Fallen Angel is a rarity among films noir, a picture that comes very close to capturing the slightly seedy, morally ambiguous tone of hardboiled writers like James M. Cain. It was conceived as a followup to the previous year's smash hit romantic mystery Laura, reuniting the director, one of the stars and even the celebrated composer David Raksin, who had jumped to national fame with his wistful theme for a portrait.
Instead of the high-toned Gene Tierney, whose glamorous presence put several good noirs (Where the Sidewalk Ends) slightly off balance, Fallen Angel has a much more down-to-earth pair of beauties, Alice Faye and Linda Darnell. Both get excellent roles, while star Dana Andrews proves to be the perfect actor for director Otto Preminger: He's utterly corrupt yet capable of redemption, the kind of man women take a chance on.
Eric Stanton starts out as a potential con-man, like Stanton Carlisle in Nightmare Alley, huckstering to promote Professor Madley's essentially harmless mountebank. Stanton fills the seats in Walton's meeting hall and watches while Madley's corny predictions impress the yokels. Stanton is able to walk into a town with no money and talk himself into a job and a place to sleep; a day later he has two local beauties interested in him.
Linda Darnell's Stella has the full attention of every unattached male in sight and a few married ones as well. She's partial to a handsome face but draws the line on quickie affairs. Married Mark Judd and old Pop just dream about her, but she's tired of empty promises and is close to accepting the marriage proposal from jukebox man Dave Atkins, a dull Joe with the baited hook of a steady income.
Eric Stanton has only to see Stella to immediately commit himself to a major swindle to have her for his own. He targets Alice Faye's slightly dissatisfied 'good girl' June Mills, a local heiress with 25,000 in the bank ripe for the taking. At first June is little more than a potential victim, but Stanton shows himself to be regular moral chameleon -- the lovely June inspires thoughts of a happiness built on trust, even as he's ready to dash that trust for just a chance at marriage to the sensual Stella. We know Stanton's under a glandular spell, as Stella doesn't believe his claim of impending fortune. She doesn't tease him or encourage him to be dishonest, either.
The major plot reversal puts Stanton in a bind where he has to trust one of these women. He learns to stop running away from his problems, to stop pushing people away. Stanton is interesting because he has a clear conflict of interest from the beginning. The smart move is to skip out of Walton while he has some money and let the affable Professor Madley help him collect a bankroll to get into business again. But Stanton can't get on the bus. He thinks he's drawn just to Stella, but it's more complicated than that.
Otto Preminger analysts love Fallen Angel as it shows the director gravitating toward stories with an ambiguous moral orientation and a neutral, undecided attitude toward his characters. Stanton, Stella and June remain interesting because they aren't pigeonholed by the script. Stella is the dark exotic type and June the blonde girl in the sunshine, but both have depth. Stella's knowing glances melt me like butter, but she dreams of a decent domestic life. Despite her caution, June is obviously attracted to the potential danger in Stanton. She'll try anything not to end up like her bitter sister Clara. June sticks with Stanton simply because she believes in him. She has faith that her man will respond if she accepts him and proves she'll help him face life as an honest partner. That kind of commitment is as irresistable as Stella's hormonal allure.
Fallen Angel doesn't have Laura's gloss but it now plays as the more sophisticated film. The small town of Walton isn't made the butt of jokes, even with its provincials like Pops and Clara. San Francisco isn't a dark city; it's Stanton who has the bad attitude. He's the kind of guy who will entice two women to a concert a hundred miles away, pull off a trick with a safety deposit box, rope one girl into a marriage and then have a completely deadpan attitude when it becomes obvious that he rigged the whole thing in advance. The power of Fallen Angel is that we don't roll our eyes when June Mills says she loves him anyway.
All three of the leads shine, with Alice Faye surprising us in a convincing dramatic role. She's not as trim as she was ten years before, but she looks "real" in a way that never came out in her Fox musicals. This is perhaps Linda Darnell's most attractive siren; she indeed embodies the kind of beauty that men daydream about -- she makes them all act a little bit foolish. The supporting players are excellent. Charles Bickford broods, obviously as hooked on Stella as is the foolish Pops. Poor Bruce Cabot is the odd Goon out ... the kind of guy who tries but always loses the girl, even when the competition is a gorilla.
Preminger's direction is efficient and evocative -- most critics immediately dissect the lunchroom scenes, noting various symmetrical compositions that are formed with contrasting characters on either side of the cash register. Savant read one ambitious analysis by an author who found a pattern in the character placement - where a character sat 'determined' their morality and predicted the identity of the story's villain. The script uses a clever gag with the jukebox to add a hint of romantic resonance, but the movie is wholly free of plot gimmicks. It's an impressive show that plays better than a lot of more celebrated
Fox's DVD of Fallen Angel looks great. Fears that it had legal problems were unfounded; the picture was just left by the way side in favor of flashier crime thrillers. The B&W picture does have a slightly grainy look overall. The clear soundtrack features David Raksin's sparse but dynamic score.
Eddie Muller contributes another fine commentary accompanied by special guest Susan Andrews, Dana Andrews' daughter. She points out details about Andrews' style -- his posture and walk, the way he lifts his elbow when he drinks, -- while Muller discusses the politics behind the picture. Alice Faye essentially quit films after this show, perhaps incensed that Darryl Zanuck put all of his attention behind Ms. Darnell. Muller also points out Otto Preminger's almost non-stop crane shots, some of the most effective and refined in all of noir.
A trailer is included, along with several good still galleries. One of them shows evidence of deleted or altered scenes. In one still, Dana Andrews meets Mark Judd's wife outside the church, a scene omitted from the final film. An entire series of stills shows angles of Andrews fighting with another character on a seaside cliff top, indicating that an elaborate alternate conclusion was filmed.
The great cover artwork exaggerates Linda Darnell's long legs. The film's tagline is, "The screen's most gripping drama of murder - and desire!" --- it must be the legs that make "desire" more important than murder.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fallen Angel rates: