Angel Face, 1953, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons. Directed by Otto Preminger. B&W, 91 minutes.
An emergency call late one night brings ambulance driver Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) to the Treymaine mansion, where the worst seems to be over for the lady of the home. On his way out of the home, Frank chances on young Diane Treymaine (Jean Simmons) solemnly playing the piano, her eyes distant.
Diane surprises Frank later by following him to a diner, where, despite his involvement with a co-worker, Mary (Mona Freeman), he agrees to take Diane out for the evening. The two enjoy dinner and dancing together, while Mary sits at home with the meal she prepared for herself and Frank.
Diane quickly entrenches herself in Frank’s life, hiring him as the family chauffeur and making moves for a romantic relationship. He’s wary, and attempts to stop both the job and the woman when Diane does what he suspected she was thinking of doing: kills her stepmother. What she didn’t know when she tampered with the car was her beloved father would catch a last-minute ride with his wife and die on the same rocky slope.
Diane and Frank are brought to trial for murder, and events are set in motion for Frank to make a full escape—or not.
A plot clearly inspired by—if not directly lifted from—The Postman Always Rings Twice, this movie still works. Mitchum is his usual laconic self, and whether or not his laid-back demeanor is a strength or fault in the story is up for debate. His acting is in stark contrast to the wildly dramatic story. It’s hard to believe any man wouldn’t be more shaken by events and more emotional in his response. However, that was Mitchum’s signature style, and it was what audiences wanted.
RKO Pictures was headed by Howard Hughes at that point, and his obsessive control wreaked havoc with the entire studio, Simmons, angry over Hughes’ insistence at deciding her hairstyles, cut her hair short, allegedly with a pair of shears. The studio quickly designed wigs replicating her luxuriously thick, dark locks.
That erratic, impulsive behavior was reflected, albeit more intensely, in the character of Diane Treymaine. Simmons played it at just the right level, clear enough for audiences to see her evil, yet making it evident why Frank Jessup was so taken by her.
The film received only lukewarm reviews at the time of its release, such as this from the critic at The New York Times: “Angel Face, yesterday’s new melodrama at the Mayfair, is an exasperating blend of genuine talent, occasional perceptiveness and turgid psychological claptrap that enhances neither RKO, which should know better, nor the participants.”
Today it is more highly regarded by critics and audiences alike. Despite its similarity to earlier movies, it is a compelling story, expertly directed by Otto Preminger. The story may be familiar, but the movie still is fresh.