Double Noir: Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945)


To view Laura click here.

To view Fallen Angel click here.

In retrospect, Otto Preminger has never been included in the pantheon of iconic Golden Age directors—Ford, Hitchcock, Welles, Hawks, Wilder, Capra. Sometimes, his career is covered in film history texts, largely because of his work in the 1950s. Preminger’s career ended with a few disappointing and strange choices (Skidoo, really?), which perhaps accounts for a fading reputation even in his lifetime. It’s time to embrace the dictatorial director with the bald pate—despite Skidoo (1968)! FilmStruck is offering “Early Otto,” a selection of films from his studio years. For today’s post, I suggest a perfect Preminger double feature; next week, I will follow through with a broader discussion of his work.

Preminger directed Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945) back to back. They make a logical double feature, because both are film noirs and both star Dana Andrews. Handsome with a rich, baritone voice, Andrews possessed a subdued, low-key demeanor—almost inscrutable. The effect allowed him to play both steady heroes and morally ambiguous characters. In Laura, Andrews plays stoic Mark McPherson with a touch of quiet melancholy. He is never shown at a busy police station mulling over the facts of the case with his colleagues; instead, he investigates alone, falling in love with the painted portrait of the title character. It is a darkly romantic scenario, with Andrews irresistible as the dedicated but enamored detective. In Fallen Angel, Andrews plays the opposite type of character—a broke, down on his luck drifter who connives to marry a wholesome small-town woman for her money while romancing a seductive waitress. When the latter turns up dead, he is the prime suspect.

Preminger was working at Fox during the 1940s, where he famously did not get along with studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. Zanuck would not let Preminger direct Laura out of sheer anger and stubbornness, though he allowed him to remain as producer. For the young male lead, Preminger selected Andrews, a contract player at the time with only a few screen credits. Zanuck hired Rouben Mamoulian to direct, who did not like the script and began to make changes across the board. Zanuck ended up hating Mamoulian’s footage, particularly Andrews’s performance, calling him “an agreeable schoolboy” who was not hardened enough to play the role. He blamed Preminger, because Zanuck had wanted John Hodiak for the role of Mark McPherson. Darryl F. finally fired Mamoulian and swallowed enough crow to allow Preminger to direct the film.

Laura (1944)  Directed by Otto Preminger Shown: Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney

Laura became Andrews’s breakthrough film, but it was director Lewis Milestone who had nurtured Andrews’s acting style, which was a kind of underplaying that worked well in film noir. Preminger was famous for bullying actors and micromanaging their performances. He and Andrews did have one blow up on the set of Laura, but they resolved it. Preminger liked the actor because he always knew his lines and delivered them flawlessly, without trying to upstage his costars.

The box office success of Laura led to a follow-up noir, Fallen Angel, another story about an obsession over a beautiful woman that leads to her murder. Preminger used the same crew, including cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, composer David Raksin, art directors Leland Fuller and Lyle Wheeler and costume designer Bonnie Cashin. He also turned to Andrews to star as cynical Eric Stanton, with Alice Faye and Linda Darnell playing the good girl and the femme fatale, respectively.

Laura and Fallen Angel make a good pairing not only because of their similarities but also because of their differences. Laura embodies a melancholy romanticism; it is ripe with the bittersweet longing of wanting something you can never have. Fallen Angel’s love story is just plain bitter. It’s a story of broken human beings who are destroyed or nearly destroyed by those who love them. Faye costars as the good girl, June Mills, while Darnell plays a smoldering waitress named Stella. In Laura, it is the sophisticated title character who drives men to obsession; in Fallen Angel, it is the sexually provocative, low-rent Stella. Musical star Faye lobbied for the role of June, hoping to recreate Gene Tierney’s success in Laura with this straight dramatic role. However, Preminger cut several of her scenes, and she felt her character was dull in comparison to Darnell’s. Infuriated at what she considered a slight, especially because she was Fox’s biggest female star, Faye walked away from the studio and did not make another film for 16 years.

