The set-up is classic noir: an anonymous stranger, Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews), flush out of funds, tumbles out of the latest bus. He’s a con-man with the gift of the gab. He saunters into the local, almost deserted café where the owner, an old guy, Pop (Percy Kilbride), is worried about his erratic waitress; she has a penchant for disappearing for a stretch, it seems, explaining as much to a couple of locals including former New York City cop, Judd (Charles Bickford). But as Stanton mutely sits down in wait for a coffee, the luscious Stella (Linda Darnell), a classic femme fatale strolls in, belligerent, mouthy and unrepentant.
Naturally Stanton is drawn to Stella like a magnet. In this town he’s got opposition but without money not even close to a headstart. He sees an advertisement in a motel window for a travelling charlatan and talks his way into their scheme, drumming up public support with the persuasion of his liveliest discourse.
Still, the dividends aren’t enough to lure Stella from this dead-beat place with dreams of a life of finer confections, so he goes in search of a more lucrative prospect. Homely young wallflower June Mills (Alice Faye) fits the bill. Can Stanton con her out of her fortune with a temporary marriage before a quick getaway to be with the girl he truly desires?
Otto Preminger’s magnificent noir, Fallen Angel (1945), made just a year after his famous early masterpiece Laura (1944), sets up a familiar quandary for the hapless male: Purity vs. temptation, saint vs. sinner. Preminger’s subtle manoeuvring of the players within the frame is akin to a chess champion whose mastery is so taken for granted you barely register the genius of every minute decision. His love of moving the camera in for telling close-ups adds much portent to the drama and the unspoken layers in between.
Sure, Darnell is no Gene Tierney but her every word feels twisted with a sensual, frayed, dissolving heat that any man would find hard to resist. Andrews, fresh off Laura brings a different but no less convincing resolve to his portrayal of Stanton, a man used to living rough with desperation a constant companion, and negotiating himself away from the scene of a crime. Bickford and Kilbride are brilliant in classic character roles as two more locals who can barely keep their eyes off Stella every time she moves a muscle.
Harry Kleiner’s adaptation of Marty Holland’s novel has wonderful nuance, for the outcome here is no forgone conclusion. Poor June, stuck under the thumb of her meddling older sister, is resolute in believing in the best humans have to offer, evidence to the contrary be damned. She falls hard for Stanton, even if suspecting deep down that his motivations can’t match hers for their transparency. But for this despairing fallen angel, persistence just might lead to resurrection in this, one of the great film noirs, a landmark of the genre molded by the hands of incomparable artists, with Preminger presiding over all.