Preminger provides hands-on direction in ‘Angel Face’

Angel Face/1952/RKO Radio Pictures/91 min.

Angel Face posterWho in his right mind would bitch-slap an angel? Well, in film-noir, no one is really in his right mind and in “Angel Face” Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons) isn’t quite what you’d call a cherub.

No, her heavenly exterior (spoiled but stunningly gorgeous rich girl) masks a demonic core (cold-blooded killer). So when hysterical Diane takes a smack from her beloved Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) she hits him right back.

That’s cool for the characters, but I wonder what excuse director/producer Otto Preminger had? When filming the scene, Preminger insisted on repeated takes of Mitchum slapping Simmons.

Fed up, Mitchum slapped Preminger, asking, “Is that how you want it?”

Preminger retaliated by trying to fire Mitchum, but Howard Hughes, the real power behind the movie, refused. Hughes wanted Mitchum and Simmons. He wanted Simmons off-screen as well and made a pest of himself trying to seduce her, no matter that she was married to Stewart Granger.

With Preminger and Hughes harassing her, Simmons was lucky to have Mitchum around to stick up for her – you might even say he was her guardian angel. Maybe Preminger couldn’t handle the pressure; for contractual reasons, the whole film was shot in about 18 days.

The movie was knocked by critics upon its release, but was later ranked by the great French director Jean-Luc Godard as one of the 10 Best American Films of the Sound Era. It’s worth watching on that basis alone. Oh, and then there’s 90 minutes of looking at Mitchum. Mmmm. It’s worth watching on that basis alone.

Spoiled rich girl Diane (Jean Simmons) wants Frank (Robert Mitchum) all to herself. So there.

Spoiled rich girl Diane (Jean Simmons) wants Frank (Robert Mitchum) all to herself. So there.

Here’s the setup: Responding to a medical emergency at the Tremayne home, ambulance driver Frank meets a strange little family, with skeletons aplenty: Diane and her Daddy (Herbert Marshall) enjoy loafing around their roomy mansion and do their best to avoid Dad’s stick-in-the-mud second wife Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O’Neil, who was also Scarlett’s mom in “Gone With The Wind”).

Diane gloms onto Frank, even though he has a girlfriend, the virtuous, slightly bland and aptly named Mary Wilton (Mona Freeman). Frank’s basically a good guy but loyalty isn’t his strong suit. Learning that his dream is to open a garage, Diane convinces her folks to hire him as the family chauffeur; she tells Frank that her indulgent parents might just throw some start-up cash his way.

But when Mumsy suddenly starts getting stingy, Diane decides to arrange a tragic car “accident” for the stuffy Mrs. Moneybags. What could go wrong? Well, Daddy could also get in the car (he does). And Diane and Frank could wind up getting charged with murder (they do).

Diane and her Daddy (Herbert Marshall) enjoy loafing around their roomy mansion. Dad’s second wife Catherine (Barbara O’Neil) foots the bill.

Diane and her Daddy (Herbert Marshall) enjoy loafing around their roomy mansion. Dad’s second wife Catherine (Barbara O’Neil) foots the bill.

Diane doesn’t sweat it, though. She can afford a pricey, clever lawyer Fred Barrett (Leon Ames). Thanks to his legal maneuvering and the legal ineptitude of District Attorney Judson (Jim Backus, yep, that’s Thurston Howell III, aka Mr. Magoo), she and Frank are acquitted.

They’re free, but Frank’s not about to stick around, even though he knows firsthand that Diane has a knack for causing fatal accidents and that she has a way of getting all “If I can’t have him, nobody else can either” about things …

“Angel Face” is not a definitive noir. The camera work and lighting don’t contribute to a sense of doom or create a mood of suspense. There’s far too much sunshine and fresh air here. Dimitri Tiomkin’s romantic music lends lightness as well.

None of that should diminish its standing, however. This quirky flick – which owes a debt to “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946) as well as 1945’s “Leave Her to Heaven” and “Fallen Angel,” which Preminger also produced and directed – has flashes of original brilliance: a splendid cast; perfectly symmetrical story structure; an unhurried pace. Frank Nugent, Oscar Millard and an uncredited Ben Hecht wrote the script from a Chester Erskine story.

