Sometimes you rewatch a film you once thought the world of and find it lacking. Other times a film unexpectedly speaks to you and ends up meaning more than its far better known, more highly respected and heralded kin. When everyone is looking at an actor’s or director’s shiniest objects, sometimes you want to wave and yell, yeah sure those are nice, but look over here at this one, though. Fallen Angel is one of those movies, one rarely found on “best of” lists, even of the genre to which it belongs, and it’s not the best of its type or era, but it’s a real gem, an underrated and outstanding noir, a cinematic surprise with much to recommend it. In the pantheon of screen sirens there are few to compare with the gold-digging, coffee slinging waitress Stella. In the vast array of noir anti-heroes, there are few as compellingly low yet appealing and redeemable as Stanton, probably no veteran actress was ever so unjustly disappointed in a movie where she gave a fantastic performance as Alice Faye, and in the noir genre there are only a tiny handful of films that manage to be so dark and seedy yet so hopeful and positive at the same time.
In one of the most impressive opening credits and scenes I’ve ever seen, road sign style credits come zooming toward the viewer and then the point of view shifts to a greyhound bus driver’s cockpit as he pulls over and boots the busted-broke, hiding under his fedora and pretend-sleeping Dana Andrews off the bus. Fate has brought Andrews to Walton, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Out of the fog beckons a neon, venetian-blinded dive named Pop’s, where Andrews decides to break his last dollar on a hamburger. He’s barely noticed as he walks smack dab into the middle of a gaggle of men who are all busy speculating on the whereabouts of Pop’s waitress Stella. It’s a great teaser for an even better character introduction, because soon all are relieved, and Andrews exceedingly curious, to see Stella herself making a memorable entrance. It’s Linda Darnell, tired, tailored and devastatingly gorgeous, with a dark beauty almost unreal, and attitude so strong, it’s no wonder the men come in day after day just to look at her and fall over each other trying to get her attention. They’re thoroughly obsessed, some to the point of insanity, and it doesn’t take long before Darnell hooks Andrews too, starting by eating his hamburger and making sure he pays for his coffee—no free rides here.
Fallen Angel was director Otto Preminger’s follow up to the now-iconic Laura. Preminger once again (for the second of their three noirs together) wanted Dana Andrews in the lead, again as a man obsessed, but this time as a different character obsessed with a vastly different type of siren in Darnell. Her single-minded desire for the security of marriage and money above all, leads Andrews to romance and marry the wealthy Alice Faye, with plans to run away with her money and live happily ever after with Darnell. Faye lives with an overly (in this case, appropriately) skeptical sister (Anne Revere, in an excellent role) whose recent encounter with a con man left her with a broken heart, an empty purse, and quick to suspect and raise the alarm about Andrews’ intentions. As in all good noir, the best laid plans are doomed to go awry, and there is no living happily or otherwise for Darnell; she arouses deadly jealousy in one of her admirers, and is murdered the same night Andrews visits her flat and Darnell rejects him flat.
Dana Andrews was a wonderfully magnetic but understated actor, ruggedly handsome, heroic and romantic yet comfortably familiar and regular. For me this combination made him so good in all his movies, so good in noirs where no lead is 100% virtuous, and especially in movies that came out after Fallen Angel, during the postwar period, because along with seeming like the guy next door, he was also able to convey real complexity, instability and intensity, and when needed, something scarred, slightly off and simmering beneath the surface. Such were the men who came back from the war and to normal life with some deeply stored and painful memories of horrors never to be shared or mentioned again. This of course was a quality Andrews would so beautifully portray in The Best Years of Our Lives, but his work in Fallen Angel has similar depth, and should be counted among his very best roles. As the opportunistic hustler landing on his feet in a little California town, he has a weary predatory energy, a habitual way of finding the angle and the con that he’s growing tired of, but that’s refueled by his lust for Darnell. He’s a self-described washout spinning his wheels and getting nowhere fast, yet all along you never doubt that there’s a good redeemable guy in there somewhere, just one tarnished by failures and disappointments. Consider this about his performance: for the longest time, he never shows any regret, conscience, remorse or disgust at himself for the way he’s conning Alice Faye, but you still can’t hate him. Yes, it helps that you believe Darnell could bewitch any man, and that Faye isn’t quite so naïve about him, but it’s all credit to Andrews acting that he manages to make such a predatory, aggressive and shallow-seeming cad so darn likable, deep and fascinating. (I mean, even his toughest critic Anne Revere can’t help but have a soft spot for him.) He’s also able to set himself apart from the complete charlatans in the story by being suspicious of and willing to con them too. The dynamic between him and Faye is interesting because, though he seems to be luring her to the “worldly” and naughty things she’s been sheltered from, it is in fact she who’s working on drawing him into her world and her value system—more on her later.
