June: “Why did you go to see that girl in the diner?”
Eric: “What girl?”
There’s a sickness hanging over Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel that clings to every location, every set, every fluid camera move, and every off, but very human expression on the actor’s often haunted faces. And it's all heightened by the attraction to one woman -- Stella. Oh, Stella (Linda Darnell), the young beautiful waitress at Pop’s Eats whom men want to save, paw, marry, or again, paw. And of course, more than just paw. What a guy wouldn’t do for a tumble. And what a guy would do when he knows he’ll never get a tumble. But one of those guys isn’t just your usual lust-filled creep, one of those guys will be a murderer. And right away, we see the impending sexual doom -- we don't know who or exactly what, but we see it.
When the movie opens and our hero (or anti-hero), the traveling con man Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews) steps off the bus and into this dark and misty California beach town, he walks into Pop’s, we take in this gorgeous image and feel it -- suffused with sex and danger and seedy hometown rot -- the entire picture, shot by Joseph LaShelle, is bathed in this scummy beauty. There’s just men in that diner, and they’re all wondering about one thing -- Stella. Where is she? Why has she been gone for so long? Dear god, did she off herself? One imposing, gravely looking man, ex NY cop Mark Judd, (Charles Bickford) says, “Not Stella. Back in New York, I handled 31 suicide cases personally. Everything from poison to jumping in front of the Flatbush subway. Stella's not the type.” OK. So, what type is she, I ask the guy bragging about personally handling suicide? It already appears that nobody truly cares or bothers to actually understand Stella. They just want her to be something to them. And in Fallen Angel, she’s not the type all of these men want her to be. And this goes beyond Stella -- all of the film’s characters, male and female, go against their societal norms of “type.”
We’ll be rooting (if that’s the right word) for con man Eric Stanton against the mysterious, almost kinkily violent cop, even when we know Eric is treating another woman (lonely June, played by Alice Faye, who doesn’t want to remain as innocent as see seems) like garbage, and we’ll be disgusted by kindly old Pops who runs the diner, just as Stella is. Pops (Percy Kilbride) hasn’t done a thing to her (on screen anyway), and yet, right away we understand why Stella spits at him, “You make me sick.” Pops has given her the feeble “I told you so” about some cad she went on a date with and he gets … “You make me sick.” Not, buzz off, Pop, or, stay out of my business. Her dismissiveness is seething with the interior dialogue of I know what you want. I know why you “care” so greatly about me and my bad date. I know why I have this job. Ick. Pop. His “paternal” affection might be the creepiest of all. Who knows what she’s had to endure or listen to while she’s re-filling the ketchup containers at closing time.
So, the moment we see her bitterly slump back into the diner, hungry and with tired aching feet -- a low rent Laura returning from the dead (indeed, this was a follow up to Preminger’s hit, Laura, with the same leading man, and a similar story of one-woman obsession, only with down-and-outers and much more desperation) – we don’t think she’s trouble, we think these men are. Oh sure, check out the gorgeous supposed femme fatale in the beautiful, lush Darnell who was only 21 when she made this and yet feels like she’s had decades of shit heaped on her (it doesn’t take too many years for a woman to understand this). She’s matter-of-fact tough and fixated on money and marriage, but not really bad.
Everything about her, from the weary way she walks around the diner and hands back change to customers -- this lady is sick of it all. And Darnell is so excellent here, that, like all of these men, we don’t want her to go out of town too long either. We want to see her on screen -- in this diner -- a limbo of lust. The filmmakers agreed and pumped up Darnell over star Faye, cutting out some of Faye’s scenes and even supposedly her singing number (!), something that upset Faye, mirroring the “innocent” she plays in June. June is the woman Eric marries in order to fleece her, so he can marry sexy Stella and give her what she wants over some tumble in her crummy little apartment -- money. Eric even cuts his wedding night short and leaves his wife alone to see… Stella. He wakes up on the couch in the stately home with doilies and nice curtains that his new bride shares with her spinster sister, Clara (Anne Revere) and his wife … forgives him -- what the hell is wrong with this woman? He also learns that Stella has been murdered.
This leads to who did it? Eric will be a suspect, as will June’s sister, as will Stella’s almost steady, Dave Atkins (Bruce Cabot) who gets an interrogation and beating so sickening and vicious by Judd (who is now handling the case) that we wonder if this is his disgusting thrill. (It is -- he’s a sick man, quite literally) Even Pop is considered a possibility, not a surprise in this world (scripted by Harry Kleiner from Marty Holland’s novel), where everyone has motive beyond their obsession. Yes, there is Stella, but there’s loneliness, bitterness, impotence, and what the hell am I doing with my life? Do I matter at all in this universe? All of this existential angst narrowed in on this poor woman whose dark world seems only lightened by the song she obsessively plays on the diner’s jukebox and one that hovers over the movie, again, like a dingier “Laura” (the song -- “Slowly” -- perhaps a sexual pace she wishes men would follow). Another joy: in her introduction scene, Stella scarfs (though somehow daintily scarf) down a hamburger (she’s hungry, and she’s eating that thing, but she’s not gonna mess up that perfect lipstick), after walking in the night when a guy got too fresh. Watching Darnell eat that hamburger is such a real joy and so convincing you’ll crave a creepy Pop’s burger too – this hamburger won’t let her down.
I’m not going to spoil the ending and reveal who did it. But I will say it wasn’t Eric. The double-cross to June wasn’t something he could probably really go through with and he certainly wouldn’t murder someone, as shifty as he is. I’ll ruin one thing though – June stays with him -- even after he married her for money, left her alone on her wedding night and was in love with another woman the entire time. It seems like an easy resolution, the two of them driving off together in the end with June asking where to, and Eric answering, “home.” Now he’s a settled, domestic fellow with this nice little wife? Not a chance.
In fact, it’s one of the grimmest “romantic” endings I’ve ever seen. Eric has told June that it wouldn’t have lasted with Stella, and he’s probably right, but … this is the answer? Poor June, she’s not gonna have a good life. And Stella… why does she have to be dead? She’s the one with everyone’s number. She knows, like Preminger knows, like the writers know, what lurks in the heart of anyone putting on their best face: “You talk different, sure, but you drive just like the rest.”