Fallen Angel (1945) - Otto Preminger
The first Oscar nomination can do strange things to a filmmaker. It can make him turn recluse, ambitious, confident, or hungry for more. Otto Preminger got his first Oscar nomination in 1944 for his work directing Laura, although there has been some controversy as to whom the real director was. It didnt matter though, because producer Preminger got the nomination, but although he lost to Leo McCarey, he won that much sought after confidence and leverage. Preminger would become Hollywoods most daring filmmaker over the course of the next twenty years, but his first film made after his breakthrough was right in the same alley. Fallen Angel was a film from a director who knew that he could direct, and knew what he could direct.
The film is noir all over. The setting is a small ocean town in the middle of California, 180 miles from San Francisco, and just about anywhere else. The action begins on a bus, and goes to the only logical place possible, to the diner. How often have we seen the dark and mysterious stranger, arriving like a hobo to get a cup of coffee in the only place open in town. Whos there but the old man owner, telling the police about his girl who just ran away. After the cop gets the information, Stella (Linda Darnell) walks in, and shes sex all over. Shes got every man in town wrapped around her finger, and she knows it, and we instantly know it. For a minute we start to wonder if this is going to be The Postman Always Rings Twice all over again, but Preminger wouldnt go there, that would be too simple. Besides Bruce Cabot is her father, not her husband. That dark, mysterious stranger however is hooked when she eats his burger, and makes him pay for his coffee.
That stranger is Eric Stanton, and hes played by Dana Andrews who could scarcely be farther from the somewhat pathetic role he had in Laura. Heres a man with confidence, a smooth talker who can walk into any situation and make it his. Hes full of himself, and in this regard he makes a perfect match for Stella. Theyre too big for this town, but theyre just perfect for each other. Stellas no easy mark though, but shell bait Eric just enough to get what she wants out of him. She doesnt want fun or a good time, she wants something for the long haul. Shes heard vague and empty promises from every man in town for years, and she wants a home, a family. Shes the type of girl that everyone wants to wed, but no one wants to be married to. Her reputation is bad, this makes her instantly desirable for a conquest, but worthless as a spouse. Yet with that type of sex appeal, shell make any man promise her the world, and shell damn well get it.
Eric is the first man who seems determined to get it. Sure he rode into town on a buck, but he knows how to get more. He successfully conned a cheap spook show act (John Carradine) into publicity, and managed to dupe the whole town into making his show a sell out. Hes good when he needs to be, and just amoral enough to get what he wants. He wants Stella, but he knows that type of girl always comes with a fee, but theres a way to get it, he just needs to be a little ruthless. He finds that the towns spinster June Mills (Alice Faye) seeks to inherit $25,000. Among his other research he also found another man managed to con about half of the original sum out of her. He knows she has money, and he knows she can be fooled, the only question is can he be that ruthless?
Dana Andrews plays Stanton like a thug, but one that resents his own conscience. He wants to be merciless, uncaring, unfeeling, because he knows thats how you get ahead, but theres something inside of him that wont let him. We start to see his indecision, first its when he fails to leave town, several times, and later hes ready to call the whole plan off. He made a deal with the devil though, and shes not willing to renegotiate. She liked the original offer of 12,500 and when he balks its the same line shes heard from every other guy in town. Shell love him alright, just long enough to have some fun. Shes hardly made for domestic duties, despite what she might say, shes just tired of being used and the object of affection, she wants something for her good looks. Stanton is so self possessed that hes almost willing to believe shell have him just as he is.
The film is infused with sex. For obvious reasons no direct reference could be made, but you get a few good clues. When Stella and Eric are dancing, they kiss, and suddenly stop. They grab each others coats and walk outside. Sure the scene following shows Stella resisting, but she had an open invitation in there. Were led to believe that shes given Eric the taste, and now its up to him if he wants the rest. Likewise when June and Eric are in San Francisco the two lie in bed, and the camera pulls to the window, which slowly dissolves into day. Sure their clothes are still on, but surely this marriage has been consummated, after all Alice Faye is nothing to turn down.
Stella is murdered not just for her own good, but for the good of the town. Sure her father will never see this, and the humanist in us refuses to believe she deserved to die, but she was trouble. Her killer is punishing this Eve for tempting mankind. She wont be able to harm anyone else, she wont be taken out by a different guy every week. She wont be stared at or ogled over in the diner, and most importantly for Stanton, she wont be able to tempt him. With her gone, he can be a husband. Sure he had an impure motive for marrying, but with Stella gone, he can make it right. She bought the line that he was selling, and all he has to do is live up to it. He knows he can, but he also knows that he couldnt possibly be a decent husband with Stella around, hell he goes to see her on his wedding night, a fool move all around. However his being spotted that night sets up not only his suspicion, but also an alibi.
Preminger lets us think the worst of Eric though. Even while professing innocence, he still leaves town, and tries to ditch his wife. When she gets picked up by the police, he bolts. While hes telling June all about how he got blamed for doing things he didnt do, you hardly believe him. This is a compulsive liar who we already knows has next to no morals constantly trying to sell an image of himself. We want him to be innocent, because hes our hero, hes the guy we first see in the film and the one whos story were witnessing, its only natural for us to be on his side. But on the other hand hes a heel, and you always have your suspicions as to whether hes on the level.
Windows are a predominant image in the film. We first see the bus pull into town from the outside, looking through the windows. When Eric and Ellis go to the Mills household, Clara opens the window in the door, not the door first. When Clara (Anne Revere) sees Eric leave the house on his wedding night it is through a window. After the marriage has been consummated, the camera pulls to a window. When Stellas neighbor is woken up by Erics late night yelling, she yells at him through her window. Now this might be far off, but I believe the window motif is used to show a narrow escape. They are constantly in the film, showing that perhaps Eric can and will get out of this, but it wont be easy, unlike if the predominant image was doors. Instead it is a way out, but its sneaky, and Eric naturally has to be sneaky if hes going to get out of this.
As usual though, the feel of noir is from the look. It never rains in this town, but thanks perhaps to the ocean mist, everything seems to look fresh from a storm in the nighttime. Everyone lurks in the shadows, Clara, Eric, even Bickford. We see June standing next to an open window (Erics escape?) and we cant even make out her face from the shadow. When Eric and the detective walk into Stellas apartment, Eric takes his hat off but the detective leaves his on. I thought about the scene in Somewhere in the Night, which also features a detective played by Charles Bickford, who always leaves his hat on, because he never knows when hell have to draw for a gun. Perhaps Mankiewicz took a cue from this film when he teamed with Bickford the very next year.
The only flaw I was able to find in the film was the agitated performance of Stellas neighbor when being questioned after her murder. It is unnecessarily cooky, and you get the feeling that the actress was severely hamming it up. Considering that it is one scene, and a minor one at that it hardly detracts. What follows however is our first clue into the real killer. Obviously the watch Stella was given pops up. The film makes a point of not having Stella reveal who gave her the watch when shes questioned about it in the diner. She has nothing really to hide, but feels that its no ones business. All she wants Eric to know is that he didnt give her the watch. We get the sense that whoever did give her the watch might be the killer. When the detective beats her boyfriend asking him if he gave her the watch it is cruel. Hes jumped to the conclusion that the watch and the killer are intertwined. He says he knows that the guy is innocent, but keeps beating him because I didnt like his face. This is thug talk, and hardly the stance of a man on the law. This clues us into two things, first that the detective can be cruel and ruthless, and secondly that he knows something about this case that we and therefore Eric doesnt know. In any great mystery though, its not really finding out who done it, but how they figure out who done it. This remains one of the gems in Premingers catalogue before he was too over burdened with breaking the production code.