Angel Face (1952): Preminger’s Film Noir, Starring Mitchum and Jean Simmons

One of Otto Preminger’s most fully realized films, Angel Face is still underestimated by scholars and critics alike.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Angel Face
Angel face b.jpg

Theatrical release poster

An exploration of sexual power and obsession, Angel Face is a quintessential film noir, starring the young Jean Simmons as a wide-eyed murderess (a role that would become associated in later decades with Tuesday Weld).

As scripted by Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard, based on Chester Erskine’s unpublished story, the film begins with ambulance driver Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum, in top form) being summoned to the estate of Mrs. Tremayne (Barbara O’Neill). A near victim of asphyxiated gas in her bedroom, Mrs. Tremayne is saved by Jessup.

However, the “good” news throws stepdaughter Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons) into hysteria, which doesn’t prevent Jessup from falling for her and breaking his engagement to the good Mary (Mona Freeman).

Diane persuades her father (an excellent Herbert Marshall) to hire Jessup as the family chauffeur.

Jessup suspects that Diane is scheming a car accident for her hated stepmother, but he can’t help himself falling for her.

Desire, obsession, and fatalism, film noir’s most consistent motifs, continue to play their roles up to the bitter end, including a fatal car accident, in which both of Diane’s parents die.

The middle (and weakest) reel, is a conventional court melodrama, in which Diane and Jessup are tried and then acquitted by the jury.

It recalls the court sequence in the superior noir film, The Postman Always Rings Twice, not least due to appearance of Leon Ames in both features as an attorney.

All the familiar noir types are here, the seductive, wealthy and malicious femme fatale, the fallen guy hero, as well as the notions of destructive sexuality by a Lolita-type of child-woman.

Spoiler Alert

When Diane returns to the mansion, Frank is about to leave, calling a taxi. She begs Frank to take her to Mexico with him, but he refuses. However, he agrees to let her drive him to the bus station. Diane then quickly shifts the car into reverse and steps on the gas pedal, sending them to their deaths over the same cliff where the previous murders had occurred.

In the very last scene, the taxi driver arrives, honking while waiting for Frank to arrive, failing to realize that he has gone off the cliff.

Jean Simmons

Mitchum renders a wonderfully understated performance, but the real revelation here is Jean Simmons who, cast against type, has never been more alluring. By the early 1950s, most viewers knew Simmons as the ingenue from her roles as Ophelia in “Hamlet,” for which she was Oscar-nominated in 1948, and as the young Ruth Gordon in Cukor’s period memoir, “The Actress.” Simmons would go to a long and successful film career, appearing in a variety of genres.

Critical Status–Then and Now

Upon initial release, Angel Face was treated as just another crime melodrama, but in later years, the film–and Preminger’s entire oeuvre–were subjected to a more serious and positive evaluation,   In 1963, French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard listed it as the 8th best American Sound film


Robert Mitchum as Frank Jessup
Jean Simmons as Diane Tremayne
Mona Freeman as Mary Wilton
Herbert Marshall as Charles Tremayne, Diane’s father
Leon Ames as Fred Barrett, Frank and Diane’s defense attorney
Barbara O’Neil as Catherine Tremayne, Diane’s stepmother
Kenneth Tobey as Bill, Frank’s fellow ambulance driver
Raymond Greenleaf as Arthur Vance, Catherine Tremayne’s estate attorney
Griff Barnett as judge presiding over the trial of Frank and Diane
Robert Gist as Miller, forensic expert on automobile who testifies during the trial
Jim Backus as District Attorney Judson, in charge of prosecuting Frank and Diane


Produced, directed by Otto Preminger
Produced by Otto Preminger
Screenplay by Frank Nugent, Oscar Millard, story by Chester Erskine
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
(composed and conducted)
Cinematography Harry Stradling, A.S.C.
Edited by Frederic Knudtson

Production company: Howard Hughes Presents

Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures

Release date: February 4, 1953 (Premiere-Los Angeles), February 11, 1953 (US)

Running time: 91 minutes
Budget about $1 million