TCM—Turner Classic Movies—is the sort of cinematic treasure chest that it’s all too easy to take for granted. But, for cinephiles, the idea of a round-the-clock channel devoted mainly to Hollywood classics is as revolutionary and as vital as Ted Turner’s founding of a twenty-four-hour news channel—an audacious throwdown that, albeit more quietly, marks an era. Suddenly, movies that one trawled revival houses for—or crossed fingers awaiting VHS or DVD releases of, or even taped (with commercials) from late-night TV—were being shown, uncut and uninterrupted, and in the good company of many other movies that were hard or impossible to find. The program for May features a tribute to Edward G. Robinson that includes Howard Hawks’s rowdy, psychosexually complex drama “Tiger Shark,” from 1932—which I taped from TV about thirty years ago, and which shows there on May 7th. But there’s no need to wait until next week for rare treasure: this weekend, as part of TCM’s ongoing Noir Alley series, hosted by Eddie Muller, the channel offers a great movie that isn’t streaming and isn’t on DVD, “Fallen Angel” (Saturday at midnight and Sunday at 10 A.M.), Otto Preminger’s taut and tense and frenzied romantic tale starring Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, Alice Faye, and a batch of distinctive character actors who lend energy and spice to every scene.
The setup is classic: a guy from nowhere with no money and nowhere to go is unceremoniously dumped off a Greyhound bus in the middle of the night in a small seaside California town, and he doesn’t so much cause trouble as finds it waiting for him there. The guy is Eric Stanton, played by Andrews, who was something of a Preminger muse; he’d starred in the director’s breakout film, “Laura,” and would soon follow up with heated roles in “Daisy Kenyon” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” Here, as in “Laura,” the passion burns through the veneer of intensely calculating control that Eric maintains through his recklessly perilous schemes. The town’s center of action is a diner called Pop’s. Pop (played by the papery, life-worn Percy Kilbride) is mainly concerned about the whereabouts of his one waitress, a sultry young woman named Stella (Darnell), whose busy late-night life seems to fascinate all of the diner’s male customers, including a retired New York police detective named Judd (Charles Bickford). When she shows up, Eric, a fast-talking, big-city slicker, falls for her at once.
Eric is a onetime theatrical publicist, and to make a buck and some connections he deploys his theatrical wiles to promote an itinerant spiritualist act, played by the tall, spidery John Carradine. With a few dollars in his pocket, Eric sparks an affair with Stella, who’d be willing to marry him, except that he has nothing but big promises, no real money to offer her—and money is what she wants. So he finds an easy mark from whom to siphon some, a townswoman named June Mills (Faye), an unmarried, naïve, and cloistered heiress who’s also a highbrow musician and closet intellectual stuck in small-town mediocrity—and who’s being fiercely protected by her embittered and wary older sister, Clara (Anne Revere).
Preminger—who both produced and directed “Fallen Angel”—tells this story of crisscrossing confessions and deceptions, truths and lies, with a deceptively divided style to match. Trained as a lawyer (and the son of a prominent Austrian prosecutor), Preminger established a dialectical method for filming scenes of conflict, holding opponents in tense and unstable balance. In “Fallen Angel,” he tilts the balance with hectic diagonals to match the tale’s twisted passions; figures loom ominously in the foreground at one edge of the frame, and the action recedes into the void at the other. He borrows the highly inflected silent-movie expressionism that Orson Welles reintroduced to talking pictures and, working with the cinematographer Joseph LaShelle (whose remarkable career includes Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” and John Ford’s “7 Women”), adds high-contrast lighting and ominous, engulfing shadows. In his autobiography, Preminger complained that he didn’t have much choice of subjects at this point in his career—but that he was able to maintain a virtual behind-the-scenes stock company of technicians and craftspeople, including LaShelle, the art director Lyle Wheeler, the costume designer Bonnie Cashin, and the composer David Raksin, who worked on “Fallen Angel,” among other films of his, and who sustained a unified Premingerian style along with what he considered his regular group of actors.
The fusion of exquisitely stylized images and performances in “Fallen Angel” peculiarly exemplifies both the enduring power of such Hollywood classics and the limits of their psychological realism. Working with a script by Harry Kleiner based on a novel by Marty Holland, Preminger builds suspense along with emotion, tension along with the passions that threaten to deform the drama and wrench it apart at its hinges. It’s a movie in which the characters know more than Preminger shows, in which their offscreen conversations with one another—as well as with other unseen but nonetheless crucial characters—tell a much more ample story. The movie behind the movie involves a far richer range of themes and their implications than does the taut and terse compactness, the streamlined and rapid precision of the plot’s turns and resolutions. The sublime inventiveness of such Hollywood classics remains an inspiration to filmmakers—as a sort of raw material, a primal set of themes and methods, styles and images that nearly cry out not to be imitated but to be taken apart.