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'I wouldn't give you two cents for a dame without a temper.' (High Sierra)

 

Film Noir entries are often described as stylized crime dramas or murder thrillers that emphasize moral ambiguity - enticing 'basically' good citizens to commit illegal acts (of varying degrees) for money... or more frequently for amorous desire and/or unrequited love. However, although there is no commonly accepted definition - it would be hard to deny that sexual tension and its corresponding desperate motivations make up a big part of the appeal of the Film Noir phenomenon. The universality of this human condition is but one explanation of how films that cascade into the noir cycle are continuing popularity some 60+ years later. Along with narrative devices such as anti-hero protagonists, plots utilizing amnesia, recent ex-convict characters, flash-backs (remembered), shared guilt, pathos etc. - femme fatales (and women characters who were often incorrectly labeled as such either with or without selfish motivations), have become strongly associated with the 'black cinema'. Delving adventurously into classic Film Noir it would seem impossible not to gravitate to certain performers - identifying them as 'favorites'. They can help qualify any personal definition to a higher, if bastardized, ideal. I've named only fourteen ladies in the shadows below but the list could have certainly expanded to more.  

 

Further, upon investigation, I find it a dramatically unsettling coincidence that the majority of actresses I've chosen to showcase in this article have shared tragic circumstances in their personal lives. These range from premature deaths, battles with alcohol, fatal burns (house fire), depression, alleged mental illness and even a suicide... coincidental and sad but nevertheless it seems to punctuate the mystique surrounding the doomed romantic aura existing in much of Film Noir - their personal tragedies adding yet another venomous layer to the style's dark legacy.

 

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'The Innocent' - Cathy O'Donnell

With her early role of wholesome and loyal Wilma in the 1946 classic The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Alabama born and raised Cathy O'Donnell will always be reminded by legions of fans as the girl next door. It is quite probable her role in that film helped coined the phrase. Best Years success boded well for Cathy and soon she co-starred in the now-iconic Film Noir classic They Live by Night (1948). Farley Granger and Cathy were paired yet again in a Noir effort; Anthony Mann's Sidestreet two years later.

It all started with a gamble when Ann Steely (birth name) moved out to Hollywood at a very young age where her talent, beauty and charm were easily identified. Fortune landed her a contract under Sam Goldwyn. Extensive vocal training (to remove her thick Southern drawl) and acting lessons seemed to be pushing Cathy into a future with a long and successful career. 

However, her rise on the silver screen was sidetracked when, at age 23, she married Robert Wyler (more than double her age) - the older brother of director William Wyler, with whom Mr. Goldwyn was engaged in a bitter feud. In retaliation Goldwyn abruptly canceled her contract. Unfortunately thereafter she had no lasting bond with any studio. Her most memorable roles of the were in classic Film Noir's such as They Live by Night (1948) Detective Story (1951), Sidestreet (1950) and Bury Me Dead (1947). In fact, of Cathy's 17 films (of which she had starring or featured roles), 7 are Film Noir (or debatable-Film Noir). This makes her a major, although often underrated, contributor to the style. Her last film was Ben-Hur (1959). Her marriage to Wyler proved long-lasting but was unsuccessful in their attempts to have children. Her premature death on their 22nd wedding anniversary, at only 45 years of age, followed an extensive struggle with cancer.

'The Siren' - Gloria Grahame

In her first role - that of Sally Murfin in Blonde Fever (1944) - Gloria's character states: 'Mr.Donay there are two kinds of girls - good girls and the other kind. I hope you don't think I'm the other kind.'  Regardless, a few years later her role as distracting Violet in It's a Wonderful Life pushed to define her persona as a sexy temptress ripe for supporting and feature roles in the adult oriented crime dramas of the day. After appearances in such films as Song of the Thin Man, Gloria found a premium vehicle for exposure as Ginny Tremaine in RKO's Crossfire - directed by Edward Dmytryk in 1947. Although not a starring role it would prove to be the film capable of escalating her to stardom and eventually far more defining performances. Her excellent work in Crossfire was gratifyingly nominated for an Academy Award (eventually losing to Celeste Holm in Gentleman's Agreement).

Gloria received further critical recognition in 1952 for both Macao and Sudden Fear. Although she proved very talented in musicals like Oklahoma! (1955) Gloria's intrinsic sexuality and seductive visage will be forever associated with Film Noir primarily due to her classics roles in such notable entries as In a Lonely Place (1950), The Big Heat (1953) and Human Desire (1954).

