Otto Preminger’s career is frequently separated into two distinct halves — the early, studio-contracted work and his later films as a self-produced independent, tackling hot-button social issues and working on increasingly larger scales. It’s a useful enough shorthand, but like any, it breaks down upon closer inspection. Indeed, Jonathan Rosenbaum has noted that the films most often cited as Preminger’s greatest come from both periods, and that Preminger took several studio assignments even after skewing independent. And like all great artists, themes and motifs from earlier works carry over into, and are elaborated upon in, later efforts. While any director with as long and varied a career as Preminger’s can’t be reduced to any simplistic, linear trajectory — and Preminger certainly made some bad movies — there are useful commonalities among an early series of films that might roughly be grouped and labeled as noirs: namely, Laura, Fallen Angel, Whirlpool, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Angel Face (Daisy Kenyon might be regarded here as well, missing only a murder to tilt it from melodrama into bona fide crime flick). Taken together, one can trace quite a few of Preminger’s preoccupations, from favored actors (particularly Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews) to Freudian psychoanalysis to, of course, the director’s highly-refined mise en scène. The son of a powerful prosecutor in Austria, Preminger came up through the theater before arriving in Hollywood, and his subtle yet complex sense of staging seems to come from an intermingled understanding of confined, stage-like spaces and the camera’s ability to intersect with and constantly redefine just such settings. These early films, mostly made at Fox or on loan to RKO, are modestly scaled, pitched more at exploring the dark recesses of aberrant behavior than the grand spectacle Preminger would eventually embrace. He was a notorious bully on sets (and never relinquished his air of regal, faux-aristocracy), but his noirs frequently worked to subvert this pomposity; after all, they usually feature easily manipulated men being conned, double-crossed, and murdered, a common enough genre trope but one deployed with enthusiastic fervor by Preminger.
The early 1950s were a turbulent time for Preminger, as detailed by Chris Fujisawa in his indispensable critical biography The World and Its Double: The Life and World of Otto Preminger. Recently divorced and on the hook to the IRS for thousands of dollars, he scored a much needed hit with the Broadway play The Moon is Blue in 1951 (later adapted to film by Preminger himself), and in 1952 appeared as an actor in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17, forever cementing his public persona as a kind of urbane tyrant. Later that same year, as a favor to producer Howard Hughes, Fox would loan Preminger to RKO to helm Angel Face, which Hughes was desperate to produce while star Jean Simmons was still under contract. Preminger was initially unhappy about the project, but had little recourse to refuse the studio. Ultimately given free rein to revamp the screenplay to his own liking, Preminger concocted a twisty, nasty thriller, in possession of a plot that barrels ahead toward a breathtakingly bleak ending.
Angel Face begins with ambulance driver Frank (Robert Mitchum) arriving at the Tremayne estate to treat a case of poisoning. The victim, wealthy scion Catherine Tremayne, insists that the gas in her room was turned on and the key to shut it off hidden. The men momentarily contemplate an attempted suicide, but finally deduce that it’s all a misunderstanding, an accident chalked up to the vicissitudes of womanhood. It’s here that Frank first meets Diane (Simmons), the victim’s stepdaughter. She’s a meek thing, fragile in the way of a porcelain doll, and Frank is immediately smitten. Dave Kehr calls Simmons “blank” in the role, not in the pejorative sense but as the embodiment of a fascinating opaqueness. She and Frank dance around a relationship, much to the chagrin of Frank’s current girlfriend, Mary (Mona Freeman). There’s a seductive, serpentine, quality to the resultant narrative here, as Frank becomes intertwined with Diane while she, in turn, manipulates him, first by calling Mary out of the blue and telling her that Frank has been spending time with her, and then by telling Frank that her stepmother isn’t interested in investing in his dream of opening a garage and racing cars (a lie, although Frank doesn’t know that). We learn that Diane has been trying to kill Catherine for some time, and eventually succeeds when she tinkers with Catherine’s car so that it reverses and careens off the side of a cliff that butts up alongside their palatial estate. But the plan goes awry when it also kills her father Charles, a last-minute passenger, at the same time. Here the film shifts gears, so to speak, as Frank and Diane stand trial for the murders. After getting married in an attempt to gin up sympathy with the jury, the pair are eventually acquitted. Frank rejects Diane and tries to get back together with Mary, who in turn rejects him. Frank returns to Diane and the Tremayne mansion, agreeing to drive her somewhere on his way out of town. Instead, Diane drives them both over the same cliff in a murder/suicide mirroring her father and stepmother’s demise.
One could spend several thousand further words detailing the myriad plot intricacies in Angel Face, but what’s most interesting is Preminger’s style, and specifically how it illuminates and deepens the film beyond mere story mechanics. There’s a fascination with power dynamics that animates the proceedings; Mitchum at first seems miscast as the patsy, but Preminger takes full advantage by placing his square, hulking boxer’s shoulders next to the petite Simmons. Diane, of course, is not so demure as she first appears, but Preminger manipulates and reconfigures our understanding of each of the characters in turn. Frank and Diane’s first meeting involves him slapping her, before she slaps him back. His bemused half-smile suggests that he likes this exchange, and adds a psycho-sexual edge to their courtship. Catherine is introduced as a hysterical victim, although it’s later revealed that she was of course correct to be paranoid. Further, the family fortune is actually hers. For his part, Charles is not a wealthy gentleman but a lush who’s dependent on his second wife for a monthly allowance, which he promptly squanders on Diane. She, in turn, manipulates freely, and a scene of her playing chess with her father clearly delineates their relationship: she feigns ignorance while he indulges her every whim. Preminger films various interactions here in long takes that gradually reorient who is the dominant force in any given scene, a shifting power struggle of sorts. The trial sequence is a miniature masterwork all on its own, a precursor to later projects like The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell and, of course, Anatomy of a Murder, one of Preminger’s most renowned films. There’s a documentary-like shift to minute detail, stopping the movie cold to explain the workings of a steering shaft.
As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has written, “Out of all directors, Preminger was probably the one least interested in truth. His interest lay in fact…” Which is to say that Preminger isn’t a moralist, at least not in any traditional sense. When Diane demands to confess her guilt and Frank’s innocence to her lawyer, he casually explains the concept of double jeopardy to her, that she could scream her confession from a rooftop or broadcast it on the radio and it wouldn’t matter. In the eyes of the law, she was acquitted, and questions of guilt or innocence are no longer important. The film’s most famous sequence occurs after the trial scenes and the eventual acquittal; a series of long takes follows Diane around the vacant mansion, as she slowly walks the halls and peers into rooms like an apparition. It’s a highly subjective moment in an otherwise objective film, allowing the audience to briefly identify with Diane. Her implacable façade crumbles as she, and by extension Preminger, contemplates the void of her existence. Following the explosive demise of Frank and Diane, the camera returns to just outside the front door of the Tremayne mansion as a taxi cab pulls up. The driver gets out and honks the horn, waiting for a passenger who will now never show up. It’s an odd but brilliant note to end on: there’s a kind of indifference at play, a cosmic shrug, and in the end, the world keeps turning after our small little dramas have played themselves out.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.