Angel Face

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 bus stops to stop at.  Thus he ends up at one of those lifeless end-of-the-road towns that exist only to be gotten out of.  Assuming you have someplace else to get to.

This particular one-horse burg, however, happens to contain something that persuades Andrews to stay on:  Stella, a waitress at a rundown truck-stop diner, who’s played by gorgeous Linda Darnell .  One of the great beauties of golden-age Hollywood, Darnell, with her round eyes and plump, pouty lips, had a lusciously overripe brunette allure, 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.  Everything we need to know about this character is right there.  She’s a dame who’s been everywhere and seen it all, and it’s now 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, a dame who’ll steal a dollar from the cash register but who won’t cheat on a date.  And Darnell captures these opposing facets brilliantly.  She lets you see that, no matter what she does, this is a woman with one goal—she wants respectability, which means marriage, a house, kids, and money in the bank; and she’ll only take the man who can give it to her.  Darnell plays Stella like a breeder judging bulls on the auction block, always sizing up her suitors, especially Andrews, whose character is quickly smitten with her.  This gal’s got moxie and she doesn’t care who knows it—because she knows someone with her looks can get away with 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, playing a beguilingly witchy café singer out for gain, she understandably drives doomed composer Laird Cregar into madness and murder.  Darnell seemed to inhabit these roles with an innate emotional knowledge:  her femme fatales could twirl a man around one slim finger, their come-on smiles masking a killer instinct to get what they want.  And with Darnell’s women, what they want is whatever plays to their advantage.  Darnell the actress did extend her range of roles through her career (see my post here on the comedy Everybody Does It, in which she plays an opera singer!), but her fatal women, embodying the dark, icy core of classic noir, are what she’ll be remembered for.

Surprisingly, before her 1945 films 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 bit as the Virgin Mary in The Song of Bernadette).  Even more surprising, she was only about 21 at the time of Fallen Angel; so young to be so hard-boiled.  Yet Darnell 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 a curled lip done with the eyes.  But Andrews keeps coming back for more; no matter what Stella dishes, he’s willing to take.  Stella is more than aware of this power over him (and others like him), and she uses it superbly—this lady is gonna get what she wants.

Andrews was making his second film for director Otto Preminger, after Laura, and he plays a similar kind of character as he did earlier:  a Regular-Joe Shmo who’s got a weird obsession over a dame (at least Stella here is alive and kicking).  His infatuated drifter is willing to do anything to get money in order to get Stella, even marry another woman, the film’s well-to-do “good girl” (Alice Faye), so he can 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, pulling her body towards his in undisguised lust. The scene could raise eyebrows today, as Andrews’ greedy grope is clearly coded to mean something.  It may be the dirtiest dry hump to get past the censorious eyes of the Production Code.

Preminger inscribes Andrews’ fixation not just in the film’s plot but in its cinematography:  the camera swirls round and moves in on Darnell as if stalking her, keeping her lush figure in its unwavering gaze.  Its most startling move is during a dance scene 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.  It’s noir obsession taken to the limit, when the protagonist’s view dwindles down to the boundaries of his object of desire.  And when, in true noir style, the desired object turns up dead about half-way through the story, Andrews’ hapless sucker is the logical suspect.  It’s like he was born for it.

Unfortunately, after Stella’s demise the film focuses on the good-girl character played by Alice Faye, and narrative interest drops.  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), yet itching for independence; and her marriage to the drifter is her chance to break away.  But Faye, an actress of placid temperament, is a zero in the role.  She looks too plump and matronly for the part of a desperate innocent, and she slumps through the film with basically one facial expression, that of mild disgruntlement with her lot.  Faye is unable to hone in on her character’s seething undercurrents, nor can she bring out the subtleties of her desire for both experience and freedom.  And she strikes no sparks with co-star Andrews; what’s supposed to be the movie’s 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, the ultimate fatal dame.  Whenever she’s on, the film really heats up, its scenes burning like ice.  What more can you ask for?  Required viewing.

Get in your Required Viewing:  Watch Fallen Angel by clicking here.

This article was originally posted on Grand Old Movies’ Tumblr site, and has been reprinted here in slightly modified form.

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