Noir Nook: Favorite Actors of Noir
In my Noir Nook a couple of months ago, I shined the spotlight on one of my favorite noir bad boys – Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (1944). Inspired by this rare departure from focusing on the femme side of noir, I’m delighted to devote this month’s column to a celebration of some of my favorite actors behind the great characters.
Unlike his on-screen persona, Dan Duryea was educated at an Ivy League university, was married to the same woman for 35 years, was an active member of the PTA at his sons’ school, and dabbled in gardening, oil painting, and building sailboats in his backyard. “I make a great effort to be extra pleasant the first time I meet anybody,” Duryea once said. “If I’m lucky, I can overcome the aversion they’ve already built up.”
But my aversion to Duryea’s characters is what makes me love him so. He was seen in more than 10 films noirs – my top picks are The Woman in the Window (1945), Scarlet Street (1945), The Great Flamarion (1945), Criss Cross (1949), and Too Late for Tears (1949).
In Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, he was teamed with Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson, and director Fritz Lang; in the first, he was a financier’s bodyguard who tries to extort money from the stodgy college professor played by Robinson, and in the second, he was a completely reprehensible con man (and thinly veiled pimp). In The Great Flamarion, he wasn’t quite the heel that he usually was – in this underrated feature starring Erich von Stroheim and Mary Beth Hughes, Duryea played an alcoholic, third-rate vaudevillian who has the bad luck to be married to a sweet-faced dame with a steely heart and a wandering eye. He was back to form in Criss Cross, though – as Yvonne De Carlo’s mob boss spouse, he was ruthless, vengeful, and downright scary. And, finally, in Too Late for Tears, playing a crook who’s trying to recover a satchel of cash that’s fallen into the hands of a fatal femme, Duryrea was part crafty villain, part hapless sucker.
Sterling Hayden lived a life that could have easily served as the screenplays for three movies. He sailed the seven seas (or at least one) as a teenager, waged a bitter public battle over custody of his children, was an outspoken proponent of the virtues of marijuana, and made no secret of his disdain for Tinseltown and the profession of acting. (“I never knew what the damn hell I was doing,” he was known to admit.)
Born Sterling Relyea Walter, the actor appeared in at least six noirs during his career, including two of my all-time favorites from the era: The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and The Killing (1956), and a third that’s rapidly moving up on my list of greatest hits: Crime Wave (1954). The Asphalt Jungle starts Hayden as a small-time hood with an innate sense of honor and an unquenchable love for horses. He’s a standout among a superb ensemble cast that includes Sam Jaffe, Jean Hagen, Louis Calhern, and Marilyn Monroe, turning a criminal into a sympathetic character that you can’t help but root for. In Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, Hayden is the mastermind behind an intricate heist at a racetrack, grabbing and holding your focus every time he’s on the screen. And in Crime Wave, Hayden’s on the other side of the law, playing a hard-nosed, no-nonsense detective with, if not a heart of gold, at the very least, a heart.
How could I possibly produce a list of top-notch noir actors and not include Robert Mitchum? This laconic, uber-tough, cooler-than-the-other-side-of-the-pillow actor boasted a colorful past that included a childhood in Hell’s Kitchen, time on a Georgia chain gang, and a widely publicized arrest for marijuana possession. He also, though, was known as a weaver of tall tales. “They’re all true – booze, brawls, broads – all true,” he said. “Make up some more if you want to.”
During a span of six decades, Mitchum appeared in such memorable noirs as The Locket (1947) and Angel Face (1953) – and, of course, he starred in what many consider to be the quintessential noir: Out of the Past (1947). The Locket is a thoroughly unique noir, featuring a flashback within a flashback within a flashback. Somewhere within all those reaches back in time is Mitchum’s character, a talented artist who falls – fatefully – in love with a mentally disturbed kleptomaniac, played by Laraine Day. In Angel Face, Mitchum again chooses not too wisely (and not too well) when he teams up with the innocent-looking but oh-so-deadly Jean Simmons. Although he eventually comes to his senses, his eye-opener comes a bit too late. And, then, of course, in Out of the Past, Mitchum is Jeff Bailey (also known as Jeff Markham), an ex-private detective turned gas station owner – and between careers, he falls hard for a no-good dame and finds himself embroiled in a complicated scheme of murder and mayhem. Now that I think of it, no matter how worldly-wise Mitchum’s characters appeared to be, they could also be vulnerable, sentimental, and downright dopey when it came to the opposite sex.
Stay tuned as I cover more of my favorite noir actors in future Noir Nooks. Who would you like to see on the list?
– 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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