. All the political intrigue feels a bit pointless and rambling and there are plenty of plot elements don’t make a whole lot of sense — a man alters his political career to marry a woman, but then doesn’t care when she’s in love with this best friend? Speaking of, Brian Donlevy is likable as Madvig, but also overacts. Partly this works, because Madvig is a bit loud and buffoonish, but it also dates the film.
The Glass Key isn’t an absolute must-see, but is a pleasant way to pass the time and will be enjoyed by anyone who loves Ladd and Lake, early film noir, or political melodrama. It’s available in a Turner Classic Movies DVD set with The Phantom Lady and The Blue Dahlia

Friday, July 18, 2014

THIS GUN FOR HIRE

Frank Tuttle, 1942
Starring: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Laird Cregar, Robert Preston

A cold-blooded assassin named Raven is hired to kill a scientist and blackmailer, and then recover a stolen formula. His boss, Willard Gates, owner of Nitro Chemicals, double crosses him and pays him with marked bills, then turns him over to the police. Though he wants to spend time with his girlfriend, lovely nightclub singer Ellen Graham, Detective Michael Crane is hot on Raven’s trail, which leads from San Francisco to L.A. It just so happens that Williard Gates is also a club owner and hires Ellen to be his new act. A Senator secretly implores her to spy on Gates, who is under investigation. Ellen and Raven cross paths and Raven takes her hostage, but he later saves her life when Gates tries to kill her. The two reluctantly team up to reveal Gates for what he really is – a traitor trying to sell chemical warfare to the Japanese.

One of the best early riffs on film noir and one of the best thrillers of the war period, the underrated This Gun for Hire was also the first pairing of stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Though the tiny, blonde Lake was already famous by this point, thanks to Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels and I Wanted Wings, as well as I Married a Witch, this was one of her most iconic roles. Ladd, who had only been given bit parts or side roles up to this point, became a star seemingly overnight. His portrayal of the ruthless, lonely, and nihilistic Raven is the first of its kind, and This Gun for Hire was an obvious influence on Jean-Pierre Melville’s iconic Le Samouraï (1967). Raven was one of the first cold-blooded, murderous antiheroes in cinema and also one of the first to suggest that an abusive childhood led to his current lot in life.

Ladd’s Raven is truly the centerpiece of the film. He is a character with extensive emotional and physical scars and is immediately identifiable (to the police) by his deformed wrist. Despite the fact that he is a killer – and admits to killing the aunt who raised him – he is a sympathetic character. He genuinely cares for cats and becomes protective of Ellen as he begins to trust her. Lake pales in comparison to Ladd, but is well-used for the moments of brightness and lightheartedness she provides. Ellen is a multi-talented performer and there is an amusing scene where Lake sings, flirts, and does magic. In a nice twist, she leaves behind playing cards so that Detective Crane can follow their increasingly dangerous trail.

Ellen’s boyfriend, Detective Crane (Robert Preston of Victor Victoria and The Music Man) is a fairly useless character. He exists seemingly for there to be an additional layer of tension between Graham and Raven, and as a barrier that keeps their relationship chaste and (mostly) unromantic. In hindsight, this is an odd choice as nearly every film noir that would follow it was concerned with destructive sexual relationships and the breakdown of gender roles. Though This Gun for Hire does have plenty of noir elements – including some mind-blowing cinematography from John Seitz (The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, Sullivan’s Travels, Night Has a Thousand Eyes, The Big Clock, and many more) – it is oddly asexual, which perhaps highlights its themes of personal isolation and self-destruction.

The most sexual character of the film is undoubtedly Laird Cregar (I Wake Up Screaming, The Lodger, Hangover Square) as Willard Gates. He is amazing, as always, and comes close to stealing the film from Ladd. The hulking actor was known for playing villainous, ambiguous roles, as if his real-life bisexually intruded upon the production – though always with great effect. His interest in Ellen Graham seems to be both business and pleasure; he wants to hire her for his club, but also presses for a private dinner at his home. When he believes she has double-crossed him, he suggestively has her tied up, but leaves before any real violence can take place, using his chauffeur as a surrogate.

