Otto Preminger, 1945
Starring: Dana Andrews, Alice Faye, Linda Darnell
A handsome drifter on his way to San Francisco gets briefly stranded in a small, California town because he’s out of money. He launches onto to a con artist, Professor Madley, who claims to be a talented medium. Though Madley is impressed with his conning skills and is willing to hire him, he falls hard and fast for the tough, sexy Stella, a waitress looking for security. Though she dates a lot of men, she will only take this further with Eric if he comes into money and will support her. He comes up with a plan to woo and marry local goody-two-shoes Clara, who is independently wealthy. Though her controlling older sister tries to prevent the union, the two are married. Before Eric can leave Clara, Stella is killed… and Eric is the primary suspect.
Based on Marty Holland’s novel of the same name, Fallen Angel is the second of her (yes, it’s a lady) noir classics along with The File on Thelma Jordan. Though the plot is a bit preposterous, it is no more implausible than Preminger’s other great films noir: Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Angel Face, or Whirlpool. June’s faith in Eric, the pivot on which the happy ending turns, is almost impossible to believe, but her naiveté goes a long way towards explaining this – he romances her and shows her a new life, something that is undoubtedly difficult to forget. Alice Faye was known to audiences of the day as the perennial good girl; she made her film in a number of musicals in the ‘30s and early ‘40s and Fallen Angel was actually her first – and last for quite some time – serious dramatic role. She was apparently supposed to sing “Slowly,” the song that runs throughout the film, but producer Darryl F. Zanuck didn’t want Fallen Angel to be associated with her musical career. Allegedly in protest, she retired from cinema for almost 20 years.
Though the sweet, innocent-looking Faye gives a decent performance – essentially reforming Eric through a combination of money, limitless patience, understanding, and sex – but Linda Darnell’s Stella is undeniably the film’s focal point, the deadly flame around which all the male characters hover. Stella is oddly not quite a femme fatale, though this is what she first appears to be. It’s obvious that her numerous dates, romantic disappearances, and risky behavior all revolve around a deep-seated need for security. She is certainly selfish and hard-boiled, but there is also the sense that she is constantly used and idealized by men unwilling to treat her the way they would treat a middle-class woman, such as the blonde, goodie-two-shoes June.
As opposed to most other femmes fatale throughout noir, Stella bears the burden of intense sexual appeal, which is an interesting twist on the character type. Nearly every man in the film is attracted to or obsessed with her, but she can’t get any of them to treat her properly and, unlike the type of femme fatale so often played by Barbara Stanwyck, she doesn’t effectively manipulate any of them and the only violence she unwittingly instigates is against herself. There is no feeling that Stella deserves her sudden, violent murder (unlike I Wake Up Screaming, where there is a sense that the main victim, a selfish waitress reach for fame by any means, had it coming). When her room is investigated, it is cheap and sad, the room of a person who can barely make ends meet and – through the presence of the stuffed animal – the home of a girl who hasn’t quite grown up. The sultry Darnell played a similar role in Hangover Square, as a bar-room singer looking for fame. Darnell, sadly, had a life that reflected these film roles. She was manipulated and abused by 20th Century Fox and suffered through a life of numerous failed marriages, affairs, and alcoholism.
Joseph La Shelle's (Laura) wonderfully atmospheric, black-and-white cinematography adds plenty of excellent atmosphere. Though noir is typically set in the city, Fallen Angel takes place within a small-town, indicating that the sleazy relations between men and women are not limited to an urban environment. The town is seedy with a tense, claustrophobic air – there is always the sense that the characters are being watched by their curious, voyeuristic neighbors. Preminger’s solid direction snappy, hard-boiled dialogue is the equal of Laura. Though Charles Bickford (The Virginian) is a likable, he can’t compare to Clifton Webb, the saucy, obsessive murderer in Laura, or to Laird Cregar as the obsessive and possibly murderous detective in I Wake Up Screaming.
Dana Andrews is excellent, as always, and manages to be sympathetic, despite Eric’s deplorable actions. This feels a little like two films, with the first half being devoted to Eric trying to briefly settle in the small town. The plot of a relatively young John Carradine as Professor Madley, psychic medium and con artist, is introduced, but doesn’t go anywhere. It has the sense of dream logic that benefits so many films noir, but it would be nice to see this particular plot thread unfold throughout the film. I can help but wonder if this is the only film noir with a séance scene – I certainly hope not.
Though this is generally one of the weaker rated of Otto Preminger’s film noir efforts, it still comes highly recommended and is a gripping tale of moral ambiguity, uncomfortable romantic attachments, and sexual obsession. Available on DVD as part of Fox’s Film Noir series, Fallen Angel is a must-see for fans of Preminger, Dana Andrews, and con artists reformed.