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Nov 7, 2014

Noirvember: Femme Fatale Friday - Jean Simmons in ANGEL FACE (1952)


Warning: There are SPOILERS ahead. I indicate where the truly big ones are.

One look at Jean Simmons in Otto Preminger's Angel Face (1952) and you can tell she is a woman longing for something. She plays the piano exquisitely (thanks to an haunting score by composer Dimitri Tiomkin) in a way that at first captures the attention of Beverly Hills EMT Robert Mitchum, then she slowly pulls him into her world. Mitchum is his usual laconic self here, but he's not dumb. He knows there is something mentally wrong with Simmons and in one scene even points out that he is aware of her murderous thoughts yet stays with her anyway. That's part of the magic of her character as she states later in the film "I know how to get things out of people." All the qualities of a first class Film Noir Femme Fatale.

Jean Simmons makes her moves on easy target Robert Mitchum
The picture opens with Jean Simmons' stepmother (Barbara O'Neill) nearly dying from gas inhalation. Did she try to kill herself? "No" states husband Herbert Marshall, "then she would miss her bridge club and that isn't likely to happen anytime soon." Having seen many Film Noirs, I started filling in some blanks and threw an accusing eye at Marshall. He's not that great with money - as evidenced from a conversation he has with O'Neill - and is kept on a monthly allowance leash that he frequently goes over. It's a Noir picture so it's not hard to imagine there being some sort of insurance policy or inheritance that Marshall would benefit from upon O'Neill's death.

Mitchum knows Simmons is bad news, but is still a sucker for a warm embrace and those haunting eyes
It quickly becomes evident though that Simmons is the character to be suspicious of. She seduces Mitchum who has no problem lying to his girlfriend (Mona Freeman) about why he didn't come to see her that night (as he lies to her, we see a table set up for a romantic dinner behind her - ahh Mitchum you cad). Simmons knows how to get her man as she takes Freeman out to lunch and tells her all about her evening with Mitchum (all innocent of course). Mitchum almost manages to make Mary forget about his slight, that is until he bold-face lies to her about it again. Simmons' dirty work is now complete, and the man she has her eyes on is on the path to being hers. Freeman is a 'good' girl and Simmons is the haunted rich woman who gets what she wants no matter the cost. Mitchum is easy prey and although it is obvious he should stay with Freeman, we're glad he doesn't because she can do so much better.

Simmons will do anything to get rid of barriers between her and the men she loves
So what does Simmons want with Michum? In a typical Film Noir plot she'd use Mitchum to help her kill her stepmother so that the two of them - and presumably her father - can get their hands on all the money and property. Mitchum is just a working class lug who drifts from job to job with a faint dream of owning his own garage and getting back into racing. Even with that announced he doesn't seem to have all that much ambition nor is he overly active towards achieving his goal. While yes, Mitchum does end up having an unwilling (and unknowing) part in the major crime that propels the film into the main dramatic conflict, Simmons is more concerned with not only keeping him to herself but then oddly making sure that none of the blame for the incident falls on him.

Lawyer Leon Ames argues to keep Simmons and Mitchum out of the Gas Chamber
[SPOILER ALERT] She wants her stepmother dead because she feels that this woman has stolen her father away from her and ruined him. However when she finally carries out the murder (one of THE most spectacular car crashes ever put on film) she accidentally hurts both her Father and Mitchum. Later in the picture, Mitchum wants nothing to do with this woman and thinks he can just wander back into the life of Freeman who he discarded like an old rag. Upon failing that, he still won't stay with Simmons and decides to go to Mexico. We have seen how Simmons operates, and how she is willing to kill - even the people she loves the most with no remorse - just to calm her stormy mind. She knows what she's doing too given that she tries to confess to killing her Stepmother and Father to her callous lawyer who doesn't bat an eyelid to the fact that she had committed cold-blooded murder. In this picture, the lawyer (played by Noir regular Leon Ames) is more of a criminal than the murderess herself given that she wants to come clean and he just doesn't care.

Jean Simmons turns her back on stepmother Barbara O'Neil
Jean Simmons brings a pathos to this role even when she's carrying out murders. With the exception of a few romantic interludes with Mitchum, she has this permanent vibe of sadness about her. When Mitchum is dragged into her web of guilt post-murder, her only concern is to help him be free - and nobody at all (with the exception of the police) believes for a moment he had anything to do with it, another Film Noir rarity.

Jean Simmons and Robert Mitchum on trial for murder
Jean Simmons could be the first Femme Fatale to not care at all about the inheritance she stands to gain upon the death of her target. She is solely focused on the men in her life who she seems entirely ok with sacrificing. The ending for this picture will shock you even if you figure out what is going to happen before it does (I did) and Preminger doesn't let us off the hook for a second as the camera sticks with every horrific moment of it. It is the only ending that this picture can have. It is the only way that Simmons' character can get what she wants and finally be at peace.

Jean Simmons wraps herself in Robert Mitchum's jacket