By Richard Armstrong
Linda Darnell, Percy Kilbride and Dana Andrews
Produced and directed by Otto Preminger.
Cinematography by Joseph LaShelle. Edited by Harry Reynolds.
Music by David Raksin. With Alice Faye,
Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, Charles Bickford,
Anne Revere, Bruce Cabot, John Carradine,
Percy Kilbride, Olin Howlin. Originally
released in 1946; black-and-white, 98-minutes.
Available on region 2 DVD from The British Film Institute
Dana Andrews was an actor who typified the indeterminate sensibility of Hollywood’s American male in the immediate postwar years. “Andrews could suggest unease, shiftiness, and rancor barely concealed by good looks,” wrote David Thomson in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
. “He did not quite trust or like himself and so a faraway bitterness haunted him.” The war is never mentioned in Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel
, despite finishing barely eight months before 20th Century-Fox’s February, 1946, release date. But the war, and the social upheaval that came with it, is everywhere in evidence. Everyone is trying to make a buck, stay ahead, cling to the little self-esteem their economic tenure allows.
So typical of the films noir of the late-40’s, Andrews’ Eric Stanton is a drifter who fetches up in a small California town with a dollar in his pocket. Fallen Angel
charts the fortunes of a man caught between women, the straight and the crooked, the lure of the present and the pull of the past. So characteristic of Preminger’s work, cinematographer Joseph LaShelle’s
smooth pans and tracks enmesh these people in visual and emotional cul-de-sacs.
A tracking shot barrels like fate towards Eric as he leaves Pop’s Café (where the errant husband has been seeing his lover), before bypassing Eric for the shadows where his sister-in-law eavesdrops. A pan way across the crowd at a phony spiritualist gathering finds the sisters targeted by the medium’s canny patter. As the bus bearing the drifter heads towards Walton, the actors’ names loom out of the darkness like unbidden spirits. Dropped off, the first thing the drifter sees is a sign saying he is somewhere between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The spectral prospect of the credits sequence recalls Eric’s scam, working the publicity for a fake fleecing the town with messages from the dead.
Pop’s Café, to which Eric and the film constantly return, is perhaps film noir in microcosm. Through its doors come the missing — Stella, Eric — voices from the past unable to rest. Inside, hard-bitten ex-New York cop Mark Judd (Charles Bickford) sips his coffee while Pop (Percy Kilbride) flips burgers and refreshes his cup, both insanely infatuated with the waitress. True to the realism of postwar film noir, Fallen Angel
generates a sense of authentic American undergrowth through its deployment of seasoned character actors. After Bickford’s intimation of still waters running deep, Kilbride’s Pop is a miracle of kindly regret. Anne Revere concentrates a lifetime gone fallow into June’s protective sister Clara. John Carradine brings eloquence to the charlatan Madley, while sidekick Joe Ellis, played by Olin Howlin, is a wartime chancer of memorable panache.
The first thing you notice about waitress Stella is her leg: stepping into the light on her return to the café, she removes her shoe, and massages her foot. Stella is played by Linda Darnell, “a dark-eyed, sultry actress…one of the sirens of the 1940’s whose rose-at-twilight looks seemed to stimulate every Fox cameraman,” according to Thomson. Darnell makes the most of her encounters with the drifter, relishing the verbal warfare that characterized many a 40’s liaison between chisellers and their comely insolent marks. Compared with Alice Faye’s nuanced performance as Eric’s respectable victim June Mills, Darnell riffs on a factory riveter’s repertoire of pouts and slick rebuttals as she spikes checks, counts change. Only the character’s decision to make Eric vow marriage before sex betrays a history of disappointment peculiar to Stella herself. Otherwise, we see an archetypal Darnell turn, the camera underwriting the archetype with a bulging breast here, a provocative sashay there.
Notice how often Preminger plays with the people behind the facades by cutting from close-ups of Stella to June. In his audio commentary on this DVD edition, Blake Lucas — who wrote about Fallen Angel
in the book, Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style
— points out a sustained take at a dance hall brings both into the same shot; the unsuspecting June with Eric…Stella with Bruce Cabot’s smooth slot machine salesman. You have to wonder why the role did not boost Faye’s career. Instead, she terminated her contract shortly afterwards.
She remains the histrionic and moral revelation of the movie. Quiet rather than brassy, knowledgeable rather than knowing, June is the scrubbed blonde to Stella’s dusky brunette. If Stella appears in predominantly night scenes, June appears by day. In the San Francisco hotel room where she and Eric hole up after he is accused of Stella’s murder, with its tawdry furnishings and glinting neon archetypal noir mise-en-scène, June seems to invoke the light itself. At the end of the day she stands before an open window. As she returns to bed, we see daylight gradually replace night. When she and Eric first met, it was a beautiful spring day on a picket fence street — it could have been a Henry King movie. In what the theatrical trailer, included here, calls “her most surprising role,” Faye chronicles the emergence of a provincial wallflower. Acculturated to a life of books and organ recitals, June may not have “lived” as others have, but she knows inspiration when she finds it. As schematic as the script’s comparison between these women may seem, Faye’s essay on a woman coming at worldliness from another angle undermines such clichés. Reminiscent of the literate and quietly beautiful spinsters Faye’s contemporary Olivia de Havilland played, June’s tribute to her husband — “Love alone can make the fallen angel rise/For only two together can enter Paradise” — confers a new lease of life on the 40’s drifter.
Featuring suitably orientating biographies of Preminger and the little known noir writer Marty Holland, upon whose short story Harry Kleiner based the screenplay, Fallen Angel
is a fine and crisp beginning to the Bfi’s Film Noir Collection
Richard Armstrong is an Associate Tutor affiliated to the British Film Institute.
He is the author of Billy Wilder, American Film Realist
and contributes to publications including Audience Magazine
, Bright Lights Film Journal
, and the Times Higher Education Supplement
. His book on Realism
appears from the Bfi in 2004 and he is currently working with Leslie Felperin,
Steven Schneider and Tom Charity on The Rough Guide to Cinema
, due to appear in 2005.