“Angel Face” shows how noir flexed and began to reinvent itself in the ’50s, reacting less to post-war malaise and more to the conformity and quiet corruption of the 1950s. Note all the references to the power, temptation and ultimate taint of money. Nearly everyone becomes a victim of greed.

The trial scenes, with Preminger’s trademark long takes, prefigure his courtroom drama masterwork, “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959) starring James Stewart, George C. Scott and Lee Remick.

Mitchum is, gloriously, Mitchum. And Simmons makes an unforgettable Eisenhower-era femme fatale: the dangerous, decadent diabolical rich girl. When Godard and Jean Seberg created the treacherous beauty Patricia in “Breathless,” they must have been thinking, at least a little, of Simmons’ Angel Face, the gorgeous girl who got slapped.

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Director takes a gamble in yuletide yarn ‘Lady in the Lake’

Lady in the Lake/1947/MGM/103 min.

Mistletoe and holly, egg nog and parties, guns and murder. In “Lady in the Lake,” based on Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name, actor/director Robert Montgomery mixes Christmas traditions with ironic noir style.

After Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter) hires Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery), their relationship morphs from business to pleasure.

While sleigh bells are jingling, Montgomery’s Philip Marlowe, the famed private eye, is trying to find a mystery woman named Chrystal Kingsby. Chrystal is married to Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames), the owner of a book publishing company in Los Angeles; she was last seen at the Little Fawn Lake resort.

Marlowe’s been hired by one of Derace Kingsby’s employees: uptight and bossy Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter), a sharp-tongued executive editor with designs on her boss and his money. She chooses her detective not from the yellow pages but from a crime-caper manuscript Marlowe submits for publication – some effective multitasking she’ll no doubt include on her performance review. Though Adrienne’s all about business and bank balances at first, she softens as sparks fly between her and Marlowe.

Heading to Bay City (based on Santa Monica), Marlowe checks in with Chris Lavery (Dick Simmons), a Southern-transplant playboy with whom Chrystal was having an affair. But a punch from Lavery lands Marlowe in jail and he wakes up to questioning from Capt. Kane (Tom Tully) and Lt. DeGarmot (Lloyd Nolan). After his release, Marlowe learns that a woman’s body has been recovered from the lake and that the caretaker has been charged with murdering his wife, Muriel (Jayne Meadows). He also finds Lavery’s dead body.

From there, as Marlowe puts together the pieces of the puzzle – a multiple-identity scam, another murder, several soured love affairs, Chrystal’s part in the proceedings – Adrienne realizes that Marlowe, not Derace Kingsby, is the man for her. (Look out for blonde actress Lila Leeds as a receptionist at the publishing company. Leeds was arrested with Robert Mitchum on Aug. 31, 1948, for possession of marijuana.)

More interesting than the plot is way the movie was shot. Montgomery plays Marlowe but we see very little of him in character because Montgomery as director took a stylistic risk by using a subjective/first-person camera and telling the story from Marlowe’s point of view.

The audience sees Marlowe in the mirror when he pays Adrienne a visit.

First-person camera had been used before – briefly in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1931, Rouben Mamoulian) and “Murder, My Sweet” (1944, Edward Dmytryk) and most notably for about 30 minutes in “Dark Passage” (1947, Delmer Daves, starring Bogart & Bacall). But this was the first time the whole movie (other than a few times when Marlowe speaks directly to the audience) unspooled in this manner.

It’s a daring experiment and a bigger deal than you might think, involving a number of technical, staging and acting challenges. In their excellent commentary on the Warner Home Video DVD, Alain Silver and James Ursini provide insight as to what this artistic decision meant for Montgomery.

For example, the film has very long takes and far fewer cuts than most movies of its time – this serves to build suspense but is tough to execute. For the actors as well (other than Montgomery) this presented hurdles. They were required to address the camera directly (something they’d been trained to avoid) and they faced the pressure of knowing that if they goofed toward the end of the take, the whole lengthy shot would have to be redone.

Bad girl Muriel (Jayne Meadows) corners the unseen Marlowe.

