Angel Face is a 1952 film noir directed by Otto Preminger that, although lesser known than some of his other movies, has a cult following of its own and is a well respected example of the genre.
Jean Simmons stars as the Angel Face in question, Diane Tremayne, opposite noir fave Robert Mitchum. Simmons was more commonly seen in rather more innocent roles, but she plays the part of a devious femme fatale chillingly well. From the first moment Mitchum happens upon her playing piano, every nerve in your brain is screaming ‘run Bobby, run, this dame is Bad News!’
But you know Rob M – he is a red-blooded dude! He is thinking with an organ other than his brain! What’s a guy to do! Diane very quickly has him bedazzled, like a first-class chump. His poor regular girlfriend Mary doesn’t really stand a chance. It is a film noir so you know of course that this isn’t going to be a fun-filled tale, but despite treading a common path, the story still manages to engage and at times, genuinely shock. Jean Simmons impassive face and restrained performance keeps you unsure exactly what her deal is throughout the film; this is a three dimensional femme fatale.
Behind the scenes, Howard Hughes had been trying unsuccessfully to seduce Simmons, then married to dishy Stewart Granger. He also had control of her contract, and put her in this film before her contract with him finally ran out a mere 18 days later. She wasn’t happy about being cast in the film and in retaliation cut her hair, knowing Hughes hated short hair on women (she is wearing a wig throughout the movie). Hughes then convinced Otto Preminger, notoriously bad tempered, to direct, telling him “I’m going to get even with that little bitch, and you must help me.” In a scene where Robert Mitchum’s character Frank hits Diane, Preminger told him to “slap her for real”, then proceeded to re-take the scene over and over again. Finally Mitchum turned around and slapped Preminger, asking ‘is that how you want it?’.
The costumes by Michael Woulfe help to define Diane’s character and the story growth itself. She begins in a series of outfits that seem young, even slightly demure, but what I find interesting are the variety of thick belts that sharply define her waist in several earlier scenes – metallic, studded, and patent leather. These are not nice girl belts. Later, as the situation develops into something more complex, she ‘grows’ into wearing suits. Her hair also changes from having a cute fringe, to a more adult pulled back style. In the final scenes, her style has simplified to something more modest – she is no longer trying to ‘trap’ anyone, but instead having to deal with the more complicated business of how her plans have gone wrong. The time for playful seduction has passed.
Mary (the girlfriend) also has a few costumes of note. In a scene with Frank at her apartment, Mary opens the door wearing (gasp) a slip under an open robe. Then gets changed wearing her slip in front of him. Then asks him to do up the zip on her dress. Scandalous! This is clearly not a platonic relationship. The apron she wears throughout a later scene is also clearly demonstrative of the decision she has made.