“This noir heroine comes very close to having it all: the house, the money, and the freedom. Kitty Collins, Kathie Moffatt, and the rest of the femme fatales would have been exultant. They’d have tried to knock some sense into Diane, told her not to mope about and enjoy the jackpot. But she is something of an angel. She repents.”
Can film noir accommodate remorse? If a character who stands for the most quintessential noir qualities wishes to undo the consequences of his or her actions — not for monetary gain or the headiness of sudden sexual desire but out of genuine regret — does it compromise the genre? Otto Preminger’s Angel Face features precisely such an atypical heroine; one who starts out as a mildly wily seductress and ends as a sadder, wiser, perhaps even better human being. In charting this trajectory, Diane Tremayne fails to live up to her tougher sisters. Does this disqualify Angel Face from membership in the noir club?
Evidently not, if one goes by the iconography surrounding the film. A glance at its posters attests to the suggestive power of stock noir elements: a woman, a man, an embrace, and a car tilted at an angle to convey death-dealing speed. Jean Simmons (the eponymous angel) stares straight at the viewer; her face (the eponymous “face”) dominates the visual field. In a French poster the “face” contains the merest soupçon of menace, and a challenge. It floats against a livid background, daring the viewer to equate it with the “Infernale beauté” emblazoned below in the colors of a surging flame. Another poster shows the “face” anchored above a stream of light emanating from a car. In the surrounding darkness we read the legend “She loved one man…”, completed below (rather predictably) by “enough to KILL to get him.” “He” appears in the form of Robert Mitchum, brows raised infinitesimally to signal his particular brand of placid resignation. The contrasts between the “face” — a dark-eyed, beautiful Medusa — and Mitchum — combed, suited, politely bored — are telling. The angel is clearly the femme fatale and Mitchum, the fatale-d.
But if film posters could be sued for libel, nearly all of them would end up in the dock. In the first place, the angel most definitely loves two men, not one. Secondly, it is questionable that she kills in order “to get” Mitchum. And last but not least, the connotations of the smouldering stare, the solipsistic, unflinching ruthlessness it suggests, is signally lacking in Diane Tremayne’s character. To be sure, she starts out as a promising noir candidate. The film begins with a botched attempt on her part to kill her stepmother; she hates the woman for being mean to her father (Herbert Marshall), whom she adores. (“Mean” here alludes to the stepmother’s requests that he write the novel he’s always harping on about instead of leeching off her). Diane meets ambulance driver Frank Jessup (Mitchum), immediately decides that he’s the man for her, and goes about enticing him away from his girlfriend, Mary, by promising to finance his dreams of owning a racing car garage. (Frank is an ex-race car driver). The motif of cars is not accidental; Diane succeeds in finishing off her stepmother by tampering with the brakes. Unknown to her is the fact that at the last minute her father had hitched a ride in that very vehicle. (This is entirely consistent with his character, which always prefers the easy way out). She ends up losing him as well.
At this point, things change dramatically. Diane is prostrate with grief over the death of her parent and distraught that Frank is charged with murder along with her. She insists that he didn’t do it. Nobody listens. When defense attorney Fred Barrett (Leon Ames) is assigned to the case, he gets Diane and Frank to marry so that they can’t incriminate each other, then proceeds to concoct an elaborate story about their secret passion and desire to elope so that the jury sympathises with their plight. It works. Diane and Frank are acquitted, they return to the mansion, which now belongs to Diane, and prepare to live as a happily married, fortuitously rich, couple. But Frank has had enough. He decides that Mary is the one for him and leaves. When Mary won’t have him, he returns, only to pack his bags for Mexico. Diane offers to go with him, and when he refuses, she begs to be allowed to drive him to the station. He, poor fool, concedes. She drives him and herself down a precipice instead. The film ends with a shot of the taxi that Frank had called (to drive him to the station) drawing up in the driveway of the empty mansion.
