Fallen Angel, Otto Preminger’s follow-up to his smash hit Laura (1944), was slapped around by critics and passed over by audiences, but it’s not a bad film. It’s just not involving or memorable in the ways Laura was, and it’s composed of a bunch of elements that never really coalesce.
Fallen Angel reunited Preminger with the star of his previous film, Dana Andrews, and a lot of my enjoyment in the film came from watching Andrews. He’s more of a focal point in Fallen Angel than he was in Laura, and he dominates every scene he’s in. Andrews was 5’10”, but he looks well over six feet in this picture. He’s rough-looking but charming, and imposing and tough without being wooden. At the same time, he projects bitterness and alienation, barely concealed behind a handsome mask. In short, he’s the embodiment of American post-war masculinity. Andrews’s co-stars are all good as well. And I can’t fault Preminger’s direction. The film looks great, and taken one scene at a time, it’s very good.
Where Fallen Angel failed to engage me was in its pacing and storytelling. I haven’t read the Marty Holland novel the film is based on, but Fallen Angel plays like an adaptation of a sprawling book in which each section of the plot is dutifully reenacted, as opposed to a terse adaptation in which unnecessary subplots and themes are jettisoned. When drifter Eric Stanton (Andrews) is thrown off a bus in the small town of Walton, California, because he doesn’t have the $2.25 fare necessary to continue on to San Francisco, he stops in at a place called Pop’s Café. In the first few minutes of the film we’re introduced to all the major players; the phony spiritualist Professor Madley (John Carradine), whom Stanton used to shill for, hard-boiled ex-New York police detective Mark Judd (Charles Bickford), cafe owner Pop (Percy Kilbride), June Mills (Alice Faye), June’s spinster sister Clara (Anne Revere), and Pop’s pouting, sexy waitress Stella (Linda Darnell), whom every man in town seems to be obsessed with (and it’s not hard to see why).
The beginning doesn’t seem rushed, however, or as though too much information is being packed in. A lot of this can be credited to Preminger’s cinematographer, Joseph LaShelle, who also worked with Preminger on Laura, and whose fluid tracking shots and crisp black and white cinematography are both a joy to watch. Eventually, however, the way certain characters dropped out of the picture left me feeling suspended. The grifting medium and his relationship with Stanton could have filled an entire picture (although I admit being partial to John Carradine), but he leaves town before too much time has passed. Later, when Stella is murdered, it happens off screen, and just as I felt her relationship with Stanton was starting to get juicy. His romance with June and Stella could have formed the classic “good girl/bad girl” film noir tension, but his romance with June doesn’t really get started until Stella’s ticket has been punched, and once that happens, Fallen Angel becomes more of a melodrama than a noir. It’s also a mystery, since we don’t know who killed Stella, but this aspect of the film doesn’t come to much, as the second half focuses more on Stanton’s courtship of the sheltered, naïve June, and the question of whether or not he really loves her or is just out to fleece her. Meanwhile, most viewers will have the number of suspects in Stella’s murder narrowed down to two suspects, neither of whom is a more interesting culprit than the other.
I’m probably making Fallen Angel sound worse than it is. Many modern viewers consider it a lost classic of film noir, or just a really great film that has been overlooked. It’s worth seeing, especially if you’re a fan of Preminger or any of the principal actors. I found it disappointing, but that might change years from now with a second viewing.