Fallen Angel (1945)

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A favorite. It’s dark, gritty, cruel, with a flickering possibility of redemption. But just a flicker. Come on, let’s be realistic. Does Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews, at his amoral rough BEST) have a chance at turning his life around? I don’t know. He somehow has attracted the love of a good woman, but will that be enough? I don’t know. The “I don’t know” that lingers when the film ends gives it its great ambiguity. We know right off the bat that Eric is a drifter and up to no good. He’s kicked off the bus because he doesn’t have the fare to go on to San Francisco. He wanders around the small California town, and you get the uneasy sense that he’s looking for trouble, looking for a scheme, a con, something. The town sits on the beach. He comes across a small cafe, with the waves rolling in behind it. He goes in. The cafe’s exterior is atmospheric almost to the level of poetry. It pleases me, aesthetically, to look at that little clapboard structure, with the word BEER placed on either side of the little door, the beach glimmering darkly behind the whole thing. It’s beautiful. It looks innocent. You fear for its innocence.

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At the cafe he meets Stella, a waitress, who’s just as glum and cynical as he is. She’s played by Linda Darnell. She wears a white flower in her hair. She lazily steals from the cash register. She goes out dancing every night. Eric thinks up a way to con this small town, by getting in on a promotional level for a traveling psychic. He tries to get the leading sisters of the town, Clara and June Mills (played by Anne Revere and Alice Faye) to support the event. He starts stepping out with Stella, but she refuses his advances (after a certain point, that is). He tries to get her to lie down in the sand with him under the boardwalk and she pushes him off. She’s done all that before, that’s “for kids”, she wants to get married. He, of course, offers to marry her. She comes clean that she doesn’t just want to get married, she wants to get married to a guy who has some money, can give her a home. So begins Eric’s plan to swindle the Mills sisters out of their big inheritance in order to be able to marry Stella, but all of it feels like a fool’s errand. Because does he even love Stella? Does he know what that means? Why would he risk it all to get married to her? He’s gonna get married? Why? What is up with this guy? Does he have self-awareness? Or is he just a creep? Dana Andrews is excellent at not providing easy answers for his character, at not making a plea for our sympathy. He sizes people up, he goes after what he wants – strongly, certainly. There’s a super-sexy moment at a local dance hall, where he is on his first date with Stella. They circle on the dance floor. She says, “I like how you talk.” He says, “I like how you dance.” They kiss. It’s sexy as hell. They pull back from the kiss, look at each other for a while, and then, as one, walk off the dance floor to go get their coats and leave the joint. You understand everything. You understand the heat between them, you understand their motivations. When she pushes him off a scene later, he’s angry, rough. Stella is the type of woman who drives men crazy. She works at the cafe, with lovelorn suitors buzzing around, sitting at the counter all damn day, crush-ing on her. It must be very annoying. She looks at Eric and clocks him for exactly who he is. She’s a tough cookie, that one.

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Charles Bickford is great as Mr. Judd, a local guy who had once upon a time been a bigwig on the New York police force and, for mysterious reasons, is now home. There’s a totally brutal scene where he interrogates a suspect in a murder, making sure to put on his kid gloves so that when he brutalizes the guy he won’t mess up his hand. He punches that poor guy over and over and over … and, even worse, he knows the guy didn’t do it. He says later, “I just didn’t like his face.”

Alice Faye, as June Mills, the nice spinsterish woman who gets sucked into Eric’s web, is beautiful and effective in her role. June has no experience with men, and has lived a fairly cloistered and serious life. Eric courts her at the same time he’s courting Stella. He tries to show June the good “little things” in life, like hot dogs, and movies, and going dancing. June may be inexperienced with men, but she knows an unhappy guy when she sees one. She meets him straightforwardly, as straightforwardly as Stella does, but in a different context.

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The supporting cast is all great (love John Carradine as Professor Madley, the medium who talks with the dead). The mood is grim. Preminger’s camera, as always, moves and circles, rarely stationary. It’s almost like he stalks his own characters, trying to see them from every angle. Like he’s a prosecutor in a murder case. There’s one very interesting shot in the Mills mansion with the two sisters. They walk from the foyer through the dining room into the kitchen in all one take, and they are talking casually about whether or not they are going to go to the Professor Madley Event. And the camera zooms behind them, almost frantic, almost like a horror film, where you feel the camera is about to pounce. It’s very destabilizing. Even in the privacy of a normal conversation, things are off-balance.

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And Dana Andrews is superb. He goes through the wringer in this film, maybe even more so than in the famous Laura, filmed the year before. Eric Stanton doesn’t have as much going for him as Detective McPherson does in Laura. Detective McPherson has seen too much, knows too much, is hard-bitten to the point of being unfeeling (which is why his swoon for Laura is so erotically charged), but at least he has a damn JOB. He has a position in society. Eric Stanton has none of that. He has a dollar to his name. He has no address. He uses people and doesn’t feel bad about it. He is what you dread, he is a person you hope you never meet. The small town in California cannot accept him. It tries to reject him, like a virus. Even when you learn later his life of hard-knocks and disappointments, you don’t really feel bad for the guy. Plenty of people who have a life of hard-knocks don’t USE people. But it’s a magnificent performance, tightly coiled, and yet over the course of the film, he begins to unravel. And maybe that unraveling will redeem him in the end. But maybe not. I don’t know.

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19 Responses to Fallen Angel (1945)

  1. John McElwee says:

    Purely great writing. Thank you.

  2. Matt Blankman says:

    I completely agree with you about the cafe. One of my favorite sets ever. Great piece – made me want to dig out my DVD immediately.

    • Sheila says:

      I love the look of the film, the blackness of the shadows, the starkness of the light. I think the marriage is DOOMED. :) But maybe he’ll leave her and it’ll suck and everything -but her sexual awakening with him will make her open to other suitors, will make her know that that type of life could be possible for her. At least that’s how I try to think of it.

  3. Matt Blankman says:

    Was Andrews ever better than in these films for Preminger? (i.e. Laura, Fallen Angel, Where the Sidewalk Ends)

    • Sheila says:

      Preminger clearly used him in such a specific way – he really is so good in these films. I love him in Daisy Kenyon. You’re set up to think of his character in DK as a no-good, a guy cheating on his wife, a guy who won’t commit to Daisy, but then by the end … he’s the one I felt for the most. I do love him in The Best Years of Our Lives as well. He was a fine fine actor.

      • Matt Blankman says:

        Yes, he’s excellent in Best Years of Our Lives. I wasn’t necessarily implying he’s not good in other films, just that for me, I’ll always identify him with those Preminger films noir.

        • sheila says:

          It definitely was one of those special actor-director collaborations. Thank goodness it happened, right? I mean, Laura? Such a masterpiece.

          • sheila says:

            I love how ROUGH Andrews is. He’s even more rough in Fallen Angel than in Laura – just a blunt impulsive guy – it’s such a style what he’s doing, and he does it effortlessly.

  4. Kent says:

    Linda Darnell and Dana Andrews are a perfect noir match. As much as Gun Crazy, Detour, or even Marilyn and Louis Calhern in Asphalt Jungle. Love this film! Terrific piece, Sheila!

    • sheila says:

      Yeah, Stella is determined to not go down with his ship, you know? She’s not quite as cold-hearted as some other noir ladies, and she actually seems annoyed more often than not – it must be so annoying to have men hanging around her all day long. She probably had that from the moment she started developing physically and you can tell she has HAD it. “Oh, what do you WANT?” she says to him at her door. An entire lifetime of being chased/objectified is in her tone.

      Also, Eric’s alcoholism is not even soft-pedaled, although it is handled subtly. But boy that man needs a drink. Always.

  5. Maureen says:

    I watched Laura yesterday, I hadn’t seen it in a few years. Like you said, a masterpiece-and the cast is amazing. I have really come to appreciate Vincent Price as an actor-he is wonderful. I think I forgot how good looking he was!

  6. Maureen says:

    Thank you, Sheila! I loved this tribute! The funny thing, I have never seen anything but clips of his horror movies, because I am a big scaredy cat and could never watch even as a kid. The Raven looks awesome though, I have to check that out. Have you seen any of his cookbooks? I have been able to pick up two at yard sales, and they are really good. He was such an interesting man, with so many talents.

    • sheila says:

      I haven’t seen his cookbooks! Wow!

      I just watched a movie again called The Long Night – with Henry Fonda and Barbara Bel Geddes – I reviewed it somewhere – and Vincent Price plays this elderly skeezy magician. He’s terrific in it – beautifully AWFUL.

  7. Melissa says:

    Dana Andrews was so good at playing regular guys — soldiers, cops, reporters, working class Joes. Men who have all the trappings of buttoned-up, emotionally repressed mid-century masculinity, but who have something deeper, darker, or more vulnerable going on beneath the surface. I absolutely love him in “The Best Years of Our Lives” – the airplane graveyard scene kills me every time. Also the scene with Virginia Mayo, when she makes him put on his uniform again. His face when she says “Now you look like yourself!” Oh, my heart.

    He’s fantastic in “Laura,” too, wandering around Gene Tierney’s apartment with a cigarette jammed in his mouth, reading her letters and diary, opening her bureau drawers and touching her lingerie, smelling her perfume — losing his cool, controlled manner as he falls into a weird, obsessive love for the dead woman whose murder he’s investigating. The way he portrays McPherson’s growing torment it is so subtle and underplayed. He wasn’t a hammy actor at all. That he was so low key is part of why I think he was (and is) taken for granted as an actor.

    Also, the man was HOT. Never hotter than in “Fallen Angel,” in spite of what a sleazy guy he was playing. It amazes me what Preminger was able to get away with! An open-mouthed kiss in 1945? And in the scene with Linda Darnell on the beach he totally grabs her butt underneath her coat. The censors must’ve been asleep the day this movie came up. ;-) Have you seen him in “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” another Preminger movie co-starring Gene Tierney? He’s great in that one, too, playing another morally questionable man – a cop this time.

    I always blather on too long in these comments! I get so excited to talk about my favorite actors and movies, though, and Dana Andrews is a relatively recent fannish love of mine. Anyway, thanks for a great read, as always!

    • sheila says:

      Melissa – you “blather on too long”?? I eat up every word, every observation!

      You’re right on the money. YES the open-mouthed kiss – shocking. Hot.

      And it’s funny – that moment in Best Years of Our Lives really puts him into Iconic territory – I know many war vets who say that that is their favorite scene of all time – ever. Because it shows, without a shadow of a doubt, what it was like to be them. Many movies make the attempt, especially around that time. But it was that scene – which almost went into surreal territory – that had the most emotional impact. Pretty incredible. Gives me goosebumps.

      Yes, I love him in Laura – the detail with the baseball game thingamajiggie he plays with all the time. He shrugs off the guy who mocks him for it – totally doesn’t care – “It’s a puzzle. It’s actually really hard.”

      And I agree: the obsession starts deep within him, and he has zero language in the lines to support or show it. That’s why that scene where he wanders around in her apartment – going into her underwear drawer – !!! – and then falling back into her chair … I mean, it’s just shocking. So erotic. And that it’s HIM, such a “regular guy”, as you say … So powerful. I love that Preminger saw him that way and gave him these tremendous opportunites.

      I want to write about Where the Sidewalk Ends next, coincidentally!! I’ve been on a Dana Andrews tear and I love him in that.

      Thank you so much for your comment!

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