In 1950, Howard Hughes had bought out Jean Simmons’ contract from Rank, and by 1952 was facing her in court over his refusal to release her on loan to other studios. There was also a personal element to the conflict; she had thoroughly resisted Hughes’ advances, which were vulgar, according to Simmons’ then-husband Stewart Granger. Hughes was determined to work Simmons to the max while he still had control of her, so in the 18 days left on her contract he put her to work on Angel Face. Director Otto Preminger was loaned from 20th Century Fox to helm this black tale of the psychotic, scheming femme.
Simmons’ character, a daddy’s girl, plots to do away with her stepmother. After her first failed attempt she meets ambulance driver Robert Mitchum, manages to lure him away from his job and nurse girlfriend Mona Freeman, and into her clutches. Simmons’ murder plot finally works out with unintended results, leading to a murder trial, a marriage, death and destruction. Shooting went on under the title Murder Story, a retelling of the Electra complex, blended with the facts of a real life murder trial where a young heiress stood accused of murdering her parents. It was scripted by Oscar Millard and Frank Nugent, but the memorable car crashes were Preminger’s own idea. He based the pivotal, shall we say “maneuver” on his own bad driving and confusion with automobiles.
Simmons, bristling under Hughes’ attempt to dictate the minutiae of even her hairstyle, showed up with a do-it-herself short haircut and had to wear a wig for the film. Preminger demanded repeated takes of Mitchum slapping Simmons (until Mitchum indicated Otto might make a more suitable punching bag), and repeatedly fired crew members, who kept returning the next day at Hughes’ orders. Shooting ended with the summer, Simmons won her lawsuit, and even though she sought freedom and no money, was awarded substantial compensation, and we got a not at all bad noir with Angel Face. Hughes impulsively sold off his RKO stock in September ’52, only to buy it back and resume control in ’53, re-sell and re-buy a few more times before unloading RKO for good in 1955 to General Tire & Rubber Co.
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