 

She continued some memorable television work later in her career (see Episode 28: The Homecoming of Season One of The Fugitive with David Janssen). Gossip surrounded her private life as she underwent frequent and unnecessary plastic surgeries and Gloria's fourth marriage produced further scandalous headlines as she married her former stepson, producer/director Anthony Ray (director Nicholas Ray's son). She bore him two children in the early 1960s but on October 5, 1981, at the age of 57, she succumbed to cancer leaving a legacy of cinema that is unforgettable to her fans. Some trivia about her background includes support that Gloria was descended from royalty. Her father's family descended from King Edward III through John of Gaunt; her mother's, from the Scottish Kings of the Hebrides and Gloria's grandfather Reginald Francis Hallward was said to have given Oscar Wilde the idea for his classic novel 'The Picture of Dorian Gray.' Although enigmatic Gloria is mentioned in many Noir and Hollywood books I only ever found one entirely devoted to her; Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahame by Vincent Curcio.

'The Beauty' - Carole Landis

Carol Landis (Frances Ridste) was an uncommon beauty and desirable war-time pin-up star. After graduating high school in 1935, and scurrying away from an impetuous marriage, she fled to San Francisco to work as a nightclub dancer and band singer. She eventually got to Hollywood at age 18 where it took only a few years to identify her in motion pictures as the skin-clad lead in One Million B.C. (1940) with Victor Mature. Her only notable Film Noir, I Wake Up Screaming (1941) was well received as was her individual performance. Despite fabulous potential in comedy, musicals and some quasi-noir 'B' films - Twentieth Century Fox dropped her contract due to her volatile feminist stances and sexual dalliance rumors essentially stemming from an inability to build any lasting relationship. After visiting troops during World War II Carol contracted malaria, amoebic dysentery, and near-fatal pneumonia.

With financial problems, a halted career, declining health, four failed marriages behind her, and a disappointing culmination of her extra-marital affair with Rex Harrison, Carole Landis committed suicide with an overdose of Seconal in 1948. She was only 29 years old but had appeared in more than 60 films - her potential barely touched upon. For further information see E. J. Fleming's book - Carole Landis: A Tragic Life In Hollywood.

 

'The Bad Girl' - Audrey Totter

 

Audrey Totter, born of Austrian/Swedish heritage, might be the most prolific Noir actress on this list. Her balance of aggressive 'hard' looks and alluring feminine beauty found a perfect niche in shadowy confines of 'B' Film Noir. Sometimes cast as the tired and vexed wife (The Set-Up), the easy-pick up (The Postman Always Rings Twice) or the selfish gold-digging tramp (Tension and The Unsuspected) Audrey defined her roles with totally believable characterizations in the mature world of dark realism that Noir tends to export.

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Audrey's fatal blow, as to many in her profession, was to be stereotyped because of her efficient performances. As the tide of cinema turned to more family oriented films she found positions for her edgy 'tough-talking dame' roles began to dry-up. So be it. She wed a doctor and focused her energies on raising a family but her performances supporting Film Noir will always be remembered as essential to its legacy.   

 

'The Heights and Depths' - Veronica Lake

One can read the life story of 4'11" Veronica Lake (born Constance Frances Marie Ockelman) in sheer disbelief - certainly more dramatic than any of the roles she portrayed. Born in Brooklyn, New York on November 14, 1919 Veronica would escalate to legendary status in the Film Noir movement. During an early publicity photo, an errant lock of her shoulder-length blonde hair, covering half her face, led to an iconic peekaboo hairstyle that remained widely imitated by women for years after. Her contribution to the Film Noir cycle in the 1940's included some of the quintessential efforts of the style. She starred with Alan Ladd in the 3 mainstays; This Gun for Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946). Unfortunately the latter being recognized as her last lauded film work.

Adored by the public but those who worked with her had a different story to tell. Her frequently reported combative fiduciary relationships stemmed from her complex personality possibly resulting from an allegedly undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenia. Alcohol abuse and crumbling marriages (one with director André De Toth) soon followed and the Peek-a-boo Girl, distanced from friends and three children, arrested several times for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct, and bankrupt because of IRS seizure of assets due to unpaid taxes - was totally removed from the public eye. She eventually emerged working as a barmaid at the all women's Martha Washington Hotel in Manhattan and by the late 1960s, Veronica Lake, residing in Hollywood, Florida, was reportedly immobilized by paranoiac fear with claims that she was being stalked by the FBI. On July 7, 1973, Veronica died of hepatitis and acute renal failure (due to alcoholism) near Burlington in Vermont. The beautifully fragile actress, of Danish and Irish descent, once adored by millions, was dead at the age of 53. A frank depiction and timeline of Lake's flawed life is catalogued in Peekaboo: The Story of Veronica Lake by Jeff Lenburg.

 

'The Goddess' - Rita Hayworth

 

Rita Hayworth (born Margarita Carmen Cansino) may have had one of the most seductive relationships with the camera in Hollywood history. She exuded an undeniable hypnotic aura supporting her moniker "The Love Goddess" and further identifying her as the major sex symbol of the 1940's. 

