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Fallen Angel

Fallen Angel(1945)

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teaser Fallen Angel (1945)

Two years after Linda Darnell appeared -- unbilled -- as the Virgin Mary in The Song of Bernadette (1943), she hit her stride as an actress in a pair of films noirs - as the victim of Laird Cregar's homicidal composer in John Brahm's gaslit-era Hangover Square (1945) and as a hash-house waitress dreaming of better things in Otto Preminger's Fallen Angel (1945). It wasn't that Darnell (1923-1965) had gone unnoticed. Fleeing an unhappy family life in her native Dallas, she arrived in Hollywood underage in 1939 and quickly found work. Four co-starring roles opposite Tyrone Power, in Day-Time Wife (1939), Brigham Young (1940), The Mark of Zorro (1940) and Blood and Sand (1941), put her on the Hollywood map, and on studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck's to-do list at 20th Century-Fox.

Darnell, realizing she would have a limited shelf life portraying sweet young things in costume dramas, wanted meatier roles. She got one by way of Summer Storm (1944), Douglas Sirk's adaptation of the Chekhov novel, The Shooting Party. As a lusty Russian peasant girl who devours George Sanders' aristocrat, marketed with copious publicity shots showing Darnell posing in a hayloft in a peasant blouse and little else, she became one of World War II's most popular pin-up girls. Zanuck, sensing the money to be made from her dark voluptuousness and smoldering sensuality, elevated her to Fox's first rank of femmes fatales. Enter Otto Preminger.

Preminger's reward for filming the noir hit Laura (1944) was to be ordered by Zanuck to do it again. Being asked to repeat himself was met with muted enthusiasm by Preminger, but he set to work, taking advantage of one of the studio system's plusses - the ability to quickly and efficiently re-assemble a production team whose collaboration had proved fruitful. Thus Preminger re-enlisted cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, composer David Raksin, art directors Leland Fuller and Lyle Wheeler, set decorator Thomas Little, costume designer Bonnie Cashin, second unit director Tom Dudley and three other team members, insuring that behind the camera all would be working from the same page.

The loose cannon was Zanuck, or, rather the ongoing tug of war between Zanuck and the film's top-billed star, Alice Faye. A decade-long string of musicals had turned her into one of Fox's most bankable stars. She had amassed enough clout that Zanuck had to keep her happy. Faye, like Darnell, wanted a change of pace, a chance to prove she had dramatic chops. She also had, in effect, script approval. A studio press release said she turned down 35 scripts before settling on Fallen Angel, presumably with an eye to Laura. Exercising her right to choose her leading man, she chose Laura star Dana Andrews. Also mindful of Raksin's hit song (and theme) from that film, she insisted he write her a song, too. He showed up with several. She chose one called "Slowly."

Faye might have naively chosen the role of June Mills because she's so saintly, not realizing the character would come across as slightly insipid. In Laura, Andrews played the cop. In Fallen Angel, he plays Eric Stanton, a glib drifter, thrown off a bus in a California coastal town because he's literally down to his last dollar. Conning himself into a hotel room, he walks into a shack-like diner, where Darnell has already wrapped around her little finger the owner (Percy Kilbride in slavish, scrawny hayseed mode), the guy who services the jukebox (Bruce Cabot in experienced commercial traveler mode) and the local cop (Charles Bickford, stonily playing out his police career after years in New York). Stanton, too, falls under her brassy spell.

She reciprocates his interest, but she's been bruised enough by experience to know she's only got so many years left to find a snug harbor. She can't afford another deadbeat, she tells him frankly. After briefly hooking up with John Carradine's engagingly breezy phony mind reader, he targets Faye's spinster daughter and heiress (with her suspicious sister, also a spinster) and romances her, scheming to separate her from her money so he can run off with Darnell's pouty, sometimes waspish, but oh-so-luscious Stella. Faye's June is the church organist (the church seems an airless sepulcher, reinforcing the cloud of genteel suffocation hanging over the sisters like a shroud). This woman, too, is on the wrong side of the biological time clock.

