Frank Jessup (played by Robert Mitchum) is a former soldier, now working as an ambulance driver while he tries to raise money to open a garage. One night he is called to a mansion in Beverly Hills where a millionairess has narrowly escaped being poisoned in a gas leak, and soon finds himself romantically involved with her stepdaughter, Diane (Jean Simmons). However, Diane has an all-consuming hatred of her stepmother, and with Frank finding himself drawn further into Diane's schemes, he finds himself fighting for his life.
Film Noir is a term where the precise meaning can be endlessly debated, but for me personally, pure Film Noir is inextricably tied to the time and place of post-World War Two USA. This is a time where the unity and patriotism of the war effort is breaking down into individualism, the optimism is turning sour, the victory is being superseded by another enemy, and the threat of another (this time potentially apocalyptic) war, and men and women no longer know their place. This still leaves room for a wide range of characters and themes, from cops and criminals (example), unhinged nuclear paranoia (Kiss Me Deadly), to loners and losers looking for a break, as we see here in Angel Face
Jean Simmons steals the show, bringing an intense and alluring energy to the role of cold calculating Diane, without being hysterical or hammy. Her character is completely self-absorbed, utterly without any remorse for her actions, and all the more unsettling for it.
This contrasts sharply with Frank, played by Mitchum in his usual laconic, self-confident, loner way, but with a hint of vulnerability. Jessup is a proud independent man, with a dry sense of humour (“Never be the innocent bystander. That’s the one that always gets hurt”), but he is also a man who lets his ambitions get in the way of his common sense.
The atmosphere and pace at the start of the film is almost as laid back and dreamy as Jessup, as we gradually learn about his character, his hopes and dreams, and his attitudes to women (he has a fear of commitment and an on/off girlfriend, both of which go out of the window when Diane gets her claws in). We also get to know Diane, and her version of her feud with her stepmother, and this character study is where the film is most successful.
However, the film suddenly jolts us awake with a sudden, violent incident, one that sees Frank and Diane involved in a very public court battle, teaming up with a wily attorney who will seemingly do anything to win the case. While the unexpected change of pace and direction works for a while, it eventually becomes apparent that many of the elements of the plot, such as the murder plot, the courtroom battle, and the man being led astray by a woman all feel like they have been done before, and better.
Just when the story has completely run out of steam we get one final shocker at the climax, one that is perhaps not surprising to anyone who is familiar with Film Noir, and will know that in these films there was never any chance of a happy ending.