Additionally, Silver and Ursini point out that because “Lady in the Lake” was an MGM production (as was “The Postman Always Rings Twice” the year before), it had to conform somewhat to the studio’s preferred look: high production values and high-key lighting – unlike most noirs, which used low-key light and featured richer shadows, more intense chiaroscuro.

So, did the shooting experiment work? Chandler, who drafted a script that Steve Fisher rewrote, thought Montgomery made a mistake. And having watched “Lady in the Lake: a few times, I’m inclined to agree. First, despite the marketing gimmick of putting the viewer in the detective’s shoes and urging him/her to solve the crime, “Lady” feels artificial and stilted, perhaps because the long takes lend a slightly stagey feel to the performances.

Lila Leeds, who plays the receptionist at the publishing company, was arrested with Robert Mitchum in 1948 for possession of marijuana.

Not seeing much of Montgomery/Marlowe makes it hard to connect to the story (typically Chandlerian in its twists and turns) and puts too much weight on the shoulders of the other players. While Totter and the rest are very capable, they can’t quite pull off such a distorted view for the duration of the movie. It’s too big a hole for any cast to fill.

And Marlowe isn’t particularly sympathetic because we only glimpse him here and there instead of seeing him interact with the others – especially Totter. For their romance to work, we need to see them together!

That said, I don’t want to get all Bah-Humbug about this yuletide yarn. “Lady in the Lake” is fun to watch just for the novelty value and I love to picture Adrienne sprawled on a sofa and whipping out her red pen to shape Marlowe’s manuscript as he mixes her a martini, garnished with a candy cane, natch.

“Lady in the Lake” will show in 35 mm at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on Wednesday, Dec. 19, as part of Noir City Xmas 3. The evening will also feature the unveiling of the full schedule for the Noir City 11 film festival.

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‘Lady in the Lake’ quick hit

Lady in the Lake/1947/MGM/103 min.

It’s Christmastime and most self-respecting femme fatales are shopping, decorating and wooing men a tad younger and slimmer than Santa. In “Lady in the Lake,” from the Raymond Chandler novel, our leading lady is Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter), a quintessential ’40s career girl and gold-digger. Adrienne’s an executive editor in a publishing company with designs on her boss Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames).

Sifting through the pile of manuscripts on her desk, she comes across a submission from private eye Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery, who also directed the movie). She’s lukewarm about Marlowe’s writing but she calls him into her office for a chat anyway – she wants to hire him to find her boss’s wife Chrystal so she can have the boss all to herself.

As dead bodies begin to pile up, Marlowe must put his literary aspirations on hold to focus on solving murders. “Lady in the Lake” is famous for Montgomery’s decision to tell the story from Marlowe’s point of view, using a subjective/first-person camera for the entire movie.

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Classic Cain, power plays, Turner and Garfield in ‘Postman’

The Postman Always Rings Twice/1946/MGM/113 min.

In the opening of “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” a sign reading “MAN WANTED” flashes at us twice. This man, John Garfield as it happens, is really wanted. But you wouldn’t know it from Lana Turner’s imperious entrance.

She drops a tube of lipstick, then deigns to let him pick it up and return it to her. He decides to let her get it herself. She’s unruffled and he’s hooked. In a way, these first few minutes of the film foreshadow the sexual power play between Garfield’s Frank and Turner’s Cora.

The godless-like Cora, with her platinum hair, pouty lips and gorgeous curves, is arguably Turner’s most memorable role. One of film noir’s most famous femmes fatales, she is by turns a come-hither, passionate seductress and an icy blonde who likes to be the boss. Notice how often she wears white, sometimes from head to toe.

Lana Turner as Cora and John Garfield as Frank cook up trouble in the restaurant Cora runs with her husband.

Garfield as Frank gives her a run for her money, both in looks and attitude. Ephraim Katz writes of Garfield (born Julius Garfinkle, the son of a poor immigrant Jewish tailor): “[His] screen character was … not much at variance with his own personality – that of a cynical, defiant young man from the other side of the tracks, a resilient rebel with a chip on his shoulder who desperately tries to charm and muscle his way onward and upward.

