Friday, December 20

RIP to a Film Noir Queen

She was a tramp.  She was a hellion... a vixen... a gun moll... a murderess.  She was blonde, edgy, hard, vicious.  She rarely smiled and when she did, she made me nervous.  She was not one to be trusted.  She came out of dark corners, off wet streets, off bar stools when she heard the words that made her mad... last call.  No one could tell her anything.  Her eyes bored into you as she trilled her honey-throated lies.  She could wear beautiful gowns with her hair piled high on her head or don a housedress with a gingham apron around her tiny waist but it didn't matter.  She was lethal.  She reached out and touched you like bacon spitting from a fry pan.  You might recover.  You might not.

If you are a fan of film noir, you know who Audrey Totter is.  If you're not, you're not likely to know who her... unless you remember one of her last gigs, that of a kindly nurse on TV's Medical Center in the 1970s.  In the 1940s, Totter was known primarily as a film noir actress and while she did occasionally step into nice-girl roles, she earned her stripes as one of the movies' best bad girls.

Audrey Totter died a few days ago at the age of 95 of complications resulting from a stroke.  She had been out of the public eye for decades.  She was nothing like her screen persona.  She spent a lifetime after her fame evaporated caring for her only husband and one daughter and by all accounts was completely devoted to them.

She was born in Joliet, Illinois, to the wife of a streetcar conductor and she was of Austro-Slovenian and Swedish descent.  Her childhood appears unremarkable except for an early interest in acting.  She performed in plays in the Chicago area and eventually performed on radio where that indolent, sexy voice must have enchanted male listeners in their overstuffed chairs.  After she appeared in the New York area in some plays, the mighty MGM took notice and signed her to the standard 7-year contract.  She was on her way... or so she thought.

She registered in a small part in 1946s super noir, The Postman Always Rings Twice, causing a hard time for horny John Garfield on the side of the road while waiting for her engine to cool down.

A year later she became a leading lady opposite Robert Montgomery in The Lady in the Lake.  She was a publishing executive who hires private eye Philip Marlowe to find the wife of her boss.  It is most-remembered for being shot almost entirely from the viewpoint of the main character.  What he sees, we see.  It was a unique approach and well-worth a gander today.

She was a gold-digging niece in The Unsuspected, a delicious noir about those living in a radio suspense host's mansion who have a knack for vanishing.  Obviously Totter's character was one of those.  I just finished watching this film an hour ago.

She played a couple of good girl parts in two films.  In a good noir opposite MGM heartthrob, Robert Taylor, she was his doctor who helps him prove he did not murder his wife in High Wall (1947).  In 1949 she played has-been boxer Robert Ryan's understanding wife in The Set-up.

She played a rare victim role in The Saxon Charm (1948), again with Montgomery as his girlfriend.  He is a vicious Broadway playwright who uses her and tosses her to the curb.  Her role, however, was in support of Susan Hayward's lead female role and John Payne completed a sparkling cast.

She two-timed meek pharmacist Richard Basehart in a delightful little noir called Tension (1949), turning in one of the most treacherous bad-girl noir roles we have to examine.  And you should.  The same year she tried to back out of playing casino owner Clark Gable's rich ex-girlfriend in Any Number Can Play but the actor asked her to do him a favor an accept the part.  She was perhaps annoyed because her own studio wanted her for a supporting role while bringing in Warner Brothers' star Alexis Smith for the lead female role.

She played ladies of easy virtue in Alias Nick Beal (1949) with Ray Milland and 1952s The Sellout with Walter Pidgeon.  She portrayed mothers you love to hate in the early 50s in The Blue Veil with Jane Wyman and as Richard Widmark's ex-wife in My Pal Gus. The Blue Veil, about a nanny, is one of those childhood movies that I cherish.

The fact of the matter was that the studio just didn't know what to do with her. She never really fit their mold. She was too tough-looking for their tastes and while they rightly placed her in some noir product, MGM was no Warners or Fox, RKO or Columbia when it came to that dark genre. Metro was the biggest, brightest star in the galaxy, but it was also too homogenized and saccharine for an actress of Totter's allure.

Despite always turning in good work, her MGM contract was not renewed.  In the early fifties, bad-girl roles were coming to an end.  Film noir was petering out a bit as well.  It was time for pastels, light-heartedness, robins hopping along the ground and happily married couples in twin beds.  Why Totter did not gravitate into more good-girl roles is not known to me.  She did say at one time that nothing was as satisfying as playing a bad girl.  Maybe she was simply too damned good as a bad girl to ever be seen as anything else.  Her work from now on would be in less-stellar films, at less-prominent studios and eventually in roles that amounted to little more than bit parts.

The first time I saw her in a movie was in 1953s The Woman They Almost Lynched.  The film was as silly as the title but it was a western concerning a rough and tumble Missouri town at the start of the Civil War.  That and my favorite actress of the moment, Joan Leslie, were the reasons I saw it.  As Kate Quantrell, Totter taunted and tormented sweet Joan and I was transfixed at this nasty villainess.  By the end of the 1950s, I was caught up on most of Totter's work.

In 1952 she married and this circumstance may have had a lot to do with her declining film career.  But she did manage some time to join a roster of dramatic ladies (Ida Lupino, Jan Sterling, Phyllis Thaxter, Cleo Moore) for 1955s Women's Prison.  She had a rare sympathetic role.  While clearly a bit melodramatic, it was a hoot.
Now I'm all worked up and will have to watch it again.

Technically she worked for another 30+ years but mainly in television.  She was a regular in two or three series and a guest-star in many more.

So, if you didn't know her, here's a chance to change that and see the work of a most watchable actress.  Check out some of her films, on TCM.  Perhaps they'll have a little filmfest due to her passing.  She may not have gotten big but she made quite a dent in the bad-girl roles of film noir.  I quite liked her.

Review of American Hustle

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