Noir Nook: Minor but Memorable
Film noir is teeming with well-known starring roles for women — Jane Greer in Out of the Past, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, and Gene Tierney in Laura come immediately to mind. But there are also lots of one-scene wonders, those female characters whose physical presence may come and go, but whose impact packs a wallop. This month’s Noir Nook serves up a new series by taking a look at these characters – my inaugural entry in the series shines the spotlight on one such character in one of my favorite noirs, The Big Heat (1953).
This first-rate film stars Glenn Ford as Dave O’Bannion, a tough, uber-righteous big-city detective who is determined to unearth the truth behind the suicide of a fellow cop, Tom Duncan, and his connection to a local mob boss, Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby). Others in this multi-layered feature include Lagana’s right-hand man, the sadistic Vince Stone (Lee Marvin); Vince’s money-loving girlfriend, Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame), who’s flighty on the outside but steely on the inside; and Bertha Duncan (Jeannette Nolan), the not-so-grieving widow of the dead cop.
Aside from these featured roles, there’s another character in the film who, while appearing in only one scene, plays a pivotal role in the film’s plot. She’s Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green), a world-weary, self-described “B-girl,” who contacts the dead cop’s superiors, insisting that Duncan couldn’t have committed suicide. Dave O’Bannion is dispatched to meet with the woman, and he promptly learns that she was Duncan’s mistress. Lucy maintains that, contrary to his wife’s claims, Tom Duncan was in perfect health and had been in especially good spirits since his wife had agreed to a divorce. O’Bannion’s response is skeptical, bordering on insulting: “What’s your pitch, Lucy?” he asks her. “You trying to use us for a shakedown?” Despite O’Bannion’s derisive reaction to her claims, Lucy is earnest and resolute, even threatening to take her story to the newspapers. O’Bannion maintains his doubts during their interview, but Lucy’s story gives him pause, and he ends up returning to the home of Duncan’s widow for more questioning. Sadly, his change of heart comes too late for Lucy – the following day, she is found strangled to death.
Lucy’s abbreviated, seemingly inconsequential interaction with O’Bannion becomes the catalyst that leads to his relentless investigation of Duncan’s death and ultimately connects Duncan and his wife to the criminal enterprise run by the refined but ruthless Mike Lagana. While Lucy’s life and death are dismissed by O’Bannion’s boss (“Some of these babes keep pretty shady company,” he says. “They know nobody cares much what happens to them”), O’Bannion believes her story and her courage in coming forward is invaluable.
The character of Lucy was played by Dorothy Green, who was born in Los Angeles in 1920. She wasn’t bitten by the acting bug until she was in her early 30s after she was married and had started a family. After a chance meeting at a charity event with the wife of an agent, the woman introduced Green to her spouse and the agent encouraged Green to pursue acting. Her first acting gig was in 1953 on an episode of TV’s The Jack Benny Program; later that year, she made her feature film debut in The Big Heat. Green went on to appear in small parts in such big-screen features as Them! (1954); Trial (1955), another Glenn Ford starrer; and The Helen Morgan Story (1957), as well as numerous television shows, most notably on the daytime soap The Young and the Restless. Her last appearance was on a Canadian television show in 1997; she died nine years later at the age of 88.
Stay tuned to the Noir Nook for more minor but memorable women (and men!) in film noir. And let me know if you have any suggestions for future posts!
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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