On successive nights, we watched Out of the Past (1947) and Angel Face (1953). Both are, as they say, "gripping" films. In my present situation, "gripping" means that even though the nominal curtain rose on these movies after 9:00 pm, and I was in bed, comfortable, with a full stomach, I was sufficiently gripped that I didn't waver or snooze or nap, even for a second. Such criteria of excellence may not seem significant to younger folk, but trust me, loyal readers, in these latter years, staying awake and engaged is a crucial critical yardstick.
Both Out of the Past and Angel Face are superior noirs. In both films the central character is played by Robert Mitchum. I couldn't detect a the least tad of difference between the two parts he plays. You could lift his Jeff Bailey from Out of the Past and plunk him down in Angel Face as Frank Jessup and no one would notice, except that civilian Frank would lack private-eye Jeff's semi-official trench coat and fedora. In both films, Mitchum's character is expressionless and sleepy-eyed and smart but, once his testosterone kicks in, falls prey to a clever, ruthless bad bad bad girl. Both characters know that they're being framed for murder and yet can't just pack up and move to Nebraska or Mexico or somewhere sensible -- as any human being outside of the world of noir would do. You, the spectator, want to raise yourself from your soft pillow and shout at the TV and at the guys Mitchum plays, "Hey you big lug, what the heck are you doing. Use your noodle." But lunkhead Mitchum makes mistake after mistake. I hope everyone who's reading this post has seen the movies, because I don't want to spoil their pleasure in the endings, but let me just say this -- Jeff, or Frank, or Bob, please next time don't get into an automobile with a homicidal femme fatale in the last few frames of a murder mystery and expect to escape alive. And if you must do so, at least check your so-called girlfriend's purse for a silver-handled Beretta. And under no circumstances surrender to her the keys to the vehicle. Do the driving yourself.
These films have everything one would want in a classic film noir: a relentless wicked ambitious beautiful dame who entraps an honest but naif and helpless ingenu, and also snappy dialogue, a gloomy claustrophobic atmosphere, multiple plot twists and turns, and the valueless atomistic society that Hobbes feared would follow from curtailed authority. And much yearning for cash, which is never in adequate supply. Lots of shadows and odd-angled photography. Some good, complicated characters but a few who are merely melodramatically evil.
Mitchum's acting is much praised of late but I don't buy it: he's effective in a way but monochromatic to a fault. A better actor is Kirk Douglas, who projects gleeful menace as a corrupt, criminal businessman. But to me both movies are carried by their female leads. Dazzling Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat is equally adept at innocence and villainy, often in the same scene, sometimes from moment to moment. At the end of the film, when she's killing people left and right, she wears a nun-like snood that only an accomplished actress could transform into a brilliant metaphor. Equally splendid is Jean Simmons as the angel-faced Diane Tremayne, who conveys innocence, ambition, obsession, and intermittent but genuine madness with the raise of an eyebrow (and the help of excellent lighting). And good girl Mona Freeman shines in a restaurant scene in which she sees right through Tremayne's beauty to the dangerous craziness beneath.
Here's Mitchum and Greer together.