Fallen Angel (1945)

*. Near the beginning of his DVD commentary on Fallen Angel, noir historian Eddie Muller talks about how, as Fox’s follow-up to the success of Laura, it is inevitably compared to that movie, usually to Fallen Angel‘s detriment.
*. The reasons for this are pretty obvious, as it literally was the follow-up to Laura, employing a lot of the same talent. Otto Preminger directing. Dana Andrews as the leading man. David Raksin doing the score. There’s even Dorothy Adams reappearing in a similar role.
*. Gene Tierney is missing though, her part split into two. In Laura we’re left unsure for a while as to whether Laura Hunt is on the level: good girl or femme fatale. In Fallen Angel there’s no such confusion. In the one corner we have America’s sweetheart (or at least one of America’s sweethearts) Alice Faye. This was supposed to be a kind of comeback film for her but it turned out to be her last starring role, after she felt that Zanuck was more interested in promoting co-star Linda Darnell and cutting Faye’s scenes. That may have been the case, but for reasons other than a temporary infatuation with Darnell, as the character of Stella, like most bad girls, is just more interesting than goody-two-shoes June, who lives with her sister and plays the church organ.
*. Sultry Darnell plays dark to Faye’s light. David Thomson says of her that “she exists imaginatively as the loose-living sister of Gene Tierney, a girl bruised by experience but still making up her lips till they bulge with prospects.” There are a lot of scenes in Fallen Angel where she’s bulging with prospects. That’s sort of her job, when she isn’t slinging the hash (“good and brown”) at Pop’s. She’s often cast in shadows while Faye is bathed in light, just in case you missed more obvious cues like raven vs. blonde locks.

*. The interesting thing about Fallen Angel is that Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews) is every bit as shadowy a character as Stella, if not darker. They deserve each other. He’s a heel, “a complete washout at 30,” a two-timing grifter and fraud, but not a murderer. He resembles Shelby Carpenter from Laura just a bit, morally compromised enough to be a target of suspicion, but in the end not all bad.
*. But in Laura Shelby gets second prize in the form of Judith Anderson, a woman who knows he’s worthless but who wants him anyway. In Fallen Angel there’s a more conventional romantic resolution, with Eric the bad boy presumably being redeemed by the love of a good woman. But just as it’s hard to imagine Laura Hunt settling down for long with McPherson, isn’t it hard seeing Eric staying with June? The one sign of hopefulness is the way that she’s driving away at the end. Might she not say that she knows Eric is worthless but she wants him anyway?

*. Also as in Laura there is a startling break in the middle of the movie as it swerves in another direction. Up to that point we’ve known Eric is a heel and we’re kind of rooting for the policeman (or ex-policeman) Judd to catch him out. But then we see Judd putting on the gloves to rough up a suspect in Stella’s murder and we wonder what’s going on. Our sympathies are forced back to Eric, as uncomfortable as that feels.
*. This sudden break took me by surprise and it’s one of the things that sets Fallen Angel a notch above the average noir. The other point I’d mention is Preminger’s direction. He’s known for the casual fluidity of his long takes but he really outdoes himself here. There’s one turn (literally) where he spins on a crane away from where June is taken away in a police car to where Eric is watching her across the street that made me sit up in amazement. That’s a terrific shot, and it’s just tossed off.
*. The story has its awkward moments, but some nice touches too, from the opening credits appearing on highway signs to Charles Bickford’s Judd wanting to finish his coffee while holding a gun on Eric. Overall it’s not a movie that makes it into the top rank of noirs, but it’s still worth tracking down even if you’re not a big fan of the period.

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