Written by Harry Kleiner from a novel by Martin Holland, Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel is a tale of two women living in two different parts of town. The town is Walton, California, which is 150 miles from San Francisco. One of the women is dark, played by a Mexican-born actress on the professional rise; the other is blonde, played by a former American sweetheart hoping for a comeback. The dark woman is a waitress at Pops, a tiny hamburger, coffee and beer joint; she lives in a small apartment in the seedy, dilapidated part of town close to shore. The blonde woman, who is middle-class and moderately rich, lives with her sister in their own house in the clean, manicured part of town. The film identifies the dark woman’s part of town with pitch-dark night; the blonde’s, with sunny daylight. The latter plays classical music; the former listens to honky-tonk. The dark woman has been around the block a lot; the blonde woman is sexually inexperienced. The contrast between the two women and the two parts of town is formally rendered throughout by deep, ravishing contrasts in the black-and-white cinematography that Joseph LaShelle gorgeously conjures. LaShelle was Preminger’s painstaking cinematographer for Laura (1944), for which he won an Oscar.
In Laura, Preminger had wryly approached the contrast in class between his working-class police detective and the society rich making up the detective’s list of suspects in the murder he is investigating. But Fallen Angel investigates its class distinctions with more dedication and brio, arriving at a social critique about two Americas, the festering division in the social American landscape. One group of people consists of relocated individuals, transients and those perpetually poised to become transients, a point underscored by the fact that Stella, the waitress (Linda Darnell, vivid), has a history of disappearing from job and home for days on end, much to the chagrin of her employer, who unabashedly adores her. By contrast, the Mills sisters represent a kind of stability. They have a history in Walton; their deceased father, Abraham Mills, had been the town’s mayor. They are respectable, while Stella is on the make, looking for the one guy who will prove her ticket out of socioeconomic stress.
A rich, ambiguous work, Fallen Angel isn’t at all as schematic as my description thus far has made it sound. For one thing, one of the Mills girls, the non-blonde Clara (Anne Revere, on the verge of winning her Oscar for National Velvet), has been touched by nonrespectability herself, having lost her inheritance, except for the house, to a lover who conned her out of the money. For another, the protagonist, a drifter named Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews), shuffles back and forth between both parts of town, dating both Stella and Clara’s sister, June (Alice Faye), ostensibly to get hold of June’s money so that Stella will accept him as her lucky break. In the meantime, June, whom he mercenarily marries, falls in love with Eric for real. Does love blind her or help her to see with especial clarity? When Stella is murdered, June alone believes in his innocence and takes flight with him, from the police, to San Francisco.
At the core of this film noir, which is one of Preminger’s very best films, is a dream element that anticipates another San Francisco-film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), by positing the possibility—here, in symbolical terms—that the two women, dark Stella and blonde June, are somehow identical, or, perhaps, aspects of a single character.* Kleiner and Preminger pull off this sleight of eye effortlessly. I will recount four of the key elements in the film that forge this identification of the two seemingly disparate women, although, in fact, there are many more. For one, as noted earlier, Stanton dates both characters. One night, he takes Stella dancing, and the next night, having tarried in town longer than planned, he takes June dancing. By coincidence, Stella is on the same dance floor that night, with her own date. “Ditch him,” Stanton whispers to Stella, “and I’ll meet you afterwards.” Stella declines, but the invitation implies the women’s interchangeability, hence, identity. Again, Stanton marries June, but only because he wants to marry Stella, for which to make happen, he believes, he first must get hold of June’s money! Marrying one character because he wants to marry the other is a second way the film implies their identity. It is Stanton’s desire to leave town, to run away with, Stella, but, once she is murdered, he runs away with June instead—a third hint of identity. A fourth point of identity between Stella and June is the redemption of Stanton’s marriage to June by his sleuthing out the identity of Stella’s killer.
Needless to say, in context none of this is schematic, either. The identity between the two women bridges the apparent wide divide between them, creating a poignant undertow. Preminger has found a way, through the identification of the two lead female characters, to reimagine America, to express his egalitarian heart and dream of a single, unified America. The gradual accumulation of this symbolic vision of his makes Fallen Angel a more profound, if unremittingly sober experience than Laura, although, of course, Laura provides more scintillating entertainment.
As is the case with Laura, perhaps the most celebrated of all Hollywood whodunits, the revelation of the murderer’s identity is rigorously, even perfectly logical and yet also comes as something of a shock. When it can surprise you with the most reasonable unraveling of the crime, a mystery delights like nothing else on earth.
* Hitchcock’s Judy (Kim Novak) sounds almost exactly like Preminger’s Stella!
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