Film Review: Angel Face (1953)

Also known as: Murder Story (original script title), The Bystander, The Murder (working titles)
Release Date: January 2nd, 1953 (London premiere)
Directed by: Otto Preminger
Written by: Frank Nugent, Oscar Millard, Chester Erskine
Music by: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Mona Freeman, Herbert Marshall

Howard Hughes Presents, RKO Radio Pictures, 91 Minutes

Review:

“Charles, at times your charm wears dangerously thin. Right now it’s so thin I can see through it.” – Mrs. Catherine Tremayne

This was a film that Otto Preminger didn’t want to direct but he was persuaded by producer Howard Hughes, who wanted Preminger to use his rule on the film’s set to torture Jean Simmons. What can I say, Hollywood was sick. Not that much has changed, as a lot of really dark shit has been brought to light over the last few years.

A scene where Mitchum slaps Simmons was one instance of the torture that the starlet had to endure. Preminger demanded retake after retake where he instructed Mitchum to hit Simmons harder each time. Mitchum, having enough, walked over to Preminger, whacked him across the face and said, “Is that hard enough for you, Otto?”

This stuff, as far as I know, has never been revealed until TCM’s Noir Alley host Eddie Muller discussed it when this film was recently featured on the show. He had done an event with Simmons and she had a hard time, went backstage and eventually told Muller of the bad memories of her experience making Angel Face.

The script was apparently shit, which is the main reason why Preminger didn’t want to direct the film but there were rewrites and he was given control over it. The only catch, was that he had to make Jean Simmons’ life hell.

All that insanity aside, this did turn out to be a pretty good picture. Maybe all that real life tension and drama carried over into the performances by Simmons and Mitchum.

The film also benefits from having that standard RKO film-noir look. Preminger has a stellar eye behind the camera but the cinematography of Harry Stradling was really good. Not quite at the level of his Academy Award winning films: The Picture of Dorian Gray and My Fair Lady but he was certainly on his A-game and made a fine looking picture in the noir style.

The Dimitri Tiomkin score is strong but it doesn’t stand out among a lot of the more prolific film-noir pictures of the day but I did enjoy it and it helped marry the tone of the emotional context of the film, as well as its visual look. Everything came together really well but the score was the glue.

It’s unfortunate that Jean Simmons had to put up with such abuse on set. Frankly, it’s pretty unforgivable. Still, despite this, Angel Face is a much better than average film-noir.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: Other Otto Preminger films: LauraFallen Angel and Anatomy of a Murder, as well as some of Robert Mitchum’s other noir pictures: Out of the PastThe RacketHis Kind of Woman and The Locket.

Film Review: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Release Date: July 1st, 1959
Directed by: Otto Preminger
Written by: Wendell Mayes
Based on: Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver
Music by: Duke Ellington
Cast: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant, George C. Scott, Duke Ellington (cameo)

Carlyle Productions, Columbia Pictures, 160 Minutes

Review:

“Twelve people go off into a room: twelve different minds, twelve different hearts, from twelve different walks of life; twelve sets of eyes, ears, shapes, and sizes. And these twelve people are asked to judge another human being as different from them as they are from each other. And in their judgment, they must become of one mind – unanimous. It’s one of the miracles of Man’s disorganized soul that they can do it, and in most instances, do it right well. God bless juries.” – Parnell Emmett McCarthy

If you ever told me that I’d watch a courtroom drama that’s nearly three hours long and that I’d love it, I’d call you a liar. Nothing is more boring to me than court movies. They’re overly talkie, use an abundance of legal jargon I don’t care to know and they just sit there, in one room, seemingly forever. Hell, I hate when television shows I love go into some multi episode courtroom story. I hate courtrooms, I hate jury duty and I thought Court TV was something that old people watched, hoping it would kill them sooner.

Yet, Anatomy of a Murder is to courtrooms what 12 Angry Men is to jury duty. It took something that I have less interest in than dusting sand and made it compelling, engaging, entertaining and hooked me emotionally. In short, it’s a spectacular film that I was glued to from start to finish.

I have become a fan of Otto Preminger’s work, especially his film-noir stuff. While this isn’t noir, it has that distinct Preminger touch and visual allure. It’s clean, crisp, warm and has a strange magnetism that pulls you in. Preminger really was a master of the silver screen, as his films always looked immaculate yet lived in with a sort of grandiose aura about them.

The absolute highlight of this film is seeing two legendary actors: James Stewart and George C. Scott, go head to head as rival lawyers during the trial that is the focus of the story. And really, I think that it is the incredible performances by these two that lured me in, even more so than this being a Preminger film. James Stewart just owns this role and his mere presence prevented this film from having a dull moment. George C. Scott was a great accent to Stewart, giving him a powerful foil to play off of. Stewart was like a 24 oz. bone-in tomahawk ribeye while Scott was the best Béarnaise sauce you could ever hope to taste.

The film also dealt with very controversial subject matter for the time. The trial involved a murder that was committed in defense of the killer’s wife being raped. This was taboo stuff for the 1950s and there’s even a scene in the film where the judge has to explain to the people in the court that he won’t permit any giggles or snickering at the mention of the word “panties”.

Anatomy of a Murder is a long film but it doesn’t feel like it. The set up and investigative stuff before the trial is probably the slowest part of the movie but that doesn’t take too long and once you are in the courtroom, this picture just takes off and doesn’t come back down until the credits roll.

