Angel Face (Otto Preminger / U.S., 1952):

Electra out of the Blitz and into Beverly Hills, just a stark dream shared between Otto Preminger and Howard Hughes. The lost princess in the castle on the hills is a raven-haired heiress (Jean Simmons), the hot-rodder turned paramedic (Robert Mitchum) is foolish enough to think he's in control, he slaps her and she slaps right back. A Nabokovian account: The British father (Herbert Marshall) has put down the novelist's pen, the American stepmother (Barbara O'Neill) deals with bridge parties and asphyxiation chambers, both end up at the bottom of the ravine in a shattered sedan. (The wreckage dissolves to the culprit impassive at her grand piano, the camera dollies in closer to try to read her darkling planet of a visage, and it can't.) "Look, I don't pretend to know what goes on behind that pretty little face of yours..." The trick resemblance is to The Postman Always Rings Twice, if only to seize the courtroom as the ultimate Preminger zone: "The truth is what the jury decides," declares the lawyer (Leon Ames) already versed in the director's sense of ambiguity before stepping into the arena with the district attorney (Jim Backus). Mitchum's "dead-body jockey" has a hard-boiled dictum ("Never be the innocent bystander") and a fiancée (Mona Freeman) with a romantic triangle of her own; Simmons' femme fatale meanwhile turns moral conscience after murder brings only solitude—the brackish view of the married state concocts an asylum marriage serenaded by inmates, then sees the couple drive not off into the sunset but "backwards into the abyss," as it were. (Only Lang in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt could match the closing tableau of vacant mansion and taxi driver.) A lyrical drift punctuated by shocks, a central Preminger work bridging his noir impressionism and his later institutional open-questions. For Rivette "a network of relationships, an architecture of connections," for Godard nothing less than one of the "ten best American sound films." Cinematography by Harry Stradling. With Kenneth Tobey, Raymond Greenleaf, Griff Barnett, and Robert Gist. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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