Dual authorship — leaving aside the screenwriters, Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard (Otto Preminger would — later on, he more or less originated the “A film by” credit for directors in Hollywood) the RKO production ANGEL FACE can be attributed partly to Howard Hughes, who owned the studio at the time.
An obsessive control freak, Hughes acted as auteur or co-auteur on virtually all the studio’s releases. When he took over he sent out a memo: “From now on our films will all be about two things: fucking and fighting.” Sensing the writing was on the wall, ace producer Joan Harrison immediately quit.
True to his word, Hughes proceeded to make films that pandered to his own obsessions: firey women with large bosoms, and ultra-masculine men engaged in ultra-masculine activities. Viewed as auteur, HH has all the distinguishing characteristics — recurring themes and subjects, types of character, and even a visual style of sorts, although with the exception of THE OUTLAW (co-helmed with the other Howard, Hawks) he relied on underlings to actually call the shots.
SON OF SINBAD, to me, is Hughes’ greatest triumph, a blithering farrago of action, crummy jokes and endless belly dances, all spangled up and silly as hell, but a stone cold masterpieceif you’re a ten-year-old boy. I remember identifying deeply with Vincent Price as Omar Khayam (later, VP would play Thomas DeQuincey too — quite the poet).
THE LUSTY MEN escaped the full HH treatment by virtue of not having a completed script when it began. Director Nicholas Ray and Robert Mitchum (a star doubling as writer) were able to shape it themselves, and although it has the staples of manly activity (the rodeo) and fierce women competing over hulking men, it’s a considerable film in its own right and very much a personal Nicholas Ray film. Hughes protected Ray from the blacklisters, earning Ray’s respect and admiration. Ray later pronounced “a curse on anybody else who tries to make a movie about Howard Hughes.” Uh oh.
JET PILOT and MACAO brought Josef Von Sternberg out of retirement and seclusion in his modern-art masterpiece house with the symbolic moat surrounding it. But the experience was not a happy one for anybody. Bob Mitchum smeared limburger cheese on the engine of Sternberg’s custom-built limo (so it would stink when it heated up) and, as Von S ruefully recalled, “instead of fingers in the pie, a whole army of clowns rushed to immerse various parts of their anatomy in it.” One of the clowns was Nick Ray again…
Robert Stephenson was a gentle Brit who’d left England when war broke out, and this conscientous objector found himself working first for Hughes, and later for Walt Disney, two of the most militaristic, right-wing producers Ho’wood had to offer. He even made I MARRIED A COMMUNIST for Hughes, which Nick Ray and just about everybody else turned down.
The wildest film made under Hughes stewardship was probably THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR, a weird anti-war parable directed by Joseph Losey. Hughes hated it, but somehow the production scraped through with it’s somewhat leaden message undiluted. Child star Dean “In Dreams” Stockwell was called in to see Hughes, and politely refused to deliver a new speech explaining how America could ensure universal peace so long as it had the biggest army, navy and air force in the world.
Otto Preminger tells us in his memoir, Preminger, that ANGEL FACE came about because Hughes wanted to punish Jean Simmons. She was contracted to him and had cut her hair short after a row with HH. The aviator hated short hair on women, and resolved to make Simmons complete one more feature in the eleven filming days left on her contract, and do it wearing a long black wig. Preminger was borrowed from 20th Century Fox as a director who could be trusted to get Simmons’ scenes in the can in the allotted time. Preminger doesn’t say so, but the implication is there that he was chosen for the job to make things as unpleasant as possible for Simmons. But he recalls enjoying working with her. (Whether the experience was mutual I’m not sure. Simmons won’t even discussWilliam Wyler, who directed her in THE BIG COUNTRY.)
David Ehrenstein reminds me:
“On The RKO Storythere’s a teriffic anecdote from Robert Mitchum about the shooting of the film. There was a scene where He was required to slap Jean Simmons. Otto kept asking for take after take, and Mitchum quickly surmised that Otto liked to watch Jean getting slapped. So he turned the tables and slapped Otto.