 

Naturally shy and reclusive, Hayworth was the antithesis of many of the characters she played. She once commented that "Men go to bed with Gilda, but they wake up with me". This statement embodied her paradoxical existence as she spent her life subjected to other people's perceived definition of her. Her personal relationships were often strained due to both this and alleged physical, sexual and emotional abuse she endured from her father at a very young age.

Gifted as a multi-faced performer who could sing, dance and star in comedies, Rita Hayworth's limited contributions to the Noir cycle included, future husband, Orson Welles' complex The Lady from Shanghai made in 1947, and two films co-starring her long-time next door neighbor and good friend Glenn Ford - Charles Vidor's Gilda made in 1946 and Vincent Sherman's Affair in Trinidad from 1952, where the world saw her return from her 1948 marriage to Prince Aly Khan, the heir to Aga Khan III.

Like many Noir gals here her personal life was often discontented. With a string of five failed marriages behind her and an ongoing battle with alcohol, Rita Hayworth passed away from Alzheimer's disease in 1987 at age 68. Many modern film audiences were exposed to Rita from a clip and poster from Gilda used in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption. There are numerous books about Rita Hayworth but I thought Being Rita Hayworth: Labor, Identity, and Hollywood Stardom by Adrienne L. McLean did a good job of capturing the essence of what was the highly misunderstood lady; Margarita Carmen Cansino.

The Queen of 'B' - Marie Windsor

Born in Marysvale, Utah, Marie Windsor schooled at Brigham Young University and went on to establish a long career appearing in over 100 films. Her efforts in Film Noir often found her pigeon-holed as an adulterous wife, loose girlfriend, or gangster moll. She worked with actors John Garfield and Elisha Cook Jr. but her reputation in minor B's is also apparent with infamous roles in Swamp Women (1955), Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) and The Jungle (1952). 

Favorites of her work include the brutal, poetic and pessimistic Force of Evil (1948), the redemptive western Hellfire (1949) - currently unavailable on DVD!, the highly touted 'B' masterpiece The Narrow Margin (1952), and Stanley Kubrick's tense Noir thriller The Killing (1956).

'The Heroine' - Linda Darnell

Exotic looking, native Texan, Monetta Eloyse Darnell gave some significant performances to benefit her inclusion in the list although her most critically acclaimed roles were not in Film Noir. After the sterling John Ford western My Darling Clementine (1946) and her more lauded work in Preston Sturges comedy Unfaithfully Yours (1948) - Linda followed those with a fine performance, but again Oscar neglected, as one of the spouses in A Letter to Three Wives. Her sultry characters in Hangover Square (1945) and strong Noirs like Fallen Angel (1945), and No Way Out (1950) were likewise unjustly passed over causing her to drift into alcohol, resulting in failed marriages and seeing her gain significant weight.

Expectantly important starring roles became fewer and farther between. One of her most transparent performances was Zero Hour! (1957), near the end of her career, teaming her with past co-star Dana Andrews. Indifferent panning helped push her back into live stage productions. Sadly though she died a horribly painful death at age 41. She heroically attempted to save her friend's child from a house fire in Glenview, Illinois unaware that the young girl was already safe. Linda Darnell was badly burned over 80 percent of her body and she died the following day. Ronald L. Davis has a book; Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream that I recommend if you are keen on more about her short life and career.  

'The Canuck' - Yvonne De Carlo

Talented Yvonne De Carlo was born Margaret (Peggy) Yvonne Middleton on September 1st, 1922, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Her contribution to Film Noir may be limited - a small role in This Gun for Hire (a showgirl at Neptune Club) but two iconic films; - both with Burt Lancaster - Jules Dassin's impacting prison picture Brute Force (1947) and Robert Siodmak's brilliantly cynical Criss Cross (1949) mark her with significant firepower to deserve mention. Hired by Paramount primarily because of a resemblance to Dorothy Lamour she later moved to Universal Studios, as a kind of B-movie western version of Maria Montez (The Caribbean Cyclone) who, by the way, was far less talented in all areas - singing, dancing and acting. When Maria left Hollywood for Europe Yvonne's career began to pick up steam.

Although her most prominent film role would be as Sephora, the wife of Moses (Charlton Heston) in The Ten Commandments (1956) unfortunately pop culture has slapped Yvonne with television's Lily Munster as her most widely remembered character. The bizarre cult television series The Munsters ran from 1964-1966. Yvonne De Carlo penned a revealing autobiography in 1987 entitled Yvonne: An Autobiography and she passed away earlier this year (January 2007) at the age of 84 from natural causes.

'The Queen' - Barbara Stanwyck

 

An icon of film and Noir while faithfully playing resilient and confident female characters that almