Monday, February 14, 2011

Noir City Northwest: Angel Face (1952)/The Hunted (1948)

Donate to the Film Noir Foundation

Today marks the start of the For the Love of Film Preservation blogathon, with the proceeds going to the Film Noir Foundation. My thanks to Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren for organizing and hosting the event, and especially for choosing the FNF as this year’s beneficiary. Visit their sites for links to a host of bloggers writing about noir.

More to the point, click on the very first link to make a contribution to the FNF, which will go to funding a restoration of the film The Sound of Fury. I don’t ask for much, kids. But if you’re a regular reader of the blog, please kick in a few dollars to the cause. Any amount you can give, no matter how small, will help to preserve one of America’s most lasting artistic movements.

And now, on with the show ...

Angel Face was the film in this year’s lineup that I was most interested in revisiting because ... well, it always left me cold. Odd, considering it stars noir titan Robert Mitchum and is directed by Otto Preminger. The plot is certainly solid. Ambulance driver Mitchum responds to a suspicious accident at a swank L.A. manse and finds himself drawn into the web of poor little soon-to-be-rich girl Jean Simmons, who comes complete with wicked stepmother (victim of the aforementioned accident). The legal maneuvering by Leon Ames thickens the plot nicely, and if you judge a film by its ending then Angel Face should be gangbusters. Yet I’d found the proceedings curiously low-boil and never quite compelling.

But Eddie Muller was on hand with valuable background. He screened the film in Los Angeles with Jean Simmons in attendance but not in the audience, because she found watching Angel Face too painful. Over a Big Mac in the green room, she recounted why. Producer Howard Hughes, angry over Simmons’ spurning of him, put her in the film to end her contract but told Preminger to make the production a living hell. Simmons seems to have taken an actor’s revenge, offering a realistic and internalized portrayal of obsession in a film that cries out for an over-the-top approach. The resulting tension isn’t fully satisfying, but it is interesting. And there’s much to appreciate throughout. Especially those last few minutes.

The Hunted is an example of the FNF at its best. Once upon a time there was an ice skater turned actress known as Belita, who didn’t particularly enjoy ice skating or acting. She appeared in a trio of noir films, and at some point in each of them the action literally stops cold so Belita can take a turn on the ice. Eddie has written the definitive piece on Belita’s strange career. It’s also available in the Noir City Sentinel Annual #2, which additionally includes several pieces by yours truly.

In The Hunted Belita plays Laura Mead, freshly sprung from a jolt in Tehachapi after being sent there by her boyfriend, Detective Johnny Saxon (Preston Foster), for her role in a jewelry heist. Insisting on her innocence, Laura went to prison vowing to kill the men who destroyed her life. Now she’s out, and Saxon watches her closely even as he falls for her all over again. Things start slow, particularly with a mind-boggling expository scene between the two leads that seems longer than Inception. But the film builds up a head of steam thanks to a script by pulpmeister Steve Fisher that toys with every femme fatale convention. Belita has an authentic presence, abetted by a sleek athletic build that makes her look unlike any actress of the era. Only a misfire of an ending keeps this from being a true sleeper.

Because of the Film Noir Foundation, all three of Belita’s films have been preserved on 35mm so that future generations can ponder her mystery. Which reminds me to ask you again: go up top, click the link, and make a contribution. You won’t regret it.