Fallen Angel(Fox Home Entertainment, 3.7.2006)
Fallen Angel is the fourth Fox film noir directed by Otto Preminger to be released on DVD and it is the one most like his masterpiece, Laura. Made in 1945, just a year after Laura, Fallen Angel has a stronger romantic angle than Whirlpool and Where the Sidewalk Ends, the other two Preminger noirs to become available recently. Like Laura, it depicts a murder rising from the conflicted passions felt by several characters.
Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews), an immaculately dressed drifter, ends up in the tiny town of Walton, California because he lacks the bus fare to get him to San Francisco. Talking himself into a job with a phony clairvoyant (John Carradine), Stanton cannot bring himself to leave Walton because he has fallen hard for Stella (Linda Darnell), a brassy waitress. Stella is the sexiest thing by far in Walton and every red-blooded man who encounters her is as smitten as Stanton. These include Pop (Percy Kilbride), her elderly boss, Dave Atkins (Bruce Cabot), who services the jukebox at Pop's diner, and Mark Judd (Charles Bickford), a former New York policeman who left the metropolis under a cloud.
Because venal Stella will give Stanton a chance only if he has money, he decides to romance a local spinster, June Mills (Alice Faye), to get hold of her inheritance. June is not so naive to think he truly loves her, but she is bewitched by his bad-boy charms, despite warnings from her older sister, Clara (Anne Revere), herself once the victim of a similar cad. The plot boils down to June loves Stanton, Stanton loves Stella, Stella loves Stella. Lust and greed crash head-on, a murder ensues, and Judd tries to railroad Stanton into the hoosegow.
Unlike several of the movies Fox has tried to pass off as noirs, Fallen Angel is the real thing: a deeply flawed hero, wrongly suspected of a crime, a possibly corrupt cop, a sexy bad girl, a good girl who's more worldly than she seems, a sleazy ladies' man, a con man, a seedy cafe, a nightclub, wet streets, colorful character actors, a solid David Raskin score, and lots of moody lighting by Joseph LaShelle, who also shot Laura and Where the Sidewalk Ends. LaShelle makes Pop's place look appropriately claustrophobic and uses shadows to cast doubt on Stanton's motives. As always with Preminger, there are few cuts and much fluid camera movement.
Otto's handling of actors is perhaps underrated. He manages to overcome Andrews' limitations, getting a grittier performance than usual. Best known for her work in splashy Fox musicals, Faye is excellent, giving June a depth seemingly missing from Harry Kleiner's script. Faye was so irate at studio head Darryl Zanuck's re-editing of the film to reduce the significance of her role and play up that of his new star, Darnell, that she walked away from movies for sixteen years. Darnell, only 21 at the time, is smoldering enough to make us forget she can't act. While Bickford specialized in noble characters, he is intense as the more ambiguous Judd.
As always, noir expert Eddie Muller provides excellent analysis of the film's style in his commentary, constantly praising Preminger's crane shots as well as providing interesting tidbits such as Kleiner's having been Preminger's student when Otto taught courses in directing at Yale in 1938-1940. Muller makes a good case for the film's being "better than its middling reputation," explaining how Preminger sneaks in sexual innuendoes. Susan Andrews is on hand to talk about her father, recalling how he tried to teach her to walk like he does, with perfect posture, and how he resembles the character he plays in this film. A stills gallery indicates a few scenes that didn't make the final cut. -- Michael Adams