This is undoubtedly director Frank Tuttle’s best film – he would go on to direct Ladd and Lake again in their next film noir, The Glass Key – and he used John Seitz’s claustrophobic, expressionist cinematography to excellent effect, as well as Graham Greene’s source novel. The film is based on Greene’s A Gun for Sale, but changes the theme to a political, war-time, antifascist environment and moved the setting from a European city to California. Though the script is essentially made up of multiple stories that come together at the film’s conclusion, Ladd and Cregar give such powerful performances that it’s easy to forget about the occasionally broken tension or plot holes. The film is available on DVD and comes highly recommend to all fans of film noir, crime cinema, movies about assassins, and devotees of Le Samouraï.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake

Paired together for seven films during the years of WWII, blonde, diminutive stars Alan Ladd (1913-1964) and Veronica Lake (1922-1973) are a fascinating look at both the successes and failure of Hollywood’s star system. Ladd and Lake were allegedly teamed up because of their complementary heights: he was 5’5” or 6” and she was 4’11”. They were teamed up for a total of seven films, beginning with their best, noir effort This Gun for Hire (1942). Ladd plays an icy assassin, Raven, who is double-crossed by his greedy, traitorous boss. Lake co-starred as a nightclub singer and the girlfriend of the detective after Raven. She is accidentally drawn into helping him, but they team up to bring down a ring of traitors selling chemical warfare to the Japanese.

Their best films together were all noir or crime: The Glass Key (1942), based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel about crooked politics and murder; The Blue Dahlia (1946), about a soldier returned home from the war to find his wife unfaithful and then murdered; and Saigon (1948), where a former solider and pilot learns that his friend has a limited time to live… They also appeared in three musical comedies as themselves – Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), Duffy’s Tavern (1945), and Variety Girl (1947) – though these were generally all meant to raise money for the war effort.

Like his famous character Raven, Ladd had a difficult childhood. His father died when he was young, he was allegedly viciously bullied about his height, and his mother remarried and moved the family around. After his stepfather died in the ‘30s, she committed suicide soon after. Ladd’s climb to fame was long and grueling, as studios claimed he was too small, too blonde, and just didn’t have the right look. He sampled a variety of careers before finding success in Hollywood, including newspaper employee, hot dog stand owner, salesman, etc. He was discovered by agent Sue Carol, thanks to his radio work, and she quickly found him small roles in Hollywood films like Citizen Kane (1941) and Joan of Paris (1942).

He hit it big with his first film with Lake, This Gun for Hire (1942), and became a star seemingly overnight. Soon after, he divorced his wife and he and agent Sue Carol were married. Ladd briefly left to enlist in the Air Force, but was given an honorable medical discharge and returned to cinema. He was in a few films without Lake, mostly war movies or other noir efforts, including, China (1943), And Now Tomorrow(1944), Calcutta (1947) and Chicago Deadline (1949), and his last noir, Appointment With Danger (1951). Though a wildly popular personality, his efforts without Lake were simply not as successful.

Blaming the studio, Ladd left Paramount and went to Warner Bros. for the western Shane (1953), the biggest film of his career, but he failed to win any awards and his career fell steadily after this. He started his own company, Jaguar Productions, where he cast his children alongside him. Here his drinking problem seemed to overwhelm him and there was an incident when he was either shot or accidentally shot himself. His allegedly remained sober for his last film The Carpetbaggers (1964), but a few weeks later, before the film was released, he died at home of a mixture of alcohol and antidepressants.

Lake had an equally sad life with a rough start, a brief, but bright rise to fame, and an even more tragic fall. Allegedly diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Lake – born Constance Ockelman in Brooklyn – was encouraged to act by her parents as a form of treatment (?!) and had life-long troubles with her mother, who later sued her when she failed to keep up with her acting school repayments. Like Ladd, Lake’s father died when she was young due to a work accident. Soon after, her mother remarried and the family relocated several times. Thanks to her beauty and her trademark peek-a-boo blonde hair style, she found success relatively quickly in war films (I Wanted Wings) and romantic comedies (I Married a Witch) before being teamed up with Ladd in 1942. Some of her costars would later comment that success was quickly and easily handed to her, but she threw it all away.

Despite her fame, she developed a reputation for being difficult to work with and plenty of colleagues disliked her. Though she later had nice things to say about him, she and Ladd were not friends, and her alcoholism and mental health issues certainly isolated her from her colleagues and later her family, including her children and several husbands (one of whom was director Andre de Toth). Like Ladd, she supposedly began drinking heavily as her career declined, which worsened her reputation. Also like Ladd, she switched studios from Paramount to 20th Century Fox, which effectively marked the end of her career. When her Hollywood lost interest, her alcoholism increased, but she was more active than Ladd; she got her pilot’s license and wrote an autobiography, Veronica, where she frankly discussed her lifelong issues with mental illness and addiction. She was forced to hold down conventional jobs and when she was discovered working as a waitress in a hotel, support flooded in from her fans (and Marlon Brando). She turned it all down, choosing instead to keep her pride.

