“I feel like I’m a million years old,” says Dana Andrews’ drifter in the underrated noir Fallen Angel. Directed by Otto Preminger, this 1945 motion picture is about obsession and a down-on-his-luck lead who can’t quite figure life out. Andrews, who was in Preminger’s brilliant Laura a year prior, brings a pleasing collage of complications to his role.
Fallen Angel features the cinematography of Joseph LaShelle, who also worked on Laura, and is based on a screenplay by Harry Kleiner from a novel by Marty Holland. It’s hard to get a read on Holland, although her The File on Thelma Jordon was made into a film noir in 1950 by director Robert Siodmak.
Andrews plays Eric Stanton, a drifter who runs out of bus fare in the small town of Walton. He was on his way to San Francisco. Stanton finds himself in a diner run by Pop (Percy Kilbride) and he’s instantly smitten by the waitress Stella (Linda Darnell), who makes one of the most erotic entrances in film noir history. Stella is trouble.
Stanton wants her too, but he doesn’t have the money to live up to his promises. Despite running some scams involving a psychic, he can’t get the dough. Stanton comes up with the idea to marry the well-to-do June (Alice Faye) with intentions on divorcing her quickly, but Stella turns up dead and all hell breaks loose. Also, June’s older sister Clara (Anne Revere) makes life interesting for Stanton and his plans.
Fallen Angel is twisted stuff. Andrews plays his character as one of the biggest jerks in the genre and it can be hard (but delightful) to watch him con good people. He’s not a sympathetic character in the least, but Andrews infuses him with just a shred of likability that makes him worthy of redemption. This puts him at the centre of some compelling relationships.
Faye’s June thinks she’s going to save Eric, which is always a bad move. Much is made of her being book-smart and into the church scene. She plays the organ, but Stanton convinces her that she’s not really living life the way she should. She wants to see things from his side of the tracks, so she goes out with him and finds that he doesn’t really enjoy anything.
Stella fits in as another object of Stanton’s obsession, but there’s no actual love in the picture. Stella invokes lust in Eric like she does in many men. And she’s more than happy to reap the rewards, too. She toys with the married cop Judd (Charles Bickford) and leads others around by the nose. She’s even convinced poor Pop she’s the decent sort, right as she’s taking bills from the register.
Stella is the girl Stanton believes he deserves, the sort of devil woman who’ll break his heart into a million little pieces and leave his already broke ass even more broke. June, on the other hand, is the angelic woman he perhaps needs if redemption is on the menu. She’s the self-sacrificing type and knows she’s being used to a point, which makes her compassion toward Eric almost wrenching.
But in the dark, topsy-turvy world of Fallen Angel, June is the shining light. She lights the path to marital bliss and is willing to stand by her man, even when the more sensible Clara tells her not to. There’s money involved, of course, but for Stanton it soon becomes about so much more than cash. It’s about finally making it, about not being the loser for a change.
Preminger handles the proceedings well, delving once again into the psychological elements of noir and finding darkness in the souls of men and women. Like Laura, there is a woman to whom men are almost unreasonably attracted. They’ll kill and steal just to hear her siren song. They’ll die for her. Stella’s allure is decidedly more primitive, as evidenced by her initial arrival on the scene, but it’s no less intoxicating.
This is a well-constructed, well-acted film noir. It’s a complex and often shocking journey through the tortured essence of one hapless and slimy Eric Stanton, a trip that winds its way to San Francisco by any means necessary. It’s not always easy following the path of such a snake, but Andrews and Co. certainly make it a hell of a lot of fun.