The huge success of Laura may have done more ill than good to Otto Preminger’s career, not only for setting expectations high early in the game, but also for forcing a “noir mystery master” image onto an artist much more interested in asking questions than in answering them. Fallen Angel, the director’s follow-up to his 1944 classic, is often predictably looked down as a lesser genre venture, yet its subtle analysis of shadowy tropes proves both a continuation and a deepening of Preminger’s use of moral ambiguity as a tool of human insight. Linda Darnell, a provocative bombshell caught behind the counter of a small-town California roadside café, is the flame around which the picture’s male moths circle, though the titular fallen angel is later revealed to be tainted drifter Dana Andrews, who comes to town and becomes quickly smitten with her. He has to get in line, however, since every local male—including transplanted New York cop Charles Bickford, jukebox-operator Bruce Cabot, and café owner Percy Kilbride—seem to be equally keen in sampling her come-hither goods. Knowing that security is the way into Darnell’s tight uniform, Andrews turns on the somber charm and lassoes church organist Alice Faye into matrimony, hoping for a quick divorce and a piece of her inheritance.
As always with Preminger, no character can be summed up in a single word, their introductions offering shorthand traits (Andrews’s moodiness, Darnell’s dark whorishness, Faye’s blond nobility) which will be contradicted during the course of the film—Faye assures her new beau that “I have my little secrets, too,” while Darnell, asked by Andrews to ditch her partner on the dancing floor, whispers “I don’t cheat on a date.” Preminger’s refusal to draw easy conclusions—his pragmatic curiosity for people—is reflected in his remarkable visual fluidity, the surveying camera constantly moving, shifting dueling points-of-view in order to give them equal weight. Fallen Angel may not satisfy genre fans who like their noir with fewer gray zones, but the director’s take on obsession remains no less fascinating for trading suspense for multilayered lucidity. Angels fall and rise, and, as Faye ponders at one point, “Are we to judge?
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