As the femme fatale, Stella is definitely more interesting, but June is necessary because she embodies love and goodness—the polar opposite of Stella’s selfish duplicity. Film noirs often feature two contrasting female characters, the femme fatale and the morally proper good girl, to show how bad the fatale really is. The good girl also represents the normal life that the noir protagonist is destined to never have. But, in Fallen Angel, the distinction between the two women is even more important. June recites a poem to Eric about a fallen angel, which refers generally to the failings of humanity but specifically to Eric. The final lines, “Love alone can make the fallen angel rise; for only two together can enter paradise,” suggest the path to his redemption is the purity of her love. Even modern-day reviewers and commentators tend to denounce Faye’s character as too good to be believable, but, taken as a representation of goodness, June serves a purpose.

Laura (1944)Directed by Otto PremingerShown: Dana Andrews

Laura and Fallen Angel make use of the requisite low-key lighting and iconography of film noir, but Preminger’s style is more subtle than the other émigré directors who earned their Hollywood reputations in noir (Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder). Preminger preferred long takes with careful compositions, fluid camera movement and character blocking that offer viewers enough time to contemplate and examine what they see. The scene of McPherson in a medium shot with the painting of Laura so prominent in the frame first shows the good detective’s interest in the subject of his investigation, but the longer the take continues onscreen, the more intimate the connection becomes.

Preminger made four film noirs in the post WWII era. In addition to Laura and Fallen Angel, he also directed Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) and Angel Face (1952). His later films, in which he worked as an independent producer and director, will diverge a great deal from his studio days—a topic for next week.

Susan Doll

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21 Responses Double Noir: Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945)
Posted By swac44 : September 4, 2017 8:13 am

Laura also makes for good watching in connection with the current Twin Peaks revival, as the film’s themes, and even character names, turn up during David Lynch’s original run of the series.

And I know Skidoo is a cinematic joke, but it’s the kind of WTF film that I find endlessly fascinating, there’s nothing else quite like it. And the 1960s is a golden age for those.

Posted By Arthur : September 4, 2017 10:05 am

“Laura embodies a melancholy romanticism; it is ripe with the bittersweet longing of wanting something you can never have.” I could not agree more. And the extended scene in LAURA in which she somehow comes to life is nothing short of magnificent. The music in LAURA is outstanding and the supporting players are excellent.

The chemistry between Linda Darnell and Dana Andrews in FALLEN ANGEL, to my mind, even exceeds that between Bogie and Bacall in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. Two great, great films.

Am I mistaken or was the face of the comic strip character Dick Tracy not that of Dana Andrews profile in LAURA? And wasn’t it also at one time the TCM logo?

Posted By Susan Doll : September 4, 2017 10:31 am

Arthur: I am not sure about Andrews’ profile as the inspiration for Dick Tracy, but he certainly does look like the old TCM logo. I will check around and see what I come up with.

Posted By Doug : September 4, 2017 2:33 pm

Is it known if the portrait of Laura painted for the film still exists?
I feel that now I have to watch “Fallen Angel” as I enjoy “Laura”.
Whether it’s fair or not, Preminger overshadows his art, being remembered more for being a despot than his work as a director.
I really like “Anatomy Of A Murder” but more for the actors/personalities on the screen.

Posted By Emgee : September 4, 2017 3:24 pm

“Is it known if the portrait of Laura painted for the film still exists?”

It was in fact a photograph airbrushed with paint, and is now hanging in my study. (I wish!)
It’s owned by a collector named Michael Shaw, or so my browser told me.

More info here:

Posted By Doug : September 4, 2017 7:50 pm

Thank you, Emgee. Gene Tierney was stunning, and quite a good actress.

Posted By Doug : September 4, 2017 10:44 pm

I pulled the Blu Ray of “Vertigo” off the shelf tonight-truly a masterwork of Hitchcock. I’m sure that you fine film buffs see the commonalities it shares with “Laura”.

Posted By Arthur : September 5, 2017 10:49 am

Doug, never thought of that. Maybe Hitchcock was influenced by LAURA?

