"And what do witches drink?"
-- Robert Mitchum, Angel Face
It is perplexing, and somewhat motiveless, Diane's love. A luscious 19- (going on 20) year-old, lovely, slender, stylish, very smart and very rich and motherless -- yet she is her own island within Beverly Hills. There is no hint of any current or past sexual or romantic connection surrounding her. An island she literally dives off of to chase down Mitchum's departing and empty ambulance. The heart wants what it wants. And so does the vagina. How else to explain Diane Tremayne's immediate swoon? For Frank Jessup is a singularly (for a 50s leading man) repulsive character, the most repulsive of Mitchum's career. (He is evil and the very opposite of repulsive in Night of the Hunter  and Cape Fear .) Jessup is a shaggy seedy slob (and seems much older than the Jeff Bailey/Markham of five years before). He jumps at Diane's chauffeur offer. At the chance to drive Diane's race-car at Pebble Beach. At the chance to grab some of her stepmother Barbara O'Neil's loot for his would-be foreign car repair shop. At Diane's first scent, he drops his buddy Bill, his girlfriend Mary, the hospital and his job. And drops Diane herself once he's cleared of murder charges, an acquittal mostly achieved through a fake marriage to Diane. He drops her to run off to Mexico, a place he's never been to before. (But not before betting Diane for her car, with Frank putting up nothing.) Much of what he says rings hollow. This lazy guy a former race-car driver before the war? Now driving an ambulance, seven years after war's end, to save up for his shop and his marriage to Mary (she clearly a pit-stop)? (His idea of a warehouse-type garage servicing all foreign makes is pretty dumb for L.A. where every foreign car owner brings the car to shops specializing only in that make or model.) Frank is a user and a blank.
But never more on the prowl than after his afterwork phone call to Mary aborted by Diane's arrival. Frank wants to fuck Diane very much and cheat on Mary very much, once they can flee the greasy diner. (Her entrance is to "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan.") He goes out of his way to sound as much as a lying prick as possible to Mary, his manner of showing-off before Diane. Yet how they treat each other is the reverse of the good. She acts toward him as if he's a shining prince. He treats her like a skank, something dirty and dangerous and impure. "With a girl like you, how can a man be sure?" he asks her.
A girl like her?
So he refuses Diane's love because of the one thing he is sure about: that she gives it away. That her falling for him is cheap and common. Worse. That her love can be stolen from him at any time by a night beneath the moon, one that goes from dusk 'til dawn. For strange, unexplained reasons Diane insists on nights of separation: Jessup is in a deep sexual panic over these nights. ("I'm very tired, Frank." "Yeah, that I can believe.") ~ while director Otto Preminger shows us her playing chess with her worshipful father Herbert Marshall.
"No and we don't love the same either. It wouldn't matter to me what you were or what you did."
-- Jean Simmons, Angel Face
The question hangs over the movie, it is perhaps the only question we care about: how new is this for the both of them, how unique are these feelings for Diane, for Jessup (not at all), for post-war Los Angeles? Whether Diane monkeyed with the stepmother's car, or had help from Frank, is gone over in the flat middle section of the movie, when the trial and throttle retractor springs and shift levers and goofy DA Jim Backus make it stop dead. We also never learn what went down in Barbara O'Neil's bedroom at the beginning of the story.
But oh that "murder" scene. . .
The suffocating assumptions around Diane of amorality, corruption, debauchery have driven her insane. In a work about complete erotic love, everyone is afraid. Herbert Marshall is a man with a daughter-complex married to a castrato, who fears murder from her step-daughter. Bill, Jessup's red-headed buddy (Ken Tobey), hasn't the guts (or the sex) to go after the girl he loves, Frank's Mary (Mona Freeman). Until Mary runs to him afraid of the inevitable sexual wounds Frank would inflict on her. ("I'm the one afraid of the competition.") Mitchum hopes to runs to Mexico, fleeing Diane's burning. All are afraid.
Except Diane. All the way, for Frank, is the trueness of her heart and vagina. Her nature is clearly isolate. When we see her at piano, her face is still and remote. Strange and amorphous, Diane yearns though her troubles in a warm vagueness, her soul and otherwise throbbing for Frank, because he does not want her, not her. In a five-shot, four-minute sequence, she walks across her mansion barely seeing the house around her, drifting, quiescent, in a state of metamorphosis, darkening -- as if a light inside her has gone out. Preminger's and DP Harry Stradling's wonder-light fades, cold air breathes down. She has crossed to the other side.
Joining her sisters in the coven of extreme movie love: Josette Day in Beauty and the Beast (1946), Annie Starr, Mabel Longhetti, Anne from Day of Wrath, Gertrud, Lola Montes and Madame de, Rose Hobart, Madeleine/Judy, Rose Balestrero, Bunuel's Lya Lys, Mrs. Soffel, Dragnet Girl. (Perhaps Preminger's most remarkable achievement in Angel Face is his appearing to not take sides.)
