Fallen Angel is certainly the perfect title for a film noir; the term, attributed to the ultimate fallen angel, Lucifer, immediately conjures up images of Hell, sin, and dark dames leading you astray. Those are all elements peripherally in Otto Preminger’s film, but screenwriter Harry Kleiner ends up taking a wrong turn into domestic drama territory, leaving us excited for a bit and bored for the rest.
Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews) wanders into a small town where he teams up with a psychic to swindle people out of their money. Eric meets local waitress Stella (Linda Darnell) and the two fall into a whirlwind courtship. However, Stella knows what she wants, and what she wants is marriage. Strapped for cash and finding Stella’s affections waning, Eric marries June Mills (Alice Faye), an heiress with a lot of money. All looks good till Stella ends up dead and Eric becomes the prime suspect.
Preminger is a director whose repertoire is hit or miss with me. He mastered the noir style with Laura, a murder mystery filled with dream-like imagery leading to differing interpretations. It was this film that set the bar for Preminger, and sometimes his films are at the mercy of the twist (the greatest example is Bunny Lake is Missing). Unlike those films, Fallen Angel is a straightforward murder mystery and that can leave audiences watching the basic formula unfold with little deviation. Our antihero strolls into town and prepares to team up with a psychic (John Carradine in two scenes). Immediately images of the far superior Nightmare Alley (1947) begin to unfold, although considering the death toll in the wake of WWII it’s easy to understand why people embraced the supernatural and why it became a bit of a trope in noirs.
But, unlike Nightmare Alley, the script isn’t interested in Eric’s pairing with Carradine’s crew, as the latter quickly leaves town, never to be seen again. Instead Eric stays behind to woo Stella, our femme fatale. Overlooked in the grand scheme of things, Linda Darnell is the perfect embodiment of the dastardly dame, with leg out, posing as our first introduction to her character. The other characters’ response to her return – “You won’t go away again, Stella?” “just as you left it” – indicate a woman who’s done a brilliant job controlling the small-minded men of this town with nothing more than promises and her beauty. Hey, she’s Linda Darnell, after all.
Even though Stanton’s team-up with Carradine and crew plays like a fortunate series of coincidences, his relationship with Stella is pure noir with a few progressive tinges. Unlike most noir antiheroes brought low by a dangerous lady, Eric is the sole arbiter of his doom. Numerous times during their relationship he gets the chance to vamoose, but doesn’t. Sequences showing the end of their dates leave Eric saying this is the last time he’ll put up with her, with all the empty promise of a parent unable to discipline their spoiled child. Unlike Double Indemnity’s Walter Neff, Andrews’ Stanton isn’t swindled by Darnell’s Stella. He’s so wrapped up in her sexuality and beauty that he creates a situation out of his own head to win her. Outside of demanding marriage, there’s no seed of murder for Stella to pass to Eric. Furthermore, Stella never varies in what she wants. She wants marriage for security, financial more than anything else, and refuses to compromise, right down to laying down the law when Eric points to the stairs leading up to his room, “your horoscope’s up there!”
The script takes the basic tenets of noir, several already established and set to break out in light of the post-WWII era, and sets up a great murder mystery within. Who bumped off Stella? But somewhere in there, the script takes a sharp left turn away from Laura and into a B-movie version of Suspicion, with Eric’s new wife, June trying to make him happy and Eric trying not to get arrested for murder. Had the film started with June and Eric’s marriage, and Eric’s motivations of getting June’s money clearly situated, it wouldn’t feel like such a bait and switch. But as it is, June is a peripheral character for much of the opening half. Eric arrives in town and learns that June and her sister, Clara (Anne Revere) are heiresses; Clara has recently lost her money through a faulty romance. The psychic plotline plays out here and leads to the possibility that the sisters’ secrets will be exploited, but once the psychic leaves town the plot segues towards Eric marrying June for her money.
This is my first Alice Faye film, and I can’t really grasp her appeal. She’s lovely, but her husky voice prevents any additional inflection in her lines, leaving everything sounding flat. It doesn’t help that she does little more than play the concerned wife, the possibly swindled wife, and there’s never any true suspense; it’s never perceived that Eric will bump her off. In fact, I was never sure what Eric’s motives were. Blackmail? Alimony? There is a nice discussion regarding post-WWII relationships. Stella, as the other woman, threatens June’s domesticity with a man she cares for. This, again, would work if June and Eric were together for a significant length of time. When Eric starts listing off June’s qualities – the mark of any successful relationship – it just feels like assumptions on his part. Stella’s murder does lead to a nifty twist, maybe June or Clara killed her, but the ultimate revelation is weak. A side note: This was Faye’s last film performance until 1962.
Never as gritty or dark as it should be, Fallen Angel has some decent performances by Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell.
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