Noir Nook: Uncommon Ladies of Noir – Shelley Winters
Shelley Winters may be best known for her role as an overweight, but heroic, former championship swimmer in 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure, or perhaps her Oscar-winning turns in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) or A Patch of Blue (1965) – but she also left an indelible mark in the world of film noir. This month’s Noir Nook takes a look at her noir features.
Born Shirley Schrift in St. Louis, Missouri, on August 18, 1920, Winters was the second daughter of a Jewish tailor cutter and a former singer with the St. Louis Municipal Opera Company. When the future actress was still a child, her family moved to New York, where her favorite pastime was going to the movies. But the joys of her early years were shattered when her father was convicted of arson, accused of setting his Long Island haberdashery on fire. Sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison, Jonas Schrift spent a year in Sing Sing before being cleared of all charges, but according to the actress, he was “a shattered man.” In an effort to escape the grim reality of her life, Shirley developed “a whole fantasy world,” an ability that would later become a powerful tool in her performances.
In the late 1930s, Shirley made her first attempt to break into the movies she loved so much, by auditioning for the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939). She didn’t get the part, of course, but less than a decade later, she would land a role in the film that would turn out to be her big break.
A Double Life (1947)
According to Winters, she beat out nine other actresses for her part in Universal’s A Double Life (1947), including Lana Turner. In this George Cukor-directed noir, Winters plays a waitress whose attraction to an unstable Broadway actor (Ronald Colman) turns out to be her undoing. Years after the film’s release, Winters recalled that her first day of filming was a nightmare. “Everything imaginable went wrong. I stumbled in. I poured coffee on Ronald Colman’s hands. I poured coffee on his lap. I dropped my pad. I broke my pencil . . . It wasn’t funny.” But Colman calmed Winters’s jitters and she stated that she has “always been eternally grateful” to him. Winters made the most of her small role (one critic singled out her “intriguing” portrayal), which led to contract offers from four studios.
Cry of the City (1948)
After signing with Universal, Winters was loaned to 20th Century-Fox for Cry of the City (1948). Here, she plays another small but eye-catching role, this time as the ex-girlfriend of a small-time hood (Richard Conte) whose unsuccessful restaurant stick-up leaves a policeman dead. With her star on the rise, Winters was named by the Saturday Evening Post as one of the six promising actresses of the future, alongside Jane Greer, Ava Gardner, Ruth Roman, Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Totter. (The Post sure could pick ‘em!)
He Ran All The Way (1951)
In this feature, Winters’s character is held hostage in her home, along with her parents and younger brother, by a local lowlife (John Garfield) who’s wanted for murder. She earned widespread praise from critics, including one who called the role her “first full-length part that makes adult sense.” (The film, incidentally, was John Garfield’s last before his untimely death at age 39.)
Initially, Universal wouldn’t loan Winters to United Artists for He Ran All the Way. Instead, they planned to star her in what she labeled “some cockamamie film” called Little Egypt, about a fake Egyptian princess. Not wanting to risk suspension by refusing Little Egypt, Winters instead started “eating as if it was going out of style,” gaining 12 pounds within one week. When the Universal execs saw that Winters could no longer fit into her scanty costume, they agreed to the loan out. Winters then embarked on a weight-loss strategy that consisted of fasting, diet and water pills, and frequent steam baths. She quickly lost 15 pounds, but the rapid weight gain and loss started a lifelong process of “ruining my metabolism,” Winters said.
The Big Knife (1955)
Based on a Clifford Odets play, The Big Knife stars Jack Palance as a womanizing film star named Charlie Castle, whose not-so-stellar life off-camera includes his determination to reconcile with his wife (Ida Lupino), and his battle against his studio, which wants him to renew his contract for another seven years. Faced with Charlie’s objections, the studio head (Rod Steiger) blackmails him by threatening to reveal his involvement in a drunk driving accident in which a child was killed. Winters was memorable as a hard-drinking starlet who was with Charlie on the night of the accident, but the film was a critical disaster. (One critic judged it “too unrelentingly morbid to appeal to a sizable viewing audience.”)
I Died a Thousand Times (1955)
This color Warner Bros. film is a remake of the studio’s High Sierra (1941), focusing on a recently released ex-con, Roy Earle (Jack Palance, again) and his ill-fated attempt to rob a California resort hotel. Winters plays Marie (the role portrayed by Ida Lupino in the original), the girlfriend of one of the small-time criminals who team up with Roy for the heist. Marie falls for Roy, but their dreams for a future together are not to be realized. Critics savaged the film upon its release, and it paled in comparison to 1941 version. Even Winters wasn’t a fan – she later remembered asking the film’s director, “Why is Warners remaking [High Sierra]? Why don’t they just re-release this great picture as is?”
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
Released at the end of the classic noir era, Odds Against Tomorrow centers on an intricately designed plot to knock over an upstate New York Bank. The plan is complicated, though, by the racial tension between two of the men involved – Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte), a black singer, and Earl (Robert Ryan), a white ex-con. Winters plays Earl’s unfailingly supportive wife – years after the film’s release, director Robert Wise praised her performance, calling her “quite effective.”
Check out Shelley Winters in her noir roles. You won’t be sorry!
– 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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