Friday, June 26, 2009

Preminger's "Angels"

There seem to be two major schools of thought regarding the directorial skills of Otto Preminger. Some believe that he made a terrific film in his first effort with Laura (1945), but could never come up with much success after that; these critics feel that Preminger’s style was simple and that he wasted many filmgoers’ time with his adaptations of blockbuster novels during the early part of the 1960s.

Then these are those like myself, who think that Preminger was a great director, offering films of great subtleties as well as especially fluid camera work. There was the scintillating Anatomy of a Murder (1959), a superb courtoom drama that grabbed us from the initial frames. Think about the world of Washington, D.C. that he put on the screen in Advise and Consent (1961), with the lies, secret meetings and backstabbing power plays – no other political film is as clever or as devastating.

There are many other examples I can give of Preminger’s directorial talent, from the inner workings of the Vatican in The Cardinal (1963) to the subtle psychological manners of Bunny Lake is Missing (1965). Preminger was a superb, highly structured filmmaker who succeeded in many different types of genre.

In this post, I will deal with two of his earlier films, Fallen Angel (1945), made at 20th Century Fox when he was under contract to that studio and Angel Face (1952), made for Howard Hughes at RKO. Preminger served as producer as well as director on both of these works; today his critics often praise his skill as a producer (rarely, if ever, going over budget) far more than his directorial skills.

Fallen Angel was Preminger’s followup at Fox to Laura and for this work, he surrounded himself with several of the same crew he used on that film; this included cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, art directors Lyle Wheeler and Leland Fuller, costume designer Bonnie Cashin and composer David Raksin. Perhaps the most famous member of Laura that returned for Fallen Angel was Dana Andrews, cast as the male lead. The director used Andrews, one of his favorite actors, in several more films in the 1940s and ‘50s; this set a tone throughout much of Preminger’s career as he would work with actors and technicians who contributed the type of work that pleased Preminger. The director’s temper tantrums became legendary and unfortunately, have overshadowed his creative efforts in the eyes of his critics; this is regrettable and I believe that studying his works in detail should prove what a talented director he really was.

Fallen Angel is one of the most stylish film noirs ever made. Just look at the introduction in which we view the title credits - written on road signs – from the front windshield of a bus as we hear Raksin’s bustling and tense title theme. This is a supercharged opening to a film that has several other wonderfully creative scenes.

The main character Eric Stanton (Andrews) is a loner who gets off the bus (he is forced off, as he didn’t have enough money for a full ride) in the California town of Walton, some 125 miles from San Francisco. He walks into a run of the mill diner, where we are introduced to Stella (Linda Darnell), a waitress who was missing for a few days. Everyone at the diner, from the kindly old owner, Pop (Percy Kilbride) to the gruff detective, Mark Judd (Charles Bickford) is relieved to see her. Stanton is intrigued by her shapely body and sultry looks; we know immediately that these two will tangle during a good portion of the film.

Darnell, who was Fox’s sexpot at the time, is just great in this role. Her husky voice and no nonsense ways give her a powerful image; she is able to attract men – and toss them aside – with ease. Stanton is obviously attracted, but he doesn’t back down from her ways, while in Stella’s eyes, Eric has a rough edge that appeals to her. He quickly romances her and then tells her he will marry her once he comes up with enough money. She is doubtful, but if he can deliver the cash, she will marry him, as she craves a normal life spent with one man who truly loves her.

His plan is to marry June Mills, a young woman living in town with her slightly older, domineering sister Clara (Anne Revere). June has a $25,000 inheritance owed her; Stanton plans to marry her, get his share of the cash and then dump June, in order to win back Stella.

The contrast between these two women is especially intrigiung:

Stella – brunette, sultry, rough, dominating, experienced in romance
June – blonde, pretty girl-next-door looks, charming, agreeable, few romantic affairs

But both seek the same thing – the comfort of married life.

Preminger takes this juicy tale and injects great style into it. He uses crane shots remarkably well in this film; the camera is constantly swooping down on the actors or gliding in between them. My favorite shot is when Eric and Stella are dancing cheek to cheek in one of those smoke-filled nightclubs you find in most film noirs. Preminger uses an extreme closeup and LaShelle lights this shot so that their faces alternately go in and out of the light. After a few seconds, Preminger’s camera follows them across the dance floor as they maneuver their way around other couples, finally extiting through the rear door, as their bodies disappear in the thick smoke. It’s a sexy shot and a memorable one.

Another beautifully directed and photographed scene is when we see June and Eric in bed at a hotel in San Francisco shortly after they have married. He falls asleep and she nervously gets up to go to the window. Preminger films this so that only the letters H-O-T of the hotel sign across the way are visible to the audience. As this is their first time in bed (Eric in his plot to please Stella left June’s home the night of the wedding), this is such a delicious moment! The shot is at night and Preminger stays with it through a dissolve to morning. H-O-T, indeed!

In Angel Face, the stylish camera work was not as evident, due to the budget restraints at RKO at the time. But Preminger managed to inject a lot of sexual tension in this film and there are many unforgettable sequences.

Working with a superb script by Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard from a Chester Erskine story, the film deals with ambulance driver Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) who becomes obesessed with Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons), a young woman who lives with the father she adores and the stepmother she detests. The two meet in the first sequence as Frank responds to an emergency at Diane’s house as her mother has been the victim of a not-so-accidental gas leak. After reassuring everyone that things are fine, Frank walks downstairs where he sees Diane playing a lovely romantic theme on the piano (a haunting piece of music by composer Dimitri Tiomkin); the quick cuts between the two of them tell us that their lives will soon intertwine.

They do meet soon afterwards, as Frank cancels dinner with his girlfriend to be with Diane, who has followed him in her car. Diane has the upper hand here and will continue to have it throughout the film, as Frank makes some poor decisions; this is certainly a classic film noir theme. One of my favorite lines from this or any other film noir is when Diane asks Frank if he really loves her; his remark, a beauty: “With a girl like you, how can a man be sure?”

Diane soon does away with her stepmother when she rigs the transmission in her car so that it will only go in reverse once she steps on the accelerator. Unfortunately for Diane, her beloved father gets in the car with her stepmother; she did not plan on this and now must deal with two murders after the car with both of them in it plunges down the hillside of their suburban Los Angeles mansion.

As Frank was recently hired as a chaffeur to the Tremaynes – this was plotted by Diane – he is a prime susupect in the murders, although he had nothing to do with it. For sake of sympathy, a trial lawyer suggests that Frank and Diane marry, reasoning that the jury will be less eager to convict a loving couple.

While the flashy camerawork is more evident with Fallen Angel, the psychological manners of Angel Face are much more complex. Frank knows that Diane is evil yet is constantly drawn back to her, as much for her beauty as for her control. Toward the end of the film, there is a scene when Diane is deep in thought on a future without Frank who has told her he is leaving her. Forseeing her own death, she thinks about how she will take down Frank as well. For this moment, Preminger has her sit slumped in a chair in her now-empty home wearing Frank’s sportcoat. It’s a disturbing image and one that so exquisitely sums up the connection between the two protaganists.

For these two films, Preminger studied the obsessions men and women share when it comes to romance and power; of course, there were no easy answers presented. He injected both films with intelligence and flair combined with a beautiful visual style, a formula he would repeat for another three decades as a director.

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