If anyone ever offers you the role of the good girl in a film noir, say no. It is one of the most unforgiving roles I have ever seen in the movies – like playing “the other woman,” a third wheel – and femme fatales were made to run away with movies. Unfortunately for Alice Faye, she said yes in 1945. An extremely popular star at 20th Century Fox, she was previously known for her musicals (I love her voice) and wanted to move on to more dramatic films; as Dick Powell managed to do in 1944, transitioning from singing tenor to playing hard-boiled detectives. But Dick Powell’s first foray into noir was with Murder, My Sweet and Alice Faye chose Fallen Angel.
It’s not that Fallen Angel is a bad film; it’s definitely worth a look and is fairly enjoyable, despite some plotting issues. And Alice Faye wasn’t even that bad in the role; it was just a role not even Bette Davis could turn to much account and it did not further her career. In fact, it was the last film she made for sixteen years. It did, however, further the career of Linda Darnell, who played the femme fatale.
Dana Andrews is Eric Stanton, a drifter and a con artist who drifts into Walton, a small town between Los Angeles and San Francisco. He stops at a tiny diner and meets Stella (Linda Darnell), who seems to have all the men obsessed with her. There is Pop (Percy Killbride), who owns the bar and is nuts about Stella. There is also Mark Judd (Charles Bickford), a married man and a retired cop who always comes into the diner just to gaze at Stella and who plays the same song on the jukebox that Stella likes called “Slowly.” There is also another guy who services jukeboxes named Atkins (Bruce Cabot). Stella does not seem noticeably impressed by all this attention.
Inevitably, Stanton falls for Stella, but though she likes him she is rather dismissive of him, too, since all he seems to be offering is the same line that all the men have offered through the years and she has decided that she’s done with that. She wants a home and a husband with a little money and she’s no longer giving anything unless there’s a ring. Stanton says he’ll marry her and promises that he’ll get some money, somehow.
Stanton’s plan to get money is to fleece June Mills (Alice Faye), daughter of a much respected former mayor, who plays the organ, likes books and lives with her protective older sister, Clara (Anne Revere). June falls in love with him quickly, but he soon realizes that he can’t get her money without getting married, which they do, despite Clara’s warnings that he’s no good.
When Stanton tells Stella what he’s done she’s even less impressed and they argue (I would be nonplussed, too, if a man told me he was crazy to marry me and then arrived to say that he’d married another woman, all for me).That night Stella is murdered. Judd is asked by the police to help with the investigation and there are no shortage of suspects: Judd himself, Pop, Atkins, Stanton and even Clara, who found out about Stella and seems just protective enough of her sister to be capable of it. Stanton, however, is afraid that Judd will pin the murder on him and flees Walton, with June coming along with him.
The rest of the film is part mystery and part romance, with the con artist redeemed through the unalterable love and faith of a good woman. June is probably the first person who ever believed in him. The trouble is that her faith seems a trifle willful. There’s nothing in his behavior to indicate that he might have a good heart, hidden, somewhere and her faith seems less based on anything we see in him and more on her apparent determination to have him. She loves him, she wants him, so she has faith. The result is that she gets stuck with some rather weak dialogue and not much motivation. Her role is to be patient and sympathetic. Alice Faye plays her gracefully, but there’s just not much to do with it and nobody can look good in a film when they are obliged to to be seduced and then stand by their man.
Linda Darnell, however, is a more interesting character. She’s more siren than femme fatale and one you can sympathize with. Stella is world-weary, a bit sulky, and has seen it all (except a ring) and been given promises by a lot of men. She’s a femme fatale who would rather be somebody like June (whereas June wants to be more of a Stella, which I assume is why she marries Stanton despite the fact that he’s obviously on the make). If Judd, Stanton and Pop are any sample of the kind of men Stella’s met through life, you can understand her attitude and I couldn’t help rooting for her to find what she is looking for.
Fallen Angel is kind of like a sequel to Laura. It has the same director (Otto Preminger), same leading man (Dana Andrews), same composer, (David Raksin), same cinematographer (Joseph LaShelle) and even same set designer and so forth. And a similar theme of obsession and ownership over a woman. The result is that it looks very good. It is the plot that falters. It’s a bit incredible and a trifle choppy and uneven. The acting is universally fine, however – even Alice Faye is not bad.
It’s too bad that Fallen Angel was Alice Faye’s last movie. Supposedly her role was cut down by producer Darryl Zanuck and Linda Darnell’s role was built up (Darnell went on to play many more sirens). Also, Faye was supposed to sing the song “Slowly,” which was removed from the film. When she saw the finished product, she wrote an angry note to Zanuck and left the studio. It wasn’t a decision completely out of the blue, however. She had recently given birth to her second child with husband and bandleader Phil Harris and when she finished making movies, she devoted more time to her family, also working in radio with her husband. She later said she was perfectly comfortable leaving her movie career behind, despite many of her fans’ and even Darryl Zanuck’s attempts to get her back into movies.
I think the moral of the story is, however: never play the good girl in a film noir.