As safe, sexually-insecure Mary tells Frank: both he and Bill went on that ambulance run to the Tremayne mansion. Yet only Frank drank from Diane's cup. Even though Frank had a girlfriend and Bill did not. And so the world, the movie says, is divided between those who would stir Jean Simmons, and those who would not. Then divided again -- between those with the guts to take her and those without. Those who taste victory and those who do not. And, the movie warns, do not enter a marriage or intimate relationship with those who do taste because though they may be tasting you now, how long before it's someone else? In Angel Face, sexual passion is love for a woman. For a man, a warning sign that she cannot be trusted.
There are other views.
Tag Gallagher is one of our great movie writers. His books on Rossellini and John Ford are among the best director bios (and readings of their works) we have. Lately, he's been creating video essays about specific movies.
In a 26-minute work called "A Moment's Inattention," Gallagher breaks down Angel Face.
In a 26-minute work called "A Moment's Inattention," Gallagher breaks down Angel Face.
His interpretation is rather straight. There is no mention of the trial, the parents, or the background friends. Dumbfounding is how Gallagher sees Frank Jessup, calling him "practically the same man" as Mitchum's Jeff Bailey/Markham from Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947). (The last third of the essay makes iconic connections between the two Mitchum movies, falsely in my opinion. Out of the Past is that rare masterpiece concerned almost not at all with romantic love or sexual ardor.) Jeff Bailey/Markham is one of the strongest moral agents in movie history. Frank Jessup is a pig.
The World and Its Double is the best and most comprehensive book we have on Otto Preminger. While not as astonishing as Fujiwara's masterpieces on Tourneur and Jerry Lewis (mainly because Preminger's art is less interesting than Fujiwara's), it is consistently jaw-dropping as the writer again and again improves on what he's seeing, or matches its greatness. The only disappointment with his Angel Face chapter (the best sections of the book are on Anatomy of a Murder, Advise & Consent, and Skidoo) is its brevity. Imagine a chapter controlled by a vision such as this, for all the scenes (30:00):
In an extraordinary sequence of Angel Face, Preminger gives us a model of how to see his characters. The sequence begins with a shot of Diane and her father, Charles Tremayne, playing chess in his study. The shot is partly framed by the open balcony door, a frame that freezes the moment in time and makes of it an idyllic and emblematic scene. The chess game is intercut with shots of Frank alone in the room outside his bedroom. He looks out the window, then goes to the phone and calls Mary's workplace. Failing to reach her, he discontentedly removes his tie (the camera tracking forward to a close shot), darting glances, as he does so, offscreen right (in the direction of the window). (His look offscreen repeats the look by which he first sees Diane and is drawn into her world for the first time.) The staging of the scene implies that Frank has been waiting for Diane to emerge from the house and that, disappointed, he instead calls Mary, still wishing, no longer with much hope, for Diane to appear. (That instead of Mary he reaches a third woman, one Janey, shows that women are interchangeable for him at this point.)
Or this (1:21:30):
The scene of Diane's attempted confession in Barrett's office is one of the greatest scenes in all Preminger's work, not only because of the hopeless truth made vivid by the contrast between Diane's stern, slow, dreamlike gravity and Barrett's indomitable cynicism, worldliness, and superficiality, but because, to form a triangle with the two principals, the scene introduces the key Preminger figure of the impassive witness, incarnated by the stenographer, Miss Preston. The mystery of this figure, who is reduced to the function of recording witness, permitted in no way to express any opinion or feeling about the drama that unfolds before her, will engage Preminger in several films, notable Advise & Consent, in the shots of functionaries during and after the Senate subcomittee hearing. The impassive witness has a similar function to that of the interested but silent observer, incarnated in another scene in Angel Face by Bill when he and Mary listen to Frank's attempt to renew his relationship with Mary. . . Frank's words are directed to Mary alone, who alone responds to them, but they also fall, so to speak, on the blank and thoughtful face of Bill.
Or this (32:00):
. . . She goes to the piano, on whose lid sits a framed photograph of her father, at which she pauses to look. Then she sits at the piano and begins to play the film's theme as the camera (which has followed her across the room) tracks forward into a close-up. At first she looks downward; as she plays, she raises her eyes slightly, then looks up and stares at a point just below the level of the camera, so that light reflects from her pupils. . . This shot dissolves slowly into a close-up of the face of a clock, whose glass, too, reflects points of light (during the dissolve, the stars of Diane's pupils seem to become part of a larger constellation, with the stars of the clock face). The camera tracks back to reveal that the clock is sitting on a table outside Frank's bedroom; Diane, in a nightgown, enters hurriedly up the stairs and knocks at the bedroom door. Frank emerges, and Diane proceeds to tell him that her stepmother has just tried to kill her with gas.Humbling, from the best film reader I know.