There is a moment in Otto Preminger's film noir classic Angel Face, when you realize along with film's prize chump fall guy, ambulance driver turned chauffeur Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum), that the night has collapsed and that he is getting in too deep. Jessup is alone in his room and is trying to hook up with his true love Mary (Mona Freeman). Mary is out with another guy and Mitchum proceeds to loosen his tie, take a long drag on his cigarette and allows the coffin nail to hang from his lips as he gazes into the abyss with a stark, haunted, and hopeless expression. He then loosens his tie a bit more.
In Angel Face, Robert Mitchum, the poster boy of film noir, signs off on the genre with his last great portrait of doom. As Jessup, Mitchum is a hunk of a man and knows it but his laconic self-assurance belies that fact that all the women he meets in Angel Face, both good and safe (Mary) and evil and possessed (Jean Simmons' Diane, a cute and an attractive but not-so-innocent package of venality and psychosis), overpower him, and the evil one wins out.
The film begins with an ambulance racing up to Tremayne Mansion (an imposing edifice high on a steep hill looking down upon L.A.) with Jessup the driver racing to save the life of a potential suicide victim, the rich Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O'Neil). Rescued in the nick of time, Mitchum stumbles upon her stepdaughter Diane in the study, sitting at the piano, playing a bleak Dimitri Tiomkin dirge. The two exchange lustful, soul-consuming glances and that's it. Diane's full-orb gaze swallows Jessup whole and suddenly she regresses into a crying jag, broken up by a slap on the face from the man. Immediately, Diane slaps Jessup back and apologizes. Jessup responds in pure Mitchum baby-I-don't-care, "That's alright. I've been slapped by dames before." Here is a relationship make in film noir heaven, and Jessup quickly finds himself embroiled in an uncomfortable fog of psycho-love, Diane being a chamber-music Ruth Berent from Leave Her To Heaven, while Jessup and Diane ultimately find themselves sharing alibis in a double-murder engineered by sweet Diane.
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. The by then clichéd story line is pared away and brought down to an elemental level -- 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.
Until the ending, which slaps you awake in an explosion of nihilistic violence.
The DVD features a lively commentary by film noir historian Eddie Muller, who relates a great Mitchum anecdote: Preminger, in his sadistic glory, had Mitchum repeatedly slap Simmons harder and harder in take after take. Finally, at the end of his rope, Mitchum, when prompted by Preminger to slap Simmons yet again, instead turned around and, slapping the surprised face of Preminger with full force, then asked, "Is that the way you want it, Otto?"
Where's your wings, baby?