The second half of Angel Face resembles a Greek tragedy in which the protagonist is set, against his or her will, on an inexorable path to an unwanted destiny. Where Kitty Collins, Kathie Moffatt, Phyllis Dietrichson, Elsa Bannister, and Brigid O’Shaughnessy strenuously resist that destiny because it spells death, Diane Tremayne wishes for it. “I would give my life gladly to bring them back. Both of them,” she says, and means it. This noir heroine comes very close to having it all: the house, the money, and the freedom. Kitty, Kathie, and the rest would have been exultant. They’d have tried to knock some sense into Diane, told her not to mope about and enjoy the jackpot. But she is something of an angel. She repents.
That this repentance is not a last-ditch effort to save herself is clear from the way it suffuses the later sections of the film. It appears in public when Diane repeatedly asserts from her hospital bed that Frank did not do it. It occurs in private, at a mellow moment, when Frank and Diane are alone in the cavernous space of the mansion. If detached from the rest of the film, this scene would convince anybody that Frank was the murderer. It is he who decides (sardonically) to celebrate with a drink, preferably bourbon; it is he who claims, coolly lighting a cigarette, that “It’s done. All the talk in the world won’t change it.” Regret also appears palpably in the official environs of the defense attorney’s office, which Diane visits in order to make a signed confession. When told that she cannot be tried again for the same crime, she is aghast. Her attempts to do precisely what Frank claims cannot be done detract from the fundamental motto of noir protagonists: Thou shalt not feel sorry.
But there are also other ways in which Diane Tremayne remains distinct from her counterparts, all of which go toward nudging Angel Face out of the contours of the genre as it is defined. Diane has a comfortable home and a doting father. She refers to her “family” in conversations with Frank — not something that noir females usually do. While her father goes out of his way to buy her expensive dresses with his wife’s money, Diane looks after his daily (and nightly) needs, such as putting milk and biscuits on his bedside table. (Milk and biscuits, for God’s sake — in a film noir)! The scene in which they have a hurried secret conference together contains traces of the father-daughter relationship in that other Preminger product Bonjour Tristesse (which, incidentally, also ends badly for the stepmother). Furthermore, Diane is a generous employer. When she contemplates closing the mansion, she gives the majordomo and his wife a tidy sum and tries to make sure that they get a good position elsewhere.
The scene that follows her decision to leave is a journey through the mansion. In it Diane walks down a hall, opens doors, enters rooms, and touches objects with a cool but nonetheless pathetic yearning. It is reminiscent of another sensual amble from 20 years before, featuring another coolly enigmatic heroine: Greta Garbo, as Queen Christina, in the room at the inn where she spends the night with the Spanish envoy. There is a meditative quality to Diane’s wandering, heightened by Dimitri Tiomkin’s elegiac score. Although visually appropriate with a fine play of shadow and light, the nostalgia implicit in the section feels ever so slightly gratuitous; an anomaly in a film noir. But what does it hope to convey? Why insert this extended walking tour of the house and its grounds? Why show Diane looking, touching, sighing? I have watched this portion several times and am convinced that it is not simply a hiatus from the demands of the drama, but rather a spatial reinforcement of the tragic convergence of Diane’s two loves: the filial and the erotic. She uses Frank (and his knowledge of car transmissions) to get her father all to herself; she uses her father (or rather, her father’s death) to get Frank all to herself (by pleading that he not leave her in the face of the tragedy). There is no reason why the two loves could not have coexisted. But it is the peculiarity of this particular plot that the filial love and the erotic somehow tangle, even though there is no obvious conflict between them, and that both shatter as a consequence of that entanglement. Diane walks from the spaces she used to share with her father (picking up, then replacing a piece on the chessboard they used to play at) to Frank’s quarters where she picks up a robe belonging to him, and wraps it around herself. It is a scene that wishes to go back to the way things used to be, when chess was a game between two living people and when Frank inhabited those rooms while waiting for his garage to come through; a hopeless hope for what is lost. If we mistrust Diane’s protestations of remorse, this scene reaffirms it. It is a visual and deeply wistful confirmation of the verbal.