Posted By Chuck Berger : September 5, 2017 11:14 am

Susan: Enjoyed your review of both films. I saw both films years ago in the theater as a young boy. Had seen Dana Andrews in Kit Carson, the two movies you reviewed, Wing and A Prayer, and Boomerang among others. He was a favorite of mine.
Sometime in the 1980′s or early 90′s while living in El Paso,Tx.
he and his wife perform in a dinner theater outside of El Paso.
The production was Gaslight.
After the final act, we waited for about 45 minutes and met them.
He was most gracious, and thanked us for attending the performance.There had only been a small turn out that evening.In any event it was a great feeling to have met him.

Posted By swac44 : September 5, 2017 11:29 am

Oddly enough, Hitchcock would have been making Lifeboat at 20th Century Fox (his only film for that studio) roughly around the same time Preminger was making Laura so there’s a good chance Hitch would have been aware of its production and crossed paths with Preminger. It’s interesting to think of any relationship the two might have had since they were so similar, visiting foreigners who would produce their own films and push the boundaries of censorship with their work.

Plus, they also appeared in their own trailers and utilized the talents of the great designer Saul Bass, so it seems like there may have been some crossover influence.

Posted By Jonathan R Barnett : September 5, 2017 1:47 pm

“I pulled the Blu Ray of “Vertigo” off the shelf tonight-truly a masterwork of Hitchcock. I’m sure that you fine film buffs see the commonalities it shares with “Laura”.”

I’m not sure why the two movies are not mentioned together with more frequency. There are comparisons, to be sure. I would also include MISSISSIPPI MERMAID, based on the Cornell Woolrich story “Waltz into Darkness” and maybe even the 1954 adaption of “Wuthering Heights”.

Posted By Arthur : September 5, 2017 1:55 pm

Does PORTRAIT OF JENNY somehow figure into the mix?

Posted By Emgee : September 5, 2017 3:06 pm

“Maybe Hitchcock was influenced by LAURA?”

The screenplay of Vertigo was not written by Hitchcock, but by 2 French screenwriters, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. So if anyone was influenced, it was them.

Posted By Arthur : September 5, 2017 4:38 pm

But didn’t Hitch and his wife always have significant input on his screenplays?

Posted By Doug : September 5, 2017 7:03 pm

Arthur-absolutely yes-on the Blu Ray of “Vertigo” the behind the scenes documentary details the process Hitchcock, Alma and a few trusted others went through-the scripts were finely tuned, and then each scene was story boarded. “Vertigo” in HD is amazing.

Posted By Arthur : September 5, 2017 8:05 pm

Alma was an accomplished screeenwriter, and VERTIGO was one of Hitch’s two favorites, the other was SHADOW OF A DOUBT.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 5, 2017 8:18 pm

Chuck: I loved your story about Dana Andrews. Thank you for sharing.

Posted By Emgee : September 6, 2017 5:15 am

“But didn’t Hitch and his wife always have significant input on his screenplays?”

That doesn’t invalidate my argument, which is that in general screenwriters come up with ideas and stories for movies, not directors. And Hitchcock was an inveterate credit hogger.

Posted By AL : September 9, 2017 2:40 am

Gene Tierney was magnificent as LAURA. Rita Hayworth was first-choice for the role but Cohn wanted too much money…Has anyone ever said a kind word about that man? When I saw Rita at the S.F. Tribute to her a fan asked a question about him–Rita just said “I don’t want to talk about Harry Cohn”…

Posted By Bill : September 13, 2017 6:09 am

Speaking of original sources, the novel Laura is a must read. Mark’s better read, Laura’s deeper, Waldo’s gayer. Narrated by each of the three in turn – a strategy early considered for the film.

Posted By mdr : September 20, 2017 6:50 pm

“Am I mistaken or was the face of the comic strip character Dick Tracy not that of Dana Andrews profile in LAURA? And wasn’t it also at one time the TCM logo?”

In the comments of an RHS post, Moira once surmised that Charles McGraw could have been the model for TCM’s “Fedora Man”:

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