Hot on the heels of Otto Preminger’s classic Laura came Fallen Angel – a noir that clearly was meant to tap into the former’s success by utilizing several of the same cast members and technical crew. Fallen Angel explores the similar theme of sexual obsession but takes place in a much different setting. Besides exploiting the success of Laura, studio chief Darryl Zanuck wanted to use Fallen Angel as a vehicle for musical star Alice Faye to break into dramatic roles. Her role in the film is overshadowed, however, by the painfully sultry Linda Darnell, who can ruin a man’s life just by walking in the room. The heady brew of sexual suggestion, obsession, and Preminger’s knack for ambiguous characterization make Fallen Angel one steamy walk on the dark side.
Dana Andrews (Laura) stars as opportunistic drifter Eric Stanton, who stumbles into a quiet seaside town somewhere between Los Angeles and San Francisco. On the hunt for a quick buck, Stanton mixes in with a traveling charlatan (John Carradine), who’s in town to help local suckers communicate with dead loved ones. Stanton senses a lucrative con and offers to help with the public relations in town – aka rope in more saps.
Stanton possesses no history – he simply drifts into town like a tumbleweed, collecting dough and trouble the longer he sticks around. What a great introduction we’re treated to for his character too. A bus driver pulls over and gives Stanton the boot while he pretends to be asleep. He doesn’t have enough cash to get to San Francisco, so he figures he’ll find some action wherever he was kicked off.
Stanton does such a good job promoting the false psychic that he’s offered a gig traveling around the country as his PR agent. But he’s not going anywhere. He too is now a sap – roped in by the seductive powers of the voluptuous Stella (Darnell), a street-smart waitress with bedroom eyes that could kill quicker than Medusa. Stanton becomes obsessed with Stella – haunting the diner where she works every day and scratching at her apartment door by night. He can’t have her though until he gets some cash. See, Stella needs a guy who can provide, someone who can get her the hell outta this one-horse town and settle her down in a swinging city. Someplace with class. Stanton, quick witted bastard that he is, devises a plan.
Fallen Angel is a nice example of the mythical notion of “the stranger” who rolls into town, disrupts the system, and then leaves a pile of questions in his wake. This motif has been done frequently in film and literature, because we all need a good shaking up once in a while. Stanton does a fine job pissing off a lot of conservatives in this sleepy little town, but like with any good shakeup, there are some victims.
To score the cash he needs to marry Stella, Stanton sets his sights on June Mills (Faye), a mild-mannered good little church organ player who happens to be the beneficiary of several thousand dollars. He plans on running off with Stella and Mills’ dough. When Stella winds up murdered, Stanton becomes one of the primary suspects, along with all of the other suckers that Stella put her claws into. Turns out Stanton wasn’t the only one sniffing at her heels in hopes of returned affection. As Stanton attempts to clear his name, he finds a bit of redemption in the only person in the world who sees some good in him: June Mills.
Stanton’s reformation at the end of the film feels entirely arbitrary, but despite the abrupt shift in his character’s motivations, Fallen Angel remains a taught, sexy as hell whodunnit. Preminger and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle (also returning from Laura) create an almost nightmarish atmosphere within the small town. The consuming alleys and dark corners of the big city are synonymous with noir, but the rural neighborhood presented here is just as claustrophobic. At one point, Stanton steps onto a bus to leave, then steps right off – it’s futile to try and escape this place, pal. Might as well make your stake and cry about it later when you’re curled up under your dirty sheets, alone.
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