Notes on Angel Face

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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.

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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.

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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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this was previously published in THE DARK PAGES, a newsletter for film noir fans; click here to check out the latest issues

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14 thoughts on “Notes on Angel Face”

  1. Wow!! To quote Thelma Ritter, everything but the bloodhounds yappin’ at her behind!! It sounds like poor Jean went through hell on this film; good for Mitchum for sticking up for her…

    1. it wasn’t an ideal way to get authenticity for her role, but maybe it worked, she sure turned her situation and character into something compelling to watch!

  2. A very troubled and unpleasant production all round – the wonder is that the finished film turned out as well as it did.

    1. It really did–I enjoy the movie too, I guess the motivation was sure there for Jean, if she needed extra. She could really play a good psycho, for such a sweet lady 🙂

      1. Yes, but you know, the best thing she did in the movie is that scene towards the end when she wanders round Mitchum’s empty quarters and eventually falls asleep there. It’s a really subtle and sensitive piece of work. A great actress.

        1. yes subtle is the word, always such nuance and also edge where needed, you always find these little things she includes and makes seem so natural.

  3. I think the back story of Angel Face is more interesting than the movie itself! I love that story of Mitchum slapping Preminger! It’s very much in line with Mitchum’s character. HA!

    1. With Preminger & Hughes that’s often the case! Such supersized personalities forever tinkering etc. Yeah I can totally picture that moment with Mitchum 🙂

    1. I always hesitate to repeat some of these stories since you can read so much and just never know 100% truth, but having said that I 99% believe the story about him, sounds true to his character

  4. This is such a strange, black movie; wonder how much of it came out of the offscreen circumstances (no doubt Simmons’s almost catatonic performance was influenced by the stress she was under). Fascinating to know that this was based in part on a real-life murder – I’m always interested on finding out how many classic movies were based on real-life cases; it gives a sense of how Hollywood distilled reality.

    1. for sure, I love info like that too– just like now, filmmakers and writers can’t help but absorb and recycle whatever is newsy and capturing public attention. There’s a blog series or book idea for you, some notable or even forgotten real life cases/trials as seen through films.

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