Otto Preminger’s domestic noir Angel Face (1952) makes absurdly good use (twice!) of one of the great cinematic clichés—death by “going over the cliff.” The cliff, in this case, is a 150 ft drop behind a posh mansion owned by a once-great writer, his young and fabulously wealthy second wife, and her stepdaughter Jean Simmons. Robert Mitchum is the chauffeur that Simmons drags into her murderous, Oedipal melodrama. He is slightly less interested in “all that,” however. Mitchum’s disaffected, disconnected persona fits perfectly in this overly stuffed psychodrama. Just as Simmons takes her neuroses and anxieties too seriously, Mitchum seems interested only in the sex, and what little pay his driving skills can earn him. Together, they strike a balance that makes the film watchable, but hardly credible. Too much time is spent on resolving the murder plot, which is ultimately of little importance, and not enough on the lesser, not-so-symbolic details. Writers Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard (working from a story by Chester Erskine) assemble the narrative rather haphazardly, inserting scenes for a singular effect only, while never fully grasping the overall impact of the completed scenario, which is more psychologically affected than effective. Otto Preminger’s direction is so consistently slight it is as though he were trying to remove himself as director from the film. At his most effective, Preminger is able to communicate not only plot, but also psychological motivations, purely through visual and sound montage—that is through cinematic means, rather than literary. The most haunting scene of the film is a short segment that begins with a character sitting down to play the piano, and as the notes ring out Preminger cuts to another character stepping into a car. The piano carries over on the soundtrack, and its presence transcends to omnipresence; without any other hints, we become aware of the murderous trap that has been set. But moments such as these are rare in Angel Face, and more often than not, instead of being reticent Preminger seems only remotely interested in the material at hand.
Jules Dassin’s Two Smart People (1946) goes too far in trying to create that sellable, box-office concoction of the charming criminal: a man so handsome women can’t help but to be manipulated, a thief but nothing so reviling as a murderer, and one who’s caught between the desire to get away with the loot or to get away with the girl. John Hodiak is on a train back to Sing Sing to do time for stealing some bank bonds (that are still missing), Lloyd Nolan is the officer assigned to ensure he makes it back to New York, and Lucille Ball is the femme fatale who’s after the bonds (and who of course falls for Hodiak in the process). I couldn’t care less for the plot, but sadly Dassin and his screenwriters Leslie Charteris and Ethel Hill clearly do. The narrative is strictly literal, and even Karl Freund’s cinematography can’t bring any abstraction or ambiguity to the film. But whereas Hodiak’s and Ball’s characters are too compromised—perverted by the need to appeal to a mass audience—Elisha Cook’s is able to maintain a relative purity, and is the only worthwhile element to the film. Cook plays a sleazy lightweight crook who tries to use Ball as bait to get the bonds, and while he’s a convenient complication for the plot (audiences need drama, no?) he isn’t overly villainized nor sweet-toothed. He’s the only authentically hardboiled character in the film, and one gets the impression that he is acting without regard for popularity, without pretense, and without ulterior motivations: likeability, plot, sex-appeal and commercialization haven’t gotten to Cook yet (nor did they ever). Ultimately, Two Smart People’s concoction of romantic comedy and film noir is neither so satiating nor satisfying: it brings with it all the weakness of the former (complacency, corn and cheese) and disregards all the strengths of the latter (a primary concern for atmosphere, a minimalist conception of plot, and an overall sense of moral ambiguity).
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.