Fallen Angel was the first of Darnell’s four films with Preminger, and the beginning of a relatively fruitful but strained artistic relationship. Seeking authenticity for her role as Pop’s waitress and Walton’s main attraction, Darnell practiced serving coffee in the studio cafeteria, where she picked up a distinctive and memorable way to pour the Joe that you won’t soon forget (and one I often imitate myself). Darnell has many fabulous moments in the movie, and was perfectly cast not only because her looks made her an obvious object of obsession–making men’s eyes spin like barbershop pole spirals– but also for the life and 100 proof sass she poured into her performance; she makes Stella haughty and hard to figure, off-putting and unattainable. She steals from the till and serves up endless refills of sheer disdain, disgust, cruelty and condescension. Stella may once have been a demure belle but experiences have hardened her into an infuriatingly no-nonsense self-preserving realist who knows exactly what she wants and demands it. Her rapier sharp rebuffs and rapid fire banter with Andrews are some of the best parts of the movie. It’s a dance; when he tries being forceful he’s pushed her away; when he tries to please her, she loses interest. Though Darnell was often slighted by faint praise, or outright described as a lesser talent, it took a strong actress and not just a bombshell, to play off someone of Andrews’ presence as well as she does, and to contribute to the heat and chemistry they have in all their great scenes together. Darnell did good work in period films, westerns, thrillers and contemporary drama like A Letter to Three Wives. Noir seemed especially suited to her potent streetwise Southern dose of straightforwardness, whether it was showcased in a concentrated role as in Fallen Angel, or a really meaty deglamorized part as in No Way Out. As Fallen Angel wrapped, so did World War 2, so 20th Century Fox used the film as part of a Victory Bond drive, premiering it in Dallas, with Darnell in attendance in the city where she grew up. Soon afterward she was to sign another seven-year contract with Fox, her status as dark bombshell assured and lasting, if not long lived—she died in a fire at the age of 41.
Preminger is efficient and effective but never showy in his direction and, along with Oscar-winning Laura alum Joseph LaShelle as DP (who’d also recently captured Darnell’s alluring, destructive beauty for Hangover Square), creates with Preminger a clearly delineated and beautifully presented contrast between light and dark, between Faye and Darnell, between the needs they fulfill in Andrews and futures they represent for him. Blonde vs. brunette in this movie is a choice between sheltered sweetheart vs. experienced vamp, spiritual vs. carnal, almost heavenly settings like church and cozy home vs. furtive late night dates and deceptive, dark dingy dives. Faye is Walton history, the mayor’s daughter, firmly rooted, reputable, wealthy and stable, while Darnell is an elusive drifter like Andrews, looking for security. LaShelle paints with deep focus cinematography, inky blacks and bottomless shadows that could contain and even swallow whole the crooked desires and tragedies as large as those in this tale, then in subsequent scenes captures sun drenched streets and open spaces shot through with luminescence and sunbeams that could pierce the most hopeless darkness. Dualities, repetition, echoes and choices abound in both plot and visuals. Literally and figuratively, Andrews is dropped off in a nowhere place between two major locations, two ways to go, two women as his paths. Andrews twice repeats his con, the man with nothing promising to parlay his last dollar or last chance and his copious charm into a bigger score, first with Carradine’s assistant (Olin Howlin) and next targeting a much bigger score with Darnell. He dates both women, takes Faye dancing where he’s already been with Darnell, and marries one to marry the other. In one striking moment Preminger even has both women pouring coffee as part of a scene transition, and he presents sisters Faye and Revere as similarly dressed. Preminger also keeps the camera moving to great effect, communicating with lingering takes and fascinatingly choreographed long tracking shots that follow characters as they pace rooms, enter into Pop’s, into banks, along quaint streets and busy intersections, through a dance hall crowd, or hovering above and examining the spook show crowd. Consider the great scene where Andrews at his skeeviest sneaks off to Pop’s on his wedding night. Once his dialogue with Darnell ends, the camera pulls out to capture her leaving with slot machine/jukebox operator Bruce Cabot, then moves to show Andrews storming away, then moves once again to show Anne Revere emerging from the darkness around a corner, having witnessed the encounter. How well composed and fluid is the dance hall scene, one of the very few places Darnell and Faye share physical space, the way Darnell dances to Andrews’ side, each with their respective oblivious partners, and then the shot from behind that frames them together, as Andrews slides over to Darnell and tells her to dump Cabot. Then there’s the clever reflection trick on the San Francisco hotel window as the sun rises on Andrews and Faye’s first real night together as a couple. It’s not just a transfer of affection, or a sorting of real affection from lust, the point at which night becomes day; you could use psycho-critical jargon like dualism and synthesis, but however you put it, Andrews’ separate desires and worlds dissolve and the light begins to enter his life.
