Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) is an ambulance driver who has tonight been called out to attend to a woman who has suffered gas poisoning after the tap in her bedroom fire was turned - accidentally, or so everyone believes. The woman is rich writer's wife Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O'Neill), married to Charles (Herbert Marshall) and stepmother to Diane (Jean Simmons), who Frank finds at the piano crying after Mrs Tremayne has been judged to be safe enough to sleep off the effects of her incident. He goes over to reassure the girl, but she won't be consoled so he slaps her to snap her out of it, whereupon she slaps him back: it's the start of an unusual affair...
Angel Face was one of the film noirs to happen along near the end of the cycle, where the genre was beginning to branch off into melodrama and police procedurals, and this does not have the distinctive appearance that all those shadows usually brought to the table. Indeed, apart from a handful of sequences director Otto Preminger shot this in daylight, as if to make those scenes where night has fallen all the more striking, such as Diane's lonely walk through the large, empty house in darkness near the end of the film. This should really have been a tense battle of wills in Frank's head, as he knows he shouldn't get mixed up with her but cannot help himself, but there was an almost languid style here that courted a more analytical reaction.
We have plenty of time, for example, to put Diane under the microscope and work out what is going on in her twisted and jealous mind, jealous that her father's affection has been transferred away from her and onto Catherine who it is not a surprise to learn she is scheming against. But she needs an accomplice, and Frank, even though he already has a girlfriend, fits the bill although he's not quite as aware of how she is wrapping him around her little finger as he should be, or if he is, he cannot admit it to her because she is a more exciting prospect than his girlfriend Mary (Mona Freeman). Here is where the theme of guilt arises, as once Frank has met Diane, he fobs off Mary with some story about going straight to bed and not fulfilling their date.
What has actually happened is that he has spent the night dancing with Diane, and he would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for that meddling heiress-to-be and her insistence on meeting with Mary to spill the beans. All for the stood up girlfriend's benefit, says she, but she already has her hooks in Frank and is dragging him away from safety and stability to her lair, in true spider-like femme fatale mode. Yet we don't get the sense that Diane spends her quieter hours deviously cooking up her schemes, it's simply that she doesn't know any better and may in fact be seriously unbalanced. Nevertheless, Frank packs in the ambulance driver's job and goes to work for the Tremaynes as a chauffeur.
All the better to see Diane, or more likely, all the better for her to see him. While she's not exactly sympathetic, we do sense isolation in her, and Simmons' haunted looks go some way to staving off a cynicism, and misogyny for that matter, that threatens to bubble up to the surface. It's no shock when Diane goes through with her plan to bump off Catherine - we can safely assume the gas tap was no accident after all, hence her tears when it didn't work - and neither are we taken aback when the hapless Frank gets caught up in this either, despite Mitchum coming across too worldly wise to get stuck in such a situation, but if they did not then we would not have had the de rigeur trial sequence. If Angel Face had been tightened up more then it might not have come across quite so listless, but that's part of the appeal for some, with its inexorable feeling of doom closing in and the characters slowly making their way to inevitable bursts of violence. Lush, unsettling music by Dimitri Tiomkin.