Though often considered a sex symbol or star more than an actress, she does have some good performances, namely in the fantastic Sullivan’s Travels (1941). Delightfully, her final film – which she co-financed – came more than a decade after her retirement. Flesh Feast (1970), a low budget horror film from Brad F. Grinter, the director of Thanksgiving-themed cult movie Blood Feast (1972), concerns Nazis trying to clone Adolph Hitler. She died a few years later due to alcohol related complications – both Ladd and Lake strangely died at the age of 50.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

ANGEL FACE

Otto Preminger, 1953
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Mona Freeman, Herbert Marshall

Frank, an ambulance driver, is called to a Beverly Hills mansion when the lady of the house, Mrs. Tremayne, is nearly killed by gas poisoning. Though the general consensus is that it was an accident, she doesn’t seem so sure. On his way out, Frank meets her young, beautiful stepdaughter, Diane. She follows him to a diner, allegedly desperate to get out of the house, and he lies to his girlfriend in order to have dinner with Diane and go dancing with her. The next day, Diane arranges a meeting with his girlfriend, Mary, under the pretext that she wants to contribute to Frank’s fund to open his own garage; he was once a racecar driver. Seeing right through it, Mary gives up on Frank and he lets Diane convince him to come work at the mansion as a chauffeur. Caught up in her spell, Frank soon inadvertently becomes an accomplice to the murders of Diane’s father and stepmother…

The last of director Otto Preminger’s noir efforts is one of his finest. This highly underrated film deserves to be seen as much as Laura, and benefits from stylish, claustrophobic cinematography and a shocking ending that still packs a punch. As with Preminger’s Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Whirlpool, Angel Face is driven by two key performances: Jean Simmons as a mentally ill, somewhat tragic femme fatale, and Robert Mitchum as her hapless target. Mitchum was an important player in film noir – often as a man fatally manipulated by a beautiful woman – in such films as Out of the Past, The Locket, and many more. Here he is incredibly passive and wanders willingly into Diane’s trap. He ignores the fact that she’s a rich, beautiful, young woman suddenly enthralled by a poor ambulance driver who was once into race cars. This film is as much about class and economic status as it is about sex, and Frank’s desire to fulfill his dream of opening a shop and living a better life is the carrot she dangles in front of him for much of the film, substituting it with sex or sympathy when he strays.

This was undoubtedly Jean Simmons’ (Spartacus) finest performance in a career generally filled with light-hearted, saccharine roles. Diane is one of noir’s most complex female characters; she is at once manipulative, murderous, depressed, obsessive, and loving, desperate to be loved in return. She’s one of the period’s bleakest characters alongside Gene Tierney’s equally dangerous mentally ill lead in Leave Her to Heaven. The two films would make an interesting double feature, as both characters are obsessed with their fathers, become obsessed with a handsome, but passive male character, and are homicidally jealous of anyone who gets in the way.

In addition to Diane, the film is dominated by controlling women, particularly her stepmother, but even the Japanese housekeeper who berates her husband, and Mary. There’s something unpleasant about Mona Freeman’s (The Heiress) Mary. Though she has a wholesome, girl-next-door look, she’s coldly rational and almost disturbingly practical, eschewing romance for whichever man is the most dependable, faithful, and obedient. Herbert Marshall (Foreign Correspondent, The Letter) and Barbara O’Neil (Gone with the Wind) are great as Diane’s somewhat ambiguous parents who play a continually larger role in the film until their unpleasant demise. Preminger is careful to present them in contrasting scenes. First, they have a loving relationship and Mr. Tremayne cares for his possibly delusional wife. Later, they are both depicted as prone to alcoholism and lives comprised of depressive idleness. Mrs. Tremayne also degradingly controls her husband by regularly tightening the purse strings.

Wealth and success is seen as a corrupting influence in Angel Face, a contradictory way to achieve and destroy one’s dreams. In particular, the car, a symbol of American ingenuity, industry, and freedom is used to a variety of ends. For Frank, a vehicle – an ambulance – is what brings him to Diane, but her sports car attracts him; it represents the glorious but faded past, hopeful dreams for the future, and the physical locus point of a better life. For Diane, it is a lure and a weapon. Part of what draws Diane and Frank together is the disappointing state of their current lives. They both long for the time before the war, when Diane lived in London – she explains that it is the last time she danced with a man (presumably her father, in a disturbingly incestual undertone) – while Frank says it was the last time he raced a sports car.

While Angel Face does have elements of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, particularly in terms of the planned murder, courtroom scene, and the lawyer that convinces the couple at odds to work together, but Angel Face has a unique degree of perversion, hysteria and homicidal impulses buried just beneath a wholesome, lovely exterior. There is a nightmarish, fever dream aspect with characters being roused from sleep, wandering at night, searching for something other than the mundane, deflated routine of postwar life.

Angel Face is available on DVD and comes highly recommended. Fans of film noir, Otto Preminger, and Robert Mitchum will want to see this out, but so will everyone else.