Femme Dissection: Angel Face
Jean Simmons – perhaps best known for her portrayals of pious biblical women, as in The Robe or Spartacus – was an excellent choice for the title role in Angel Face (1952) – a murderous she-wolf in deceptively refined sheep’s clothing. Her polished English accent and velvety eyes combine to create an image of a genteel, well-bred young girl brimming with sweet sincerity. This façade is shattered in the first few minutes of the film. (Watch out for spoilers – like savoir faire, they’re everywhere!)
As Angel Face begins, paramedic Frank Jessup, portrayed with typical deadpan machismo by Robert Mitchum, is attending to Katherine Tremayne (Barbara O’Neil), who has been overcome by gas escaping mysteriously from an open jet in her bedroom. The medical technicians sedate the distraught woman and the camera takes us downstairs, where we get our first glimpse of Simmons’ Diane, Mrs. Tremayne’s stepdaughter. As though nothing more exciting than a quiet game of Parcheesi were going on above her head, Diane sits at her piano in a dimly lit room, playing a classical tune. Her face is a blank slate, devoid of all emotion.
When Frank enters the room to inform Diane that her stepmother will live, Diane bursts into tears, only to stop instantly when Frank delivers a slap to calm her hysteria. A woman in a film of a less dark nature might then collapse onto the nearest settee, overcome with emotion. But not this angel. Her face registers surprise, then disbelief, and, finally, fury. Without another moment’s hesitation, she matter-of-factly returns Frank’s blow. We need no other indication to show us what this character is all about.
During the course of the film, and with seemingly little effort – a lingering gaze, a come-hither smile – Diane manages to break up Frank’s long-standing relationship with his fiancé, Mary (Mona Freeman), and indirectly secure Frank’s help in murdering her stepmother. In one scene after another, she slowly reveals the devious mind that is buried behind her sweet smile, and the warped sense of morality that is concealed by her angelic mask.
Part of Diane’s ability to accomplish her deeds lies in her subtle brashness, a quality that is first demonstrated on the evening she meets Frank. Shortly after his departure from her home, Diane’s roadster is seen roaring into the night. She follows him to a small café and less than five minutes later, Frank is breaking his date with Mary to spend the evening with Diane – a woman about whom he knows nothing more than that she lives in a mansion and has a mean right hook. As Diane listens to Frank fib his way through the phone conversation with his fiancé, a cool, knowing smile curves her lips. It was, obviously, no more than she had expected – like most femmes of this sort, she is fully aware of, and confident in, her effect on men. Before long, Frank’s relationship with Mary is finished, just as our angel intended.
Diane Tremayne is a rather unique noir femme. She does not smoke or drink, and when the film begins, she is only 19 years of age – much too young to have acquired the world-weary air that accompanies many women of this film type. Also, as opposed to most of noir’s bad girls, Diane Tremayne is accustomed to having money, if only because of her father’s marriage to Katherine when Diane was 10 years old. While other film noir femmes might be striving to acquire fortunes, Diane has, for years, enjoyed the privileges that money can bring – and she doesn’t intend to be without them.
From the start, it is apparent that Diane suffers from what Freud would term the “Electra Complex” – she has an unnatural attachment to her father (Herbert Marshall) and resents the presence of her stepmother in his life. In several scenes, Diane is shown assuming many of the responsibilities typically handled by a wife, including serving her father’s “milk and biscuits,” mixing his cocktails, and making sure that his cigarettes and matches are left beside his bed at night. And while out with Frank at a nightclub, Diane confesses that she has not danced with any other man since coming to America – “except my father.”
Like a number of men in films of this sort, Frank is patently unable to resist Diane’s charms. Shortly after their first meeting, he allows Diane to talk him into quitting his job to become her family’s chauffeur, despite his initial negative reaction to the idea. Later, when Frank begins to get wise to Diane and prepares to leave the Tremayne house, it only takes Diane a matter of minutes to use her kisses and wide, brown eyes to reel him back in like a fish on a line. “I don’t pretend to know what goes on behind that pretty little face of yours, and I don’t want to,” Frank says, obviously operating under a severe case of conscious denial. Diane begs Frank to take her with him and he ultimately agrees, but insists that they live off of his income. For this angel, that is not enough – she wants Frank, but she is not willing to struggle financially to have him. So, she pursues other avenues. Diane uses her burgeoning relationship with Frank to learn from him the information she needs to rig her stepmother’s car so that it plunges off a cliff. (In another revealing demonstration of Diane’s warped mind, she – with uncharacteristic generosity – loans a new pair of gloves to her stepmother just before Katherine takes her fatal car ride.) Contrary to Diane’s well-laid plans, however, her father is along for the ride and is also killed – an unplanned by-product of Diane’s scheme that nearly drives her completely bonkers.
After the murder, Frank’s eyes are fully, irreversibly opened about Diane, particularly after he is arrested along with her for the crime. To her credit, though, Diane tells her attorney that she alone committed the dirty deed – a cause that she continues to champion until the attorney suggests that she and Frank get married in order to play on the sympathies of the jury. At the prospect of becoming Frank’s wife, Diane complacently abandons her impassioned denials of his innocence. With her father now gone, her fanatical devotion is now focused completely upon Frank. The crafty attorney, portrayed by the always-interesting Leon Ames, does manage to convince the jury that both Diane and Frank are innocent of the murders, but upon returning home, Frank informs his wife that he is heading to Mexico for a divorce. He should have known that Diane wouldn’t give up without a fight. And she doesn’t, pulling out all the stops as she begs him to stay: “You don’t hate me, really. You couldn’t hate anyone who loves you as much as I do . . . I can’t let you go, darling – I just can’t.”
It can almost be viewed as a benevolent warning when Diane informs Frank of her inability to allow him to walk out of her life. Unfortunately for Frank, he doesn’t get the hint. After Diane finally accepts that Frank has made up his mind to leave her, she proposes to drive him to the bus station, calling once again on her feminine talents to coax him into an acceptance. It will be Frank’s last mistake. If you haven’t seen this film, I’ll sidestep one final spoiler and keep this last bit of business under my hat. But suffice it to say that the conclusion to Angel Face offers a violent and startling illustration of the concept that if “I can’t have you, nobody else will.”