And speaking of words, what are we to make of Frank’s stance toward Diane’s machinations? On the surface, he seems to be yet another avatar of Mitchum’s famously laconic persona. But Frank has a side to him that differs from that other noir fall guy, Jeff Bailey, in Out of the Past. Jeff falls head over heels in love with Kathie Moffat. Whatever he does he does out of a burning desire that makes him intone “Baby, I don’t care” even as she spouts lies for him. Frank Jessup is curiously detached in comparison. He dines and dances with Diane, leaves his job to become a chauffeur in her household, and stands Mary up. But he doesn’t do these things out of an amour fou. The film beguiles its viewers into thinking this is the case (partly because of the noir tag it carries), but all said and done, Frank’s decisions are made out of good, hard sense, not lust. It is only expected that a man should leave his job as an ambulance driver to take up a better-paid one as a chauffeur, just as it is entirely reasonable that he shouldn’t mind hanging out with a pretty girl, even if it means hurting his girlfriend. This last relationship isn’t fully developed; Frank shares his dreams with Mary, but he hardly evinces a grand passion for her.
And that, I believe, is the big white elephant lurking in the structure of this odd, dark film: the consistent lack of passion in the characters. They are fond of money, racing cars, and the good life — who isn’t? — but they are not so devoted to these things that they’ll commit murder for them. Nor are they madly in love with each other. Worst of all (or perhaps, best of all), they do not dissimulate. When Diane makes a feeble attempt to do so by telling tall tales about her stepmother, Frank sees through her at once. Diane kills not for Frank’s sake, but for her father’s. When she ends up killing Frank, she also annihilates herself. Whether this is done out of undying love for him or fear at living out her guilt without the only person left to her in the world is debatable. In either case, the fact that she doesn’t hesitate to destroy herself speaks for a singular lack of self-protection in Diane. The entire film feels cool because of the missing ingredient of passion, even if it is reserved solely for oneself. Or, to put it another way, the lack of passion — simulated and otherwise — makes the film weirdly authentic, and therefore, curiously cold.
This last point is borne out by a critical leitmotif: Diane’s relationship to music. The first time we encounter her, she sits at a piano, playing. She does this a few times over the course of the film, but in each case, her expression is frozen. The score rises and falls, but Diane remains unmoved. Her aloofness is at odds with the subtle movements of, say, Kitty Collins as she sings, “The More I Know of Love” in The Killers and the inflections fleeting across Elsa Bannister’s face as she hums, “Please don’t love me” in The Lady from Shanghai. Kitty and Elsa attest to a self-presence when they sing. Their voices and the words of their songs create a subtext that makes their affective powers apparent. The very fact that they can put their heart and soul into a tune implies that “putting it on” comes easy. They lend themselves well to performance, and perform they will, in every situation that calls for it. We don’t have this sort of access to Diane’s voice. The necessary physical distance between herself and the piano translates into the detachment underlying the entire film, its characters and their relationships.
Which brings me back to my original question, now rephrased: Can film noir accommodate remorse and the lack of passion (even, and especially, pretended passion)? Is Angel Face a “soft” noir because it includes or excises these key elements? I would argue that it still remains a worthy example of the genre. The usual noir suspects are deployed; it’s just that they are diluted and a novel element is thrown in for good measure. If noir protagonists find themselves in tight corners and take desperate measures to break out of them, then Diane does the same. The difference is that her corner is simultaneously simpler and more complex: she wishes she hadn’t done it. She becomes a victim of her own conscience, which is as relentless a pursuer as any betrayed lover or gangster. Perhaps it is this pursuit, more properly a drama of interiority, that makes Angel Face such an exceptional noir. On its face (pun partially intended), it adheres to some of the rules of the genre, but it conceals a temperament uncomfortably close to that of an angel — albeit, a fallen and penitent one.