For a woman with a lifelong interest in classical music, June harbors a credibility-demolishing degree of naivet. It may be attributed to her interest in the fast-talking stranger who approaches her during a solo practice in church and compliments her on her way with Beethoven, Brahms and Bach, that she lets pass the obvious fact that his knowledge of music is nonexistent. Later, when he wants to lure her to San Francisco to get her money from a safe deposit box in a bank there, he offers to take her to hear Arturo Toscanini conduct the San Francisco Symphony (he never did) and later get Toscanini to listen to her musicianship. All the while Darnell's Stella is cooling her heels (or not) in her shanty-like backstairs room that would be on the wrong side of the tracks if the town had tracks.

What's wrong here is obvious. Faye's character is a cardboard cutout of goodness, patience, forbearance and love, refusing to entertain the idea that there's anything questionable about the churlish man she impulsively marries, despite his shifty and downright mean treatment of her. Andrews does a good job of playing a man who has lost his inner compass, taking refuge in cynicism or the short-term superficial betterment of the grab-and-run thief. His tendency to flee his difficulties is amplified when he finds himself facing a murder rap. The moral blurriness, weakness and ambivalence Andrews could muster serve him well in noir.

But Faye, whose warmth and appeal created a simpatico bond between her and audiences for years, falls conspicuously short, partly because she isn't given enough shadings and dimension by the script and, if she's to be believed, butcher-block editing. The professionalism surrounding the principals is solid down the line. Anne Revere, who with Judith Anderson and Agnes Moorehead, was one of Hollywood's three queens of frosty severity, is a big plus as June's dubious sister, and Bickford knows how to use silence as the hard-nosed cop sitting in the diner watching, watching.

It isn't just by forfeit that Fallen Angel becomes Darnell's film. Her Stella is the only character who seems all of a piece. She could have been a clich, just another trashy, tough-talking small town siren. But Darnell's ability to project vulnerability from beneath her tough exterior lifts her beyond the usual stereotypical tropes. The ripeness of which so much was made wasn't just physical with her. She persuades us that it included the heart, too, as she traversed the dark precincts of LaShelle's evocation of the visual essence of noir. Partly because she initially lacked confidence, Darnell's on-set behavior during most of her career was described by co-workers as polite and even sweet. She was to make, in addition to Fallen Angel, three other films with Preminger: Centennial Summer (1946), in which she vied with Jeanne Crain for the favors of Cornel Wilde to a Jerome Kern score; Forever Amber (1947), for which she dyed her hair blonde as the heroine of Kathleen Winsor's then-scandalous costume novel; and The 13th Letter (1951), which moved Henri-Georges Clouzot's poison-pen-letter classic, Le Corbeau (1943), to Canada. By the time of her last film with him, she loathed the dictatorial Preminger as much as so many others did. But her films with him are as strong a grouping as any in her oeuvre, which was cut sadly short when she died in a house fire at the age of 41 in 1965.

Although now largely forgotten, Fallen Angel stands high among Darnell devotees. In a burst of wishful thinking, the Fallen Angel ad campaign trumpeted: "The creator of 'Laura' does it again!" He didn't. Its choppy script and ham-handed editing do the film in. While there's lots of satisfying professionalism on display in Fallen Angel, the film itself comes up conspicuously short. Musically, "Slowly" was no "Laura." Faye, after recording it, was shocked to discover that her version wasn't used. Instead, the song was sung in the film by Dick Haymes. Further distressed by the way Zanuck and Preminger had cut her scenes and played up Darnell's, Faye stormed out of the studio and didn't make another film for 16 years. On her way out, Faye was to write, she left Zanuck a note she described as unprintable. Faye learned the hard way how the Hollywood power game works. As it turned out, the real noir elements in Fallen Angel were to be found behind the camera, not in front of it.

Producer: Otto Preminger
Director: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: Harry Kleiner; Marty Holland (novel)
Cinematography: Joseph La Shelle
Art Direction: Leland Fuller, Lyle Wheeler
Music: David Raksin
Film Editing: Harry Reynolds
Cast: Alice Faye (June Mills), Dana Andrews (Eric Stanton), Linda Darnell (Stella), Charles Bickford (Mark Judd), Anne Revere (Clara Mills), Bruce Cabot (Dave Atkins), John Carradine (Professor Madley), Percy Kilbride (Pop).

by Jay Carr

AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream, by Ronald L. Davis, University of Oklahoma Press, 1991
Alice Faye: A Life Beyond the Silver Screen, by Jane Lena Elder, University Press of Mississippi, 2002
Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King, by Foster Hirsch, Knopf, 2007

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