Fallen Angel, 1945, 98 mins, Blu-ray
Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews, Laura, Night of the Demon) is not a Good Guy; Stella (Linda Darnell) is not a Good Girl. So typically noir; these two leads are not at all likeable but they do feel real: its something I often find watching these noir films, a convincing sense of reality in how people behave, what they say, what they do, which sucks you into even the oddest noir drama. Much of their behaviour can be quite abhorrent and yet its endlessly fascinating- also curiously refreshing, watching films with unlikeable protagonists who are broken or of bad character. They certainly don’t come much worse than Eric Stanton. Stella, meanwhile is a sensual beauty who knows how to use her charms: the kind of girl that instantly excites but hardly one you could trust, and you certainly wouldn’t take her home to meet your mother.
Stanton is a drifter, a chancer and a con-artist on his way from LA to San Francisco with only a dollar in his pocket, who is thrown off his bus when his ticket runs out, landing in the small coastal town of Walton. Walking to a lonely diner situated near the beach, he bides his time trying to work out some angle when Stella walks in, the waitress of the diner and the town’s main attraction for frustrated male folk. World-wise Stella is a beautiful woman who feels trapped in Walton and craves a way out – Stanton is instantly attracted to her, but she’s clearly only interested in someone with money or prospects, and will only sleep with someone after they have married her and given her a home (preferably somewhere other than Walton). It’s obvious that Stanton and Stella are made for each other but unless Stanton can figure out a way of making money he has no chance, and Stella already has her sights on Dave Atkins (Bruce Cabot) as a likely alternative.
After demonstrating his dubious skills when promoting a visiting fake spiritualist/mentalist, ‘Professor’ Madley (a memorable John Carradine). Madley cons the smalltown folk with messages from deceased loved ones, in particular upsetting rich sisters Clara Mills (Anne Revere, Secret Behind the Door) and June Mills (Alice Faye) with some bitter comments from their dead father that sees them rushing out of the hall in disgust and their neighbours flapping. Stanton sees in the sheltered, repressed Alice an easy mark; seducing her and quickly marrying her in a breathless romance with the intention of getting all her money then dumping her in favour of Stella. Indeed, this cad is so reprehensible, he even deserts Alice on their wedding night, visiting Stella instead- but this makes Stanton a prime suspect when Stella is found murdered the next morning.
The way both Stanton and Stella abuse, manipulate and secretly mock the honest people around them makes Fallen Angel, in some ways a surprisingly nasty film – indeed, like the original Nightmare Alley (which also shares an uncomfortable interest in mentalism and exploiting peoples grief) it is one of the darkest noirs I’ve yet seen (I actually found Nightmare Alley so disturbing I still haven’t managed to write a review of it). If anything, Fallen Alley has more of the ring of truth than Nightmare Alley‘s literally nightmarish excesses, certainly in regards how the regulars at the diner fawn and moon over Stella (the proprietor, Pop (Percy Kilbride) and Mark Judd (Charles Bickford, The Woman on the Beach) a former New York City Police Inspector convalescing in Walton), there’s a reality to it, and a sadness of empty longing regards the older men wasting their attention on her when she’s clearly got her eyes set elsewhere. Both Kilbride and Bickford are great character actors, and it was nice to see King Kong‘s Bruce Cabot again.
Fallen Angel‘s biggest weakness compared to Nightmare Alley is its suddenly positive, rather unlikely ‘happy’ ending for Stanton, a love conquers all text that doesn’t ring true, unless the virginal Alice is herself only using Stanton to escape her controlling elder sister and the boredom of a cosy protected life in Walton. The ending doesn’t break the film, but it doesn’t carry the disturbing sense of inevitable truth which the conclusion of Nightmare Alley does (unless, as I say, maybe the con-artist is being conned, but the films not really suggesting that even as a possibility, its just me running off on a tangent).
Dana Andrews is very good; although I understand his tightly-strung noir roles might have had some impact on his life away from the camera. And Linda Darnell is just darkly, fascinatingly wonderful, albeit her own life had more than a slight taint of noir to it. Perhaps more on that, later…