Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews) is pretending to sleep on this night bus to the East Coast, but the driver isn’t fooled, and stops at a small town to kick him off for not having enough for the fare. Disgruntled, he wanders across the street to a diner owned by Pop (Percy Kilbride), who is currently discussing earnestly the disappearance of his beloved waitress Stella (Linda Darnell) who he worries something has happened to. The detective questioning him is Mark Judd (Charles Bickford), and frankly he doesn’t think it’s anything to fret over given Stella’s usual behaviour, seeing a different man every night so it seems, and sure enough after the cop leaves she arrives, demanding something to eat. Stanton observes this with light interest, but it’s money he needs…
Remember the kid in Woody Allen’s Radio Days who thought Dana Andrews was a woman? He patently hadn’t seen Fallen Angel, where the leading man was able to romance two ladies at once as if to prove his virility, though one of those ladies was happier with his attentions than the other. The first lady was Stella, another step on the road to major stardom for Linda Darnell, and that was an issue for the ostensible star Alice Faye, for she thought she was the headliner yet when she saw the movie and realised how much director Otto Preminger had favoured Darnell, it made up her mind to pack in this acting lark and retire from the screen to concentrate on her singing and raising a family – you’ll note she doesn’t sing here.
I know, Preminger treating his cast badly, it’s almost unheard of, er, except it wasn’t, he was one of the most tyrannical directors in Hollywood, one of that generation of European emigres helming films who thought their position gave them the right to behave as they liked, and it made him many enemies though for most of the time the boundary-pushing he made his trademark also created hits, so he was tolerated by the studios. That said, though the plot here featured bad boy Stanton playing around with bad girl Stella and leading good girl June Mills (Faye) on to get his hands on her inheritance, once he had wed June it didn’t matter he was acting under false pretences, they were in a marital union therefore the film paid respect to that.
This was made easier in light of what happened to Stella in the last half hour, in case you hadn’t noticed this was a film noir and there was some impending doom to be countered, but redemption was a theme of those and Stanton managed his through being loved by the pure of heart June, in spite of her spinsterish sister Clara (Anne Revere) voicing regular objections that he is only after her money (and were they adopted or stepsisters? The actresses look nothing like each other, seemingly more cast for how their appearance reflected their screen personas). He is only after her money, of course, yet there was a curious faith in the ability to turn a man away from the dark side of his nature that was at odds with the lead up to the couple on the run business of the last act.
Before that we were in the realm of the desperate, with a particularly nice, too short role for John Carradine as a spiritualist who Stanton latches on to as a shill for his shows. Looking surprisingly dashing with long hair and sparkling eyes, Carradine enlivened the opening twenty minutes as a blatant phony who delights in fleecing his audience, underlining the atmosphere of cons and lies the characters exist in: even June and Clara seem caught up in some sort of legal difficulties with regard to that inheritance. But while there may have been jabs of black humour in the script, it was the dripping cynicism that marked out the tone of Fallen Angel as Stella reneges on her not exactly set in stone side of the deal with Stanton, her come to bed demeanour quickly replaced by a seriously unimpressed view of her unsteady suitor. It’s true this had a slow burning plot, coming across as if Preminger wanted as much of the alluring Darnell in the film as possible, but its big twist was less to do with plot and more morality. Music by David Raksin.
[The BFI have released this on an excellent-looking Blu-ray box set entitled The Otto Preminger Film Noir Collection (Region B only). It is accompanied by Whirlpool and Where the Sidewalk Ends, as well as a detailed booklet, trailers and commentaries for each title and a career interview with Preminger from the early seventies. Click here for the box set on Amazon.]