A wise old sage (Tom Waits) once said, “You don’t meet nice girls in coffee shops.” Which is certainly true in Otto Preminger’s other film noir, 1945’s Fallen Angel. Hoping to capitalize on the surprise success of Laura – which also starred one-time SAG president and all around decent dude Dana Andrews, Fallen Angel was released to lukewarm reviews. While a little saggy around the middle, the film is well acted, well shot by the dependably great Joseph LaShelle (the man responsible for the first of many Twilight Zone dutch angles), and solidly directed by Preminger.
Eric Stanton gets kicked off the bus for insufficient fare in the sleepy town of Walton near San Francisco. (Just kicked off, not fined exorbitantly – What up, Vancouver?) He wanders into the nearest greasy spoon, Pops, and therein finds a whole pack of trouble in the form of waitress Stella (Linda Darnell). Stella thinks showing up for work is optional, seeing as how Pop (Percy Kilbride) has a sweaty-palmed, yet sweet, old-man crush on her.
And, oh yeah, she wanders in wearing this hat, kicks off her shoes, and takes Eric’s hamburger. Like a boss.
Eric, like every other fellow in the diner, is smitten. Shortly thereafter he leaves and spots a poster for a psychic act. Sensing a con (him being a conman and all), he inserts himself into marketing for the act by convincing the ex-mayor’s spinster daughter to allow them to perform their heathen spirit show. She agrees, and Eric introduces himself to her nicer, younger, and blonder sister, June – Alice Faye in her first non-musical. As an aside, legend has it that cuts to Faye’s performance caused her break-up from Fox and subsequent 17-year sabbatical from Hollywood.
Meanwhile, Eric courts Stella while at the same time watching her steal from the cash register and date various other men. He vows to give her what she wants, which isn’t so outlandish – a home and marriage, even though he doesn’t have any money. She stands firm – he must marry her and provide a home if the relationship is to go any further. So, that’s a healthy start to a lifelong reunion, but anyway, Eric comes up with the classy plan to marry June, take her money, and have the marriage annulled.
It takes approximately one date for Eric to seduce June, as he tries to show her things he likes (alcohol, clubs, and kissing), and she confesses her secret – despite her love of piano, heavy books, and hanging out with her laugh-riot sister, she secretly wants to be just like girls in magazine ads. If you start the below clip at around 2:10, you’ll see this magic beach date for yourself.
It’s after they get their marriage certificate things start to go off the rails. After a shocking murder, Eric is – at the very least – a person of interest. He’d probably be advised not to leave town, but he does, ever loyal June in tow (at this point, she’s already been rejected on her wedding night and is amenable to giving Eric the money he wanted.) Imagine that xoJane article:
“I married this boy and then I found out he only wants to steal all of my money and have the marriage annulled so he can run off with his other girlfriend. Then he became a murder suspect. What should I wear on the train while we hide out?”
Except it isn’t. And Fallen Angel is unsetlling for just that very reason.
Stella’s end is particularly harsh and almost not in line with typical noir rules, after all, she isn’t a scheming, black-hearted, stone cold sociopath. But hey, that’s a noir rule in and of itself – bad shit happens to everyone, no matter where they’re tipping the moral scale. One could interpret Fallen Angel as merely a bad girl cautionary tale; if you go flashing your shit all over town you may – I hesitate to say – get what’s coming to you. But that’s too easy, and I think, an un-earned criticism. Stella isn’t your standard femme fatale, her wants are pretty typical – security and a home. She’s brusque, sullen, and hard-edged, but who wouldn’t be, when you’ve been lied to and yanked around as much as she has?
Her small, one room apartment is particularly affecting. It’s miles away from the home she dreams about, and there is the curious addition of a large stuffed bear, featured prominently in a few shots. We aren’t in a sin-laden boudoir of a girl with easy virtue – we’re in the rooming house of a lonely girl with a dead end job, trying to use what she has to get ahead. Stellas aren’t born, they’re made, and as she’s tossed aside by the men who took her out – most notably, Eric, by the end of the film, there is a profound sense of injustice and loss.
June’s prize for being kind, good, and loyal? Eric, who’s just barely made good on the substantial amount of faith she’s shown in him. Eric’s prize for being a charming yet conniving con man who certainly used Stella as much as she used him? June. Pop’s prize for loving Stella and putting up with her being kind of a shitty employee? Nothing. No one got what they deserved.
Beyond the gorgeous composition of shots like the two above, LaShelle’s cinematography also features a unique focus on faces in the crowd. At the cafe, in the audience, and walking around San Francisco, Fallen Angel wants you to keep your eye on the other lives surrounding yours. It’s an eerie tactic which helps to pay off the ending, and compensates for some of the film’s more arduous scenes.
Anyway, I’m probably due in some coffee shop somewhere, but, hey, in the meantime, play Stella’s song on the jukebox and be thankful you don’t get what you deserve.