Anne Bancroft’s ‘Noir Side’
In her twenties actress Anne Bancroft had just what a film noir needed, the kind of smoky beauty a guy would take a bullet for. She turned up in a handful of movies in the 1950s that might qualify as “dark films,” usually nifty little crime pictures made on a low budget but with a good cast.
I watched all those films as I researched her career for my new biography, Anne Bancroft: A Life. They provided yet another side of Bancroft most of us haven’t seen. Mrs. Robinson seems a lifetime away in these films.
In fact, Bancroft’s very first movie, Don’t Bother to Knock (20th Century-Fox, 1952) has a nourish quality to it. Leading the cast is Richard Widmark, one of the best noir actors around. But the movie is best remembered for Marilyn Monroe in her first dramatic leading role. Bancroft is a supporting player – Widmark’s love interest, a lounge singer. The most interesting role is Monroe’s, a psychotic babysitter hired to watch a child whose family is staying at a New York hotel.
Bancroft had been musical all her life, singing as a child for whoever would stop and listen. She sang in variety shows in high school, too, so the idea that she could play a lounge singer struck me as reasonable. Then I found out that she was dubbed by a singer named Anne Marley. Bancroft admitted she couldn’t hit the high notes. Nevertheless, hers was a good debut – and is available all these years later thanks to the Monroe following.
It wasn’t until six pictures later that Bancroft took another step toward noir city. A Life in the Balance (20th Century-Fox, 1955) was filmed in Mexico City with a Mexican crew and studio, all part of the cost-savings of Fox feeder company Panoramic Productions. Bancroft was billed behind Ricardo Montalban, who scored a rare dramatic leading role. Also in the cast was up-and-coming bad guy Lee Marvin as a serial killer whose latest victim is linked to Montalban’s character.
The location shooting included a trip to the recently completed University of Mexico campus. Its striking murals and modern architecture are on display ruing the final confrontation between the killer and the innocent man accused. A half-century later the United Nations designated the campus a World Heritage Site.
New York Confidential (Warner Bros., 1955) has noir written all over it. Bancroft plays the daughter of a volcanic syndicate boss (Broderick Crawford) who is ashamed of her crooked dad. Not only does father know the worst kinds of people, he has to deal with family troubles while there’s a mob war going on. And his daughter is falling for his top torpedo (Richard Conte). It’s a pretty grim tale and Bancroft gets to chew some scenery.
Off-screen, Bancroft began to realize for the first time that her training as an actress had its limits. The script called for her to tilt toward the suicidal, but she didn’t know how to empathize with a young woman on the verge of killing herself. (She had enjoyed the love and support of a close-knit family.) After 33 takes for her big scene, director Russell Rouse either got what he wanted or just gave up. And Bancroft concluded that she had much more to learn but still wasn’t sure how to get there.
Bancroft must have had a hint of deja vu when she read the script for The Naked Street (United Artists, 1955). In the story, the sister of a New York mob boss finds her family problems crossing over into her brother’s business. This time, instead of playing a daughter who could go toe to toe with her father, Anne appears as a timid if loving sister who can’t believe her brother is a bad man. At least she was in good company again: Anthony Quinn plays her brother and Farley Granger her homicidal boyfriend.
Granger was top billed, thanks to his work in the Hitchcock films Rope and Strangers on a Train. Yet Quinn was already an Oscar winner by then, for Viva Zapata! Granger wasn’t happy with the script and later called it “preachy, trite and pedestrian.” For Bancroft, it was more experience and exposure – and she was working alongside good actors.
Easily the best of the “dark films” Bancroft made in the 1950s was Nightfall (Columbia, 1956). It had a script from whirlwind writer Stirling Silliphant, camera work by Oscar winner Burnett Guffey, and direction from Jacques Tourneur, whose Out of the Past might be the best noir ever. Alongside Bancroft were Aldo Ray, Brian Keith and James Gregory. The movie – a guy minding his own business ends up being chased by two deadly hoods – earned some nice reviews but little box office.
Here’s the problem facing Bancroft in Nightfall and so many of the movies she made in the 1950s: She’s tangential to the story, playing the woman who helps the guy and basically stands back as the male characters have at it. The New York Times called her “decorative and understanding.” She earned some solid notices, too, but Nightfall would never get much attention, and that was clear before the cameras rolled. I think the problem was that TV was providing plenty of mysteries and crime stories for free at that point.
Tossing in some lurid details might have given people a reason to turn off the TV and go to the theater to see The Girl in Black Stockings (United Artists, 1957). Shot over the summer at a resort in Kanab, Utah, the black-and-white film placed Anne’s character among several suspects in a young woman’s brutal murder. Some of the major papers didn’t even bother to review it.
The Girl in Black Stockings and another B movie, the Western The Restless Breed, wrapped up Bancroft’s first decade in the movies. Like most of what she did during that period, her noirs were average entertainments – usually worth seeing for a little bit of escapism but nothing memorable.
Bancroft found herself making more money as those years went by but getting less and less satisfaction. That drove her to leave Hollywood and return to New York for a reassessment of her talents and ambitions. What awaited her was her first Broadway role and then another – and those successes would change everything for her.
–Douglass K. Daniel for Classic Movie Hub
A journalist and biographer, Douglass K. Daniel is the author of Anne Bancroft: A Life, just published by the University Press of Kentucky.
Books by Douglass K. Daniel: