Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger is just a small town guy with his whole life packed in a suitcase by his feet.
Our review of Fallen Angel, published May 1st, 2009, is also available.
The screen's most gripping drama of murder—and desire!
According to the extensive IMDb biography by Jon C. Hopwood, Otto Preminger is a bit of a maverick. His photo hung in the Cinematheque Francaise gallery of great directors—until his later works caused them to remove it. His pictures often flew directly (and bravely) in the face of the Legion of Decency and the infamous "Code" that ruled Hollywood films. He made great films, like Porgy and Bess, and crap—like Skidoo.
The noir enthusiast might know Preminger best through Fox's recent spotlight on his efforts. Preminger has featured heavily in the Fox Film Noir Collection, starting with Laura and scattered among the teens. Spine number 14 of that collection is Fallen Angel, which (along with Where the Sidewalk Ends) completes a trifecta of noir Preminger made for Fox.
Facts of the Case
When drifter Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews, Laura) gets kicked off the bus for insufficient fare, he and his last dollar land in a simmering small town called Walton. It seems that every man around, from ex-cop Mark Judd (Charles Bickford, The Unforgiven) to the jukebox delivery guy (Bruce Cabot, Diamonds Are Forever) to the owner of Pop's cafe (Percy Kilbride, Ma and Pa Kettle), has fallen hard for an AWOL waitress. When Stella (Linda Darnell, Unfaithfully Yours) finally does stumble in, Eric gets Stella fever, too.
To pass time, Eric falls in with Professor Madley (John Carradine, The Ice Pirates) and promotes his spirit-channeling act. The Professor's spook show offends local spinsters June (Alice Faye, In Old Chicago) and Clara Mills (Anne Revere, The Song of Bernadette). Eric couldn't care less about the Mills sisters' disapproval. But he does care about June's sizeable inheritance, and whether it can get him closer to Stella.
It's easy to see why Laura got spine number 01 over Fallen Angel. Preminger was nominated for an Academy award for Laura, one of the film's four Oscar nods (plus one win for Best Black and White Cinematography). Meanwhile, Fallen Angel amassed a lofty zero in the awards category. Laura is sheer psychosexual magic, while Fallen Angel is rather clunky. Nonetheless, there's plenty to like about Fallen Angel.
For starters, Dana Andrews tears into his role with intensity. At times he foreshadows Sean Connery's coldhearted machismo from the Bond days. Dana's fast-talking grifter is a wonder to behold, talking himself into beds and money with coarse charm. But when Eric manhandles Stella on the deserted beach, we learn what kind of man he is. Dana uses this revelation to add understated menace to his character's relationship with June Mills. Eric's interactions with this kindhearted innocent reek inside of you like spoiled food; you want to spit the distasteful junk out of your system as fast as possible. He preys on her so brutally that you want to reach into the television to stop him from going further. This intensity wells directly from Dana's performance.
Such a character begs a potent foil, and Linda Darnell delivers one. In my review of Where the Sidewalk Ends I painted Andrews' Det. Sgt. Mark Dixon as something of a noir icon. The honor goes to Stella this time around; Linda Darnell's town tart is an iconic femme fatale. Her entrance is mesmerizing, skipping straight past "sexpot" to "trouble" as she sizes up the room of hungry men, then sits down to massage her feet. Darnell plays Stella with such manipulative weariness and calculated spunk that you can practically hear the gears in her head clanging like cash registers. She is slutty, but achingly so in a way that makes men want her. She has great ambitions to leave small town life, but is simultaneously bound to it by her small-time ways.
Darnell and Stella are perfect counterparts to Andrews and Eric Stanton. As Darnell responds to Preminger's direction and Andrews' powerful charisma, the byplay between Stella and Eric becomes electrically charged. The scenes between them are undoubtedly the high points of Fallen Angel.
In fact, their chemistry is so potent that the rest of the film falls flat by comparison. This takes nothing away from the other performances. Bickford and Carradine seem to live in their roles, while Alice Faye imbues a should-be generic role with a decent amount of life and character. June Mills becomes an antithesis of sorts for Stella: light where Stella is dark, honest where she is manipulative, loyal where she is backstabbing. As good as these performances are, they don't measure up to the Bad Boy and the Bad Girl dream team.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This inequity might explain why critics are generally sour on Fallen Angel while noir fans are generally enthusiastic about it. I have to come clean; though I'm a noir fan, I side with the critics. The script for Fallen Angel is sloppy and uneven, weaving moments of sharp tension with patches of phony melodrama. Once Stella leaves Walton, the movie loses its way, bogging down in forced sentiment and implausibility. The score is forgettable, which is a cardinal sin in noir; better to have no soundtrack at all.
Though Otto is undeniably a gifted director, the direction is not as masterful in Fallen Angel as it is in his contemporary works. The smooth camera tricks are here in full force, and he generates plenty of powerful moments between his characters, yet the gestalt is lacking. The Mills sisters bog things down, and Andrews seems unsure how to play Eric once Stella is out of the picture. Joseph LaShelle's cinematography compensates, making even the daylight scenes seem somehow noirish.
Incidentally, Fox handles the DVD transfer well. The print quality seems cohesive, even when edge enhancement is necessary to smooth over rough spots. Slight softness periodically manifests (possibly near reel changes?). Otherwise the contrast and detail are strong, with no stray coloration and little shimmer. Though the soundtrack itself isn't impressive, the mono sound quality is perfectly acceptable while the stereo is clear (if lacking a sense of space).
Eddie Muller is back, and you can count on him for consistent commentary. The real treasure is his co-commentator Susan Andrews, who shares fond (and not-so-fond, but respectful) stories about her father. If photo galleries are your thing (they aren't mine) then you're treated to three of them here.
An uneven film, Fallen Angel gives noir fans a handful of gold nuggets and a sack of grain. Grain is decent fodder; nothing wrong with it, nothing exciting about it either. At least Otto throws in the gold, which boils down to Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, Joseph LaShelle, and glints from the rest of the cast and crew. Darnell's entrance alone is worth owning the disc.
Not too guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Film Noir Historian Eddie Muller and Dana Andrews' daughter Susan Andrews
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