There were no further retakes.”
So, given this history, does ANGEL FACE read like an Otto or a Howard? I would argue that it has elements of both. As Blake Lucas argues in The Little Black Book: Movies, Preminger -
“- seems not so intent on highly elaborate camera movement, beautiful for it’s own sake, as in, say, FALLEN ANGEL (1945), but as the film draws near to its close, a remarkable four minute sequence occurs… Diane [Simmons] is now all alone in the house where she has lived. She wanders from room to room, then into the quarters where her ex-lover Frank (Robert Mitchum) has stayed. A repeated camera movement, following her from a hall into a room, or out of one, becomes a motif of the sequence, which is entirely without dialogue, sustained by the superb performance of Simmons, the haunting music of Dimitri Tiomkin, and brought to a plaintive final note as she awakes in the morning, huddled in a chair, wrapped in Frank’s coat … In finding the space for a character to become something more than what she has been defined as, Preminger affords a rare vision of what aesthetic and moral nuance can attain together.”
This passage hints at an odd schism in the film’s style. Watching it with this in mind, I noted that the murder scene halfway through is a stylistic marker, after which the style becomes more elaborate and obviously Premingerian. The first repeated camera moves appear in the trial scene, where the prosecution and defence attorneys’ speeches are shot in exactly the same way. The whole movie becomes more stylish and fluid from then on. The first half is more choppy, blocky, and inclined to simple static set-ups with many medium close-ups, much more like a typical Highes production.
Here are some typically Hughesian things I detected in the film:
Manliness: Robert Mitchum plays an ambulance driver, and he wants to run a garage, but we also learn that he drove a tank in the war, and was a drag racer before that. Simmons keeps talking about getting him to compete in a car race, but this plot strand goes nowhere: the race never happens, or if it does, Mitchum isn’t in it. The race serves no clear plot function, seems only to be there for the thrill of having men and women talk about racing cars, something HH would have gotten a kick out of.
The vacillating male. Parallel with their macho activities, Hughes’ RKO heroes often seem unable to make up their minds, unwilling to act directly in their own interests, self-destructive rather than self-actualizing. Mitchum here follows the same weak-kneed course as both male leads in THE LUSTY MEN, and even John Wayne in JET PILOT.
Tough women fighting over a weak man. Here Mona Freeman and Jean Simmons conspire to win the weak-willed Mitchum. “I got a strong back and a weak mind,” as he remarks in THE LUSTY MEN.
Fast cars. A Hughes obsession. Jean Simmons proves adept in a masculine world, expert in the workings of her sports car, making a mockery of the suggestion that her car could have been sabotaged by anyone, “even a woman”. ESPECIALLY a woman!
Crashing cars. The film features not one but two lovingly photographed, apocalyptic smash-ups. Producer Hughes was responsible for Howard Hawks augmenting SCARFACE with a bunch of superfluous but juddersomely impressive auto wrecks. No stranger to life-threatening vehicle crashes himself, Hughes evidently enjoyed seeing them on the screen even more than he enjoyed being half-crippled in them for real.
Aimless characters. This goes beyond the vacilating male figure. In JET PILOT, it’s imposssible to figure what anybody is up to from moment to moment. John Wayne and Janet Leigh alternately love and hate each other, protect and humiliate each other, behave in a generally weird and opaque fashion. By contrast, Simmons gets quite a lot of psychoanalyzing, but remains kind of an enigma. Mitchum’s behaviour makes very little sense generally, but he’s exactly the kind of actor who can make that compelling.
There’s not much fighting in the film — but it’s all about Hughes’ other F Word, though of course that’s kept offscreen. The movie would make a great Fever Dream Double Feature with Cronenberg’s CRASH, both films which conflate coition with death and high-speed automobile mayhem.
None of this is intended to belittle Otto P’s great work on the film, nor that of his collaborators. But either Hughes played a greater role in developing the project than Otto admitted, or else the film was deliberately designed to pander to its producer’s tastes.