Angel Face: Linda Darnell in Fallen Angel
A typical film noir opening: a guy going nowhere gets off anywhere and then something starts up. In the 1945 20th-Century Fox film noir Fallen Angel, the nowhere-man is noir icon Dana Andrews, whose bus ticket has run out of places to go—thus he ends up at one of those lifeless midwestern towns that exist only to be gotten out of.
This one-horse burg, however, happens to contain something that persuades Andrews to stay: gorgeous Linda Darnell as Stella, a waitress at a rundown truck-stop diner. One of the great beauties of golden-age Hollywood, Darnell, with her round eyes and plump, pouty lips, had a lusciously overripe brunette allure; she’s like a peach ready for bruising. And her sexually knowing performance as the hard-boiled hash-slinger makes this film. Every movement, every inflection, from her opening scene, where she collapses in a chair and yanks off her shoes, is telling; she reveals a superb instinct for this kind of character. Note her entrance as she stands, her legs splayed, her weight skewed over her hips, as if her pelvis held a sack of potatoes about to spill open. We know everything about this character right there. She’s a dame who’s been everywhere and seen it all, and by now it’s gotten under her skin. Something will definitely start up with her.
As written, Stella is a character of contradictions: She’s a slut who’s holding out for the ring, who has no compunction stealing a dollar from her employer but who refuses to cheat on a date. Darnell captures all these facets brilliantly; she lets you see that this is a woman with one unifying goal—she wants respectability, which means marriage, a house, kids, and money in the bank; and she’ll only take a man who can give it to her. Darnell plays it like a breeder judging bulls on the auction block, always sizing up her suitors, particularly Andrews, whose character is quickly smitten with her. She’s got moxie and she doesn’t care who knows it.
Although Darnell had been in films since 1939, 1945 seems to have been her breakout year. Just previous to Fallen Angel, she had made Hangover Square, in which her beguilingly witchy café singer/femme fatale understandably drives hapless Laird Cregar into madness and murder.
Surprisingly, before these two movies Darnell had been playing ingénues or virtuous young wives, in such films as Day-Time Wife and The Mark of Zorro (she even had an uncredited stint as the Virgin Mary in The Song of Bernadette). Even more surprising, she was only about 21 at the time of Fallen Angel. Yet she acts her role like Mae West, without the laughs. Every man Stella meets goes wild over her, even poor little Percy Kilbride as the diner owner foolishly in love with his own employee. Stella barely notices him enough to give him the time of day; she has enough confidence in her own looks to treat all these panting males like dirt. In her scenes with Andrews, Darnell glowers at him as if he were the incarnation of a bad smell; it’s like a curled lip done with the eyes. But Andrews keeps coming back for more.
Andrews was making his second film for director Otto Preminger, after Laura, and he plays a similar kind of obsessive here as he did in the earlier film. His infatuated drifter is willing to do anything to get money in order to get Stella, even marry another woman, the film’s “good girl” (Alice Faye), in order to wrap his sweaty hands around his bride’s dough. Andrews can barely keep those same sticky hands off Darnell; in a clinch on a garbage-strewn beach, he noticeably feels up her backside.
Preminger inscribes Andrews’ fixation in his cinematography: The camera swirls round and moves in on Darnell as if stalking her. Its most startling move is during a dance at a restaurant, in which it swiftly dollies in, like a zoom, to a close-up on Darnell and Andrews’ profiles, isolating them within the surrounding hubbub. When, in true noir style, the waitress turns up dead about half-way through the story, Andrews is the logical suspect.
Unfortunately, after Stella’s demise, the film focuses on Alice Faye. A huge star in Fox musicals, Faye was returning to movies after an absence during which she had married and given birth to two daughters. In accordance with her status, Faye was allowed her pick of scripts, and Fallen Angel was her own choice. One wonders why. Her character is meant to be sexually repressed, under the dominance of a severe older sister (Anne Revere), but roiling with a burgeoning desire for independence; her marriage to the drifter is her chance to break away. But Faye, an actress of placid temperament, is a zero in the role (Dorothy McGuire or Jeanne Crain would have been a better choice). She looks too plump and matronly for the part, and she slumps through the film with basically one facial expression. And she strikes no sparks with co-star Andrews; what’s supposed to be the big steamy scene, the sexual consummation in a sleazy hotel room, falls flat. Reportedly Faye was upset over producer Darryl Zanuck’s fussing over Darnell, and maybe that dissatisfaction came through in her performance. Fallen Angel would be her last film for over two decades.
Still, Preminger manages to ladle on the noir set pieces: He gives us scenes of a sadistic cop (Charles Bickford) beating up a suspect (Bruce Cabot) for the hell of it; a fake psychic (John Carradine) bamboozling the dupes; and Andrews abandoning Faye on their wedding night to yearn ‘neath Darnell’s window. And then there’s Darnell herself; whenever she’s on, the film really heats up. What more can you ask for? Required viewing.