The music was by another Laura alum, David Raksin, and if the movie has a major flaw this is where I find it; the score is not that memorable. The theme song “Slowly,” (by Raksin with lyrics by Kermit Goell) sung by Dick Haymes is a nice tune, but it would not become another immortal signature melody heard in elevators or at Lincoln Center. There would have been more music by the wonderful Alice Faye (as Hollywood lore has it) were it not for decisions made by Preminger and Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck as they planned to move Faye away from her musical persona while bringing Darnell into star status at the studio. Which inevitably brings us to the added significance Fallen Angel took on in Hollywood history, that of being the movie which caused Alice Faye to pack up and leave Fox in a huff, not to be seen on the screen for nearly the next two decades. After so many years of being the studio’s number one star, the most lovable and frequent launcher of dozens of hits and standards, Faye reportedly considered dozens of scripts for a more dramatic role before picking Fallen Angel, and was deeply offended at the cutting of some scenes, most notably the one where she sang “Slowly” to Dana Andrews. Though her disappointment is understandable, in hindsight her reaction seems overblown; after all, she was hardly shortchanged in terms of screen time, and had so much to offer besides singing (and I speak as a huge fan of her voice and her musicals). Alice Faye was always magical, spirited, lovable and warm, and in Fallen Angel brings a mature version of those qualities to her role, giving a deep, layered, touching, even surprising performance, and is the heart of the movie. She’s fascinating to watch, her acting subtle and engaging, her interpretation of the character sweet but knowing. She’s self-aware, sheltered but wise, one who knows what love is, knows her youth is passing, and reacts to the rare opportunity Andrews presents with a combination of eagerness, cautiousness instilled (if not drilled in there) by her emotionally scarred sister and by common sense. Her every decision is measured with respect for her sister’s opinion, balanced with a desire to live her own life, and tinged with some sadness at the realization that this opportunity lost could very well be her last shot at love. And all along she is motivated by faith, believing the best about Andrews, and that she can help bring that out. Most of her moments are small but impressive: look how she reacts when Anne Revere surprisingly provides an alibi for Dana Andrews, and how subtly she nudges her sister into buying tickets to Carradine’s spook show and protects her from the embarrassment of having gossip brought up by Carradine for entertainment purposes. Faye’s hooked on Andrews from first sight and wants to see more of him but resists acting like a crushing schoolgirl. You cringe as Andrews pretends to romance her, and wonder if she is really as gullible as he thinks she is. While there are few sparks to speak of between her and Andrews, the awkwardness that is slow to warm into a genuine and comfortable affection seems right for the story. She’s the only one in the story not scarred in some way, at least in a way that’s made her lose hope; she brings light to the darkness around her, and helps heal the man who is not yet beyond repair. It is a shame the song “Slowly” was cut, because it seems a lost opportunity for Faye to convey and strengthen her own character through song, as she could do so masterfully. Further, when you consider that Darnell plays “Slowly” incessantly on the jukebox, it’s also a missed chance at yet another juxtaposition (and one that was initially planned) between the two women; a song connecting the jukebox girl and the church soloist. But all considered the movie works without Faye’s song, and anyway Dick Powell neither sang nor danced in Murder, My Sweet either, and that noir worked out fine for him, as did other dark dramas for John Payne and a great many stars who’d made their names in musicals. Faye’s turn in Fallen Angel stands strong on its own among her best performances, and is likely the way most viewers nowadays come to know her, before discovering her musical past. (By the way, Andrews was a trained opera singer).
The supporting cast is a nice collection of familiar faces and strong personalities. There’s John Carradine as the aforementioned phony clairvoyant, self-proclaimed “Psychic (if that’s how you spell charlatan) Extraordinaire,” with whom Andrews lands a job as advance man by promising to soften Anne Revere’s resistance and loosen her influential grip on Walton residents. Charles Bickford is brutal, flinty and sadistic as retired NYC detective who takes it upon himself to investigate Darnell’s murder. He pulls on kid gloves to rough up her sometime boyfriend Cabot. When Cabot’s alibi holds up, Bickford turns his focus on Andrews for the murder, who’d rather flee town than get the Bickford treatment. Then there’s Percy (Pa Kettle) Kilbride as Darnell’s devoted boss “Pop,” whose whole world seems to crumble without her.
Fallen Angel was based on a book by Mary Holland, a Hollywood script typist who also wrote three crime novels under the male pen name “Marty” Holland and had other connections to noir film. One of Holland’s unpublished stories was adapted into the Barbara Stanwyck movie The File on Thelma Jordon, and her second novel, the Glass Heart (aka Her Private Passions) was optioned by Robert Montgomery and adapted into a screenplay by James Cain. When Montgomery ended up doing The Lady in the Lake, the Glass Heart was set aside and never made it to the screen.
Thanks to its spot on Preminger’s resume as a follow up to the much lauded (dare I say possibly overrated) Laura, Fallen Angel might have suffered a little, sometimes needed and always deserved and greatly benefitted from the extra boost that its fans have all too happily provided over the years. With Fallen Angel Preminger turned out a product every bit as haunting as Laura, and for my taste the better noir. Where Laura is cool, sophisticated, claustrophobic, possibly a little stagey, dated and stiff, Fallen Angel is passionate, cruel, expansive and active. It moves, it lives, it seems more real, with visuals and performances that reward multiple viewings. Darnell and Faye are earthy and strong women, individuals who guide the story and present choices through their personalities, not, as was Laura, a bit of an empty vessel, an object of male obsession, more idealized, precious and distant. Dana Andrews gets a meatier role as he arrives at a crossroads and must navigate his way using these rich characters and events as guideposts, and as a bonus Fallen Angel offers up one of the more pleasant happy endings you’ll find in the noir genre. “Love alone can make a fallen angel rise, for only two together can enter paradise.”