Starring Dana Andrews, Alice Faye, and Linda Darnell
My rating: ★★★ stars
Good, lesser-known film noir about seedy conman torn between a spinster and a waitress.
Fallen Angel, featuring a reteaming of director Otto Preminger with star Dana Andrews, came out the year after Laura. It pales in comparison to its classic predecessor, but, on its own, it’s a pretty good little film noir.
The movie opens with the camera following headlights on a rural highway. We don’t know where exactly we are, but we know this is noir country. Soon, we learn that we’re on a bus somewhere between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Two-bit con man Eric Stanton (Andrews), down to his last dollar, gets kicked off the bus at Walton, a small town on the California coast. He soon meets hash-waitress and good-time girl Stella (Linda Darnell). Used to too many fast-talking fellows, Stella demands that Eric show some way of supporting her, so he hatches a plan to romance $12,500 out of church organist June Mills (Alice Faye), if he can pass muster with her suspicious sister Clara (Anne Revere).
Even though Stanton’s plan doesn’t involve murder, as many plans of the noir anti-hero do, it seems unusually distasteful. The victims of the noir anti-hero are usually obnoxious or curmudgeonly. If these victims don’t necessarily deserve what they get, they do nothing to garner the audience’s sympathy. That’s not the case here. The Mills sisters are sympathetic characters. They’re good people, willing to give Eric a shot even though they know that he’s a conman. They’re not dupes. June is no simpleton; she sees through Eric’s charm pretty easily. Faye gives her an intelligence and a strength that’s not untypical of heroines in the 1940s but may seem strange to modern audiences who are accustomed to female characters being either ass-kicking cynics or complete pushovers. The idea that a woman can be strong in a selfless and accommodating kind of way is not something we’re familiar with nowadays. For her part, Clara could easily fall into the stereotype of the old maidish, cold-fish killjoy, but Revere (who would win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for National Velvet, from the same year that Fallen Angel came out) softens her.
For the first half of the movie, I hoped Eric and Stella would end up together. They’re both so thoroughly unpleasant that I couldn’t devise a better punishment for them than being stuck with each other. Andrews shines in this kind of role, the handsome weakling. Despite his good-looks and intelligence, he has the air of failure about him—if he plays the dashing solider, he’ll either die in basic training or be a big war hero who returns home to find out he’s only qualified to be a soda jerk.
The film undercuts Darnell’s almost otherworldly beauty; Stella is made to look cheap. Darnell plays her with an unappealing petulant scowl, as if she’s the kind of woman who’s been manhandled and thrown over one too many times. But, there’s no sensitive softness in Stella, nothing that would garner the audience’s compassion.
But, then, something happens, and the movie changes. The stakes grow. Alliances shift. As usual with films noir, we can no longer understand good and evil in black and white terms. The bad guys now look like helpless victims, albeit not particularly sympathetic ones. The biggest flaw in the movie is that the shift comes so near the end. The predicament Eric finds himself in is allowed to resolve too easily. The film starts to build to a climax in the third act and never does. First-time screenwriter Harry Kleiner doesn’t seem to know how to get from everything being all tangled up to everything neatly wrapped up in a nice little bow, so he just skips all that pesky untangling business and jumps right to the resolution. Unfortunately, it would be during the untangling that the audience would get to see Eric grow as a character and to develop some sympathy for him. We can assume that he does grow, but showing this growth seems beyond Kleiner’s talents.
If it weren’t for this flaw, Fallen Angel might be a first-rate film noir. It has a rich cast (Andrews, Faye, Revere, Darnell, Charles Bickford, John Carradine, Percy Kilbride, and Bruce Cabot); a complex, flawed protagonist; stylish, harsh cinematography by Joseph LaShelle (Laura, Marty, The Apartment); and top-notch direction. What it’s missing is about 20 minutes in the second half to develop the story fully and to engage the emotions of the audience.