The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Angel Face

Through no fault of their own sometimes, actors/actresses get typecast as playing one character.  Play enough bad guys and audiences want to see you as bad guys, like Anthony Perkins in Psycho.  Others always play the  cute girl next door and are never given a shot to do anything else.  My example here is Jean Simmons who passed away this past January.  To be fair, I've only seen her in a couple movies, but she looks like the most innocent, angelic person ever in those roles.  Well, I've seen her play a femme fatale now, and to say the least, she's good at it.

A later entry into the film noir chapter, 1952's Angel Face rides on Simmons' shoulders to keep the viewer guessing as to what's going on and what's going through her head. And I guess really that she's not the prototypical femme fatale, not in the typical sense of the definition when it comes to film noir.  But whatever you want to call her part, it is impressive.  Simmons' innocent, doe-eyed look brings you in thinking she's not capable of harming a fly, and then WHAM! There goes the fly.  I'll add spoiler warnings for any twists -- and there are a few -- but be aware they're coming.

Working as an ambulance driver to save money for an exotic car garage, Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) is dispatched to a house in the hills outside Los Angelese.  It's there he meets Diane Tremayne (Simmons), the daughter of the patient.  Her stepmother almost asphyxiated when gas was pumped into her room.  The police investigate but come to no conclusions.  Frank puts it behind him, but Diane keeps popping up and the chemistry and romance begin (Frank seems awful clueless at times).  She wants to help him start up his garage and offers him a better paying job as the family's chauffeur.  He somewhat suspiciously accepts the job but finds out this family isn't all it is cracked up to be.  Diane's father (Herbert Marshall) has remarried to a rich woman (Barbara O'Neil) who is jealous of the relationship he has with his daughter.  Can Frank get out of this mess?

I was surprised throughout this movie at the way Simmons is able to pull off cute and innocent one scene and then throw you for a loop with a scene that clearly shows she's not all there in the head.  One extended scene has Simmons walking through the house with a glaze over her face like she doesn't believe what's happened.  SPOILER STOP READING SPOILER She wants to kill her stepmother, but in trying to set up an accident gets her father killed too.  END OF SPOILER  Director Otto Preminger doesn't go all the way in making Diane crazy though.  A sub-plot with Frank's girlfriend Mary (Mona Freeman) dating co-worker Kenneth Tobey is generally let by the wayside, but made me think at some point we'd find out Diane killed her or set her up in some way.

Watching Simmons do her thing, I was reminded of Fatal Attraction with Michael Douglas and Glenn Close.  Like I mentioned, Simmons doesn't go full-on crazy, but I'd wager Close had seen this movie at some point because the influences are all over the place.  As for Mitchum, he's one of my favorite all-time actors, but this has to be his dumbest character ever.  He never seems to catch on to what's actually happening around him.  Even at a trial late in the movie, he seems disinterested in finding out the truth.  There's a part of me wanting to scream at him 'Run for the hills, brother! She's nuts!' but of course stupid characters don't suddenly become aware of how stupid they are.

I did enjoy much of the movie, but some pacing problems exist.  A long 15-20 minute scene is a courtroom scene late in the movie as Diane's lawyer (Leon Ames) does his best to acquit her and Frank with the district attorney (Jim Backus) doing his damnedest to throw the book at them.  It's interesting enough as the two go back and forth, but Simmons and Mitchum are left in the background to grimace or look nervous every once in awhile.  I'd bet neither says a word for 10-minutes plus during this segment.  It doesn't help that Ames' defense lawyer is one of those slimy types you just want to pop in the face.  After over an hour with Diane and Frank, the courtroom segment seems out of place and unnecessarily slows things down.

Following the trial and all its fallout, the ending comes as more of a shock in its violence than in a genuine surprise.  About five minutes out, I called what was going to happen, and how Mitchum's Frank didn't see it coming I'll never know.  But when it does come, it is a doozy, and a good one.  Even with the slower parts, that's the movie as a whole; a good one.  Strong directing from Preminger and Simmons and Mitchum have good chemistry together.

Angel Face <----(1952): ***/****

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