“Despite the mediocrity of many of his films, Garfield’s boyish virility and his ability to project a soulful interior underneath a pugnacious façade made him an attractive star to many filmgoers. When given a proper vehicle, he proved himself a sensitive and solid interpreter.” (Garfield was later blacklisted for refusing to name friends as Communists in response to a House Un-American Activities Committee investigation.)

“Postman” more than qualifies as a proper vehicle. Frank, a hitchhiker at loose ends, stops at a roadside restaurant on the outskirts of LA and sees the MAN WANTED sign, posted by the owner, Cora’s chubby, cheerful, and much older, husband Nick (Cecil Kellaway). Nick persuades Frank to stay and work; not a bad deal considering that he also gets room and board.

Love on the rocks: Notice how often Cora wears white.

Before long, Nick and Cora become lovers and decide to do away with Nick so that they can start their new life together with a fat pile of cash. From there, things get darker and more diabolical. They botch their first attempt (death by electrocution) and their second try (they fake a car crash) results in charges being brought against them, which may or may not stick.

“Postman,” based on the James M. Cain novel and directed by Tay Garnett, is about as jet-black and unrelentingly bleak as they come. Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch wrote the script. There is no comic relief or guy-buddy subplot of the kind that you get in Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity,” also based on a Cain novel and written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler.

Also, the character of Nick gets a fair amount of screen time and, far from being a dire wretch of a husband (like the husband in “Double Indemnity,” played by Tom Powers), he’s affable and kind. He knows she doesn’t love him and even seems inclined to turn a blind eye if Cora and Frank want a romp in the hay. The dour vision of their betrayal, ill-fated reconciliation and their dogged determination to kill him feels far more uncomfortable – queasy even.

Because Garnett isn’t as visually stylish as many of the noir directors, “Postman” is a more blunt rendering than other essential noirs. But it’s also possible that Garnett, who was also a writer, was more interested in exploring the nuances of Cain’s book. Garnett and Cain grapple with the deepest issues of noir – for example, upending the myth that America is a classless society.

Cecil Kellaway (left) plays Nick, Cora’s husband, who is not bad as portly older husbands go. This lends his murder much gravity.

Only slightly less chilling than the violence perpetrated by the waitress and the manual worker, Garnett suggests, is the cavalier, snarky attitude of these two bourgeois buddies on the “right” side of the law (Leon Ames as district attorney Kyle Sackett and Hume Cronyn as defense lawyer Arthur Keats).

The case is nothing more than a game to them and they place a $100 bet on who will win. They’re not above using questionable methods to yield their desired results. Yet, they are considered upstanding members of society, whereas Cora and Frank are common criminals who must be punished.

Another point in Garnett’s favor: He gets excellent work from the leads and supporting players (also look out for noirista Audrey Totter). Cora and Frank are complicated parts that require range, depth and the ability to project irony.

Their love may be twisted, it’s true, but it goes through many incarnations and we sense that they are drawn to each other from mutual desperation and shared disappointment. As Frank tells her: “We’re chained to each other, Cora.”

Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange made a steamier version of the story in 1981, directed by Bob Rafelson.

To be sure, there’s no shortage of gloom. But, with leads as gorgeous and sexy as Garfield and Turner, every minute makes compelling viewing.

When Bob Rafelson remade the movie in 1981 with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson, replete with raunchy sex scenes, Frank and Cora sizzled once more.

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‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ quick hit

The Postman Always Rings Twice/1946/MGM/113 min.

“Postman” is from that strain of noir that prizes stark realism above all else, particularly humor and visual style. Based on a James M. Cain novel and directed by Tay Garnett, it’s a grim story of two lovers – blonde-bombshell temptress Lana Turner and earthy, streetwise super-hunk John Garfield – who bump off Lana’s wealthy husband, get away with it, but then face a whole new set of problems.

Hard-as-nails Turner makes a splendid femme fatale and Garfield matches her beat for beat. The great supporting cast includes Cecil Kellaway, Leon Ames, Hume Cronyn and Audrey Totter. Dour and dire, yes, but also sexy and compelling. Required viewing for any noir aficionado.

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