This is a pretty perfect film for its time and its subject matter. It goes to show what kind of magic Hollywood can produce when you have a premier director and two paragons of pure acting talent.

Rating: 9.75/10
Pairs well with: 12 Angry Men, Orson Welles’ The Trail and two of the James Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock collaborations: Rope and Rear Window.

Film Review: Fallen Angel (1945)

Release Date: October 26th, 1945
Directed by: Otto Preminger
Written by: Harry Kleiner, Marty Holland
Music by: David Raksin
Cast: Alice Faye, Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, Charles Bickford, Anne Revere, Bruce Cabot, John Carradine, Percy Kilbride

20th Century Fox, 98 Minutes

Review:

“Then love alone can make the fallen angel rise. For only two together can enter Paradise.” – June Mills, quoting a book

Fallen Angel is another film-noir that re-teams Dana Andrews with director Otto Preminger. While it isn’t quite the picture that Laura was, it is still a much better than decent noir outing that greatly benefits from the inclusion of Linda Darnell and Alice Faye. John Carradine even makes an appearance as a famous fortune teller.

The plot of this one is pretty interesting but not too different from a typical noir scenario, except it does have a fairly happy ending.

Dana Andrews plays Eric Stanton, a drifter with bad luck that gets stranded in Walton, CA because he doesn’t have the bus fare to make it all the way to San Francisco. In a diner in Walton, Stanton falls in love with the waitress Stella (Darnell), as does every man that sees her. Trying to win her over and marry her, as the movie rolls on, Stanton works his cunning and attracts the wealthy June (Faye). He leads June to believe that he loves her and the two are quickly married. Stanton plans on ending the marriage and taking half of her fortune, so that he can impress and marry Stella. Of course, as these things go, there are twists and turns and some surprises.

Otto Preminger got the very best out of his actors, even if he was sometimes cruel to Linda Darnell. Somehow, his cruelty got great performances out of her and even though she legitimately feared the man, the two worked together on several pictures for the sake of their art and creating magic together. I can imagine that it was probably very similar to how Stanley Kubrick would work Shelley Duvall into a manic frenzy in order to get real reactions out of her in The Shining.

Fallen Angel feels a bit confined, at times, with tight and cozy sets but it adds to the film tonally. Even when the characters are outside, like the scenes with the beach in the background, things are always dreary and somber. As the picture moves on, the tale gets very dark but it is a noir where there is actually a light at the end of the tunnel and the despicable main character actually finds his right place in the world and becomes somewhat heroic. The ending feels as if the tight confining grip has now released itself over these characters and the world they were living in.

Preminger did a fine job managing the narrative and the style of the picture, which greatly enhanced the film as a whole and worked in a truly symbiotic way.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: Laura (1944)

Release Date: October 11th, 1944
Directed by: Otto Preminger
Written by: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Betty Reinhardt, Ring Lardner Jr. (uncredited)
Based on: Laura by Vera Caspary
Music by: David Raksin
Cast: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson

20th Century Fox, 88 Minutes

Review:

“I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.” – Waldo Lydecker

I was talking to my mum about noir pictures and she told me that this was one of her favorites. We actually came to talk about it while also discussing Vincent Price, a favorite actor of mine. Wanting to work my way through Otto Preminger’s films, this has been in my queue on the Criterion Channel for a bit. So I decided to check it out and because I also like the rest of the cast, especially Dana Andrews.

The fact that I hadn’t seen this yet, is surprising. Granted, my mum may have had it on when I was a kid and I was too busy killing Optimus Prime with my Megatron figure for the 142nd time.

Also, all I knew of Otto Preminger, back then, was that he was one of the three actors to play Mr. Freeze on the 1960s Batman television show. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered he was an accomplished director and a real auteur.

Laura is quite exceptional and a great example of Preminger’s style. It has alluring camerawork and amazing tracking shots. It also utilizes some quick edits, such as a sweeping tracking shot going from one subject to another and then cutting right back to the first subject. While this isn’t a big deal by today’s standards, it was a pretty unique and nontraditional approach to shooting, at the time. But film-noirs were very experimental and tried a lot of new things, Preminger being one of the directors that really led the charge.

Like a typical noir, the film uses a high contrast but the lavish interiors of most of the sets keeps things less dark and gritty than many other pictures in the genre. Granted, the narrative and tone are dark but it exists in contrast to the opulence and elegance that lives on the screen and captures the saucy New Yorkers that populate this mystery tale.

The film also employs a small cast and everyone plays their part to perfection. It was really cool seeing a young Vincent Price in this but the film was really carried by the strong performances from Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb.

Andrews was the debonair and clever detective and I think he would’ve made a perfect Batman in the 1940s. Tierney really owned her role as the title character and did a fine job of luring in the males of the picture. Webb, however, was the real meat and potatoes of the picture. I loved his character and he was a real cantankerous fussy pot, for lack of a more fitting description.

This was a great film-noir with a lot of layers to it. It has a major shocking twist that really flipped the film on its head in the best way possible. Preminger created a visual and narrative treasure, a film that is a great monument to the noir style, even if the picture takes some of its own liberties that propel it away from a few specific genre tropes.

Rating: 9.25/10