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Films of 1952: Angel Face

I am not easily shocked by movies, but the first time I saw Angel Face, I actually yelped out loud. There are two moments in the picture that I did not see coming, and they were the best kind of a screen surprise, right up there with “I see dead people” in The Sixth Sense or “the secret” twist in The Crying Game.

Needless to say, I won’t spoil what happens in Angel Face, but I will recommend that you see for yourself. Considered a flop in 1952, this offbeat sleeper’s renown has grown with time. Two critics capture what’s so powerful about the drama, starting with the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr: “This intense Freudian melodrama by [director] Otto Preminger is one of the forgotten masterworks of film noir...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.”

Kehr’s kudos are echoed by writer 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...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-dreamt haze of nightmare.”

Noir MVP Robert Mitchum plays a ambulance driver who falls for a raven-haired beauty (Jean Simmons) whose hatred for her stepmother is exceeded only by her obsessive love for her father (Herbert Marshall). Ditching his nice girlfriend (Mona Freeman) for his increasingly unhinged lover, Mitchum hurtles toward what Glenn Erickson describes as “The shock ending...bleak in the extreme, a violent coda that comes out of nowhere.”

But if you think the Angel Face story is trippy, read on. The picture was green-lit by Howard Hughes, the eccentric millionaire who ran RKO. Hughes had Simmons under contract. She wanted out. Knowing Hughes liked long-haired leading ladies, Simmons even chopped off her lustrous locks to sabotage her chances of being cast (she wound up wearing a wig throughout). Hughes punished her by hiring Preminger (a notorious martinet), setting a measly 19-day shooting schedule, and giving Preminger free rein to harass Simmons, to the point where Mitchum and Preminger came to blows over her mistreatment.

To the surprise of no one on the crew (who had witnessed his merciless hazing of Simmons), Preminger stormed into Hughes’ office and demanded Mitchum’s head on a pike. Fortunately – for Mitchum and the film – Hughes refused to fire his popular star and ordered his director to go finish the movie.

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