Fallen Angel and Whirlpool, two fine, though minor, examples of film noir, were directed by Otto Preminger, whose Laura (1944) retains its classic stature within the genre while these lesser efforts are typically relegated to a critical backwater. Nevertheless both are worthy in their own right — dark crime thrillers that slide in and out of genre boundaries, but effectively create an identity of their own. Neither is flawless, but both are entertaining and offer many noirish delights.
Fallen Angel (US-1945; dir. Otto Preminger)
Dating from what is generally considered the very beginnings of classic film noir in America, Fallen Angel did not fare well with either critics or at the box-office on its release. Most saw it as a significant let-down after the success of Preminger’s award-winning Laura. Yet, despite a somewhat perfunctory final Act, Fallen Angel has much going for it.
For a start there’s its lead: the restrained but intense Dana Andrews (best known to horror fans for his role in noir specialist Jacques Tourneur’s superb supernatural thriller, Curse of the Demon), whose acting style was deliberately minimalist and as a result readily conveys complex and suitably dark, noirish undercurrents. Here he plays an out-of-luck loser, Eric Stanton, who finds himself stranded in a small US town and so resorts to some less-than-ethical practices in order to fuel the coffers, firstly acting as publicity agent for a travelling “mind reader” (John Carradine), then by wooing June Mills (Alice Faye) — a refined, sexually reserved but well-meaning spinster — intending to snaffle her money. By this stage he has met the alluring, seductive femme fatale Stella (Linda Darnell) in a local diner and is consumed by his desire for her. He hopes June’s money will make him more attractive to Stella, who wants nothing more than to escape the town. Thus the scene is set for murder and betrayal in a confused world of moral weariness, tainted innocence and guilt — the involvement of a brutal cop, Mark Judd, played by Charles Bickford, underlining the inevitably of Stanton’s self-spawned descent into noir hell.
The film has much of the look and feel of classic film noir, though as with Preminger’s other noirs, it rests uneasily within the confines of the genre. The photography is one of the film’s highlights, utilising strong light and dark contrasts and careful composition to suggest the internalising resonance of each setting. The “fallen angel” of the title is not, as might be at first expected, the femme fatale Stella (created with perfect world-weary allure by Darnell) — but Stanton, who has lost his way and like many classic noir protagonists is so morally conflicted that complete absorption into the dark world that lies outside social niceties and familial stability seems inevitable. Yet he escapes this fate. That Stella, too, proves less fatale and more desperate victim also allows us to see her in a more positive light — though in a way she becomes the real object of the genre’s underlying fatalism.
For many commentators the conservative ideology that drives the ending seems inimical to providing a satisfactory conclusion to the thematic trends established earlier in the film. It seems to me, however, that the climactic character reversals — though perhaps feeling rushed within a script that becomes rather clunky at times — leave an appropriately nasty taste in the mouth and whether intentionally or not reveal underlying cynicisms that more-than-justify Fallen Angel’s inclusion in the film noir pantheon – if at a second-tier level.
Whirlpool (US-1949; dir. Otto Preminger)
Whirlpool is similarly problematic for film historians. Where the classic film noir is male-oriented, focusing on a morally compromised or confused hero who is engulfed in a chaotic world of crime and moral darkness, Whirlpool represents a sort of femme noir sub-genre in which the main focus of the descent into darkness is a woman – and not the standard femme fatale of male noir transgressive sexual fantasy either. As such Whirlpool seems to belong in a tradition that includes Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1942) and Notorious (1946), the 1940 film Gaslight, the similar Dragonwyck (1946), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and others, where a male antagonist turns the socially sanctioned home-life/relationships of the lead female character into a noir nightmare.
In Whirlpool, the female protagonist, Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney) – wife of an upright psycho-analyst (played by Richard Conte), who has failed to fully appreciate the depth of his wife’s suppressed psychological dysfunction — becomes the victim of an unscrupulous hypnotist (José Ferrer), who uses her emotional weaknesses for his own nefarious purposes. When a patient of her husband is murdered, and she is found at the scene, Ann is arrested as the main suspect and it is up to the husband to overcome his own suspicions and wounded ego in order to prove her innocence.
This was director Preminger’s second major foray into the persecuted-wife sub-genre of noir – Laura having a similar theme – though here the black-and-white tones, beautiful in their own right, seem less metaphorically potent than in either that film or Fallen Angel. More straight mystery/psychological drama than noir nightmare, Whirlpool nevertheless effectively involves the viewer in the heroine’s fate, and issues of her guilt or innocence are blurred enough to generate suspense.
Though occasionally feeling a little flat, and lacking truly memorable noir moments, Whirlpool is worthy of attention for those interested in the history of film noir and the variations that were part of its development.
These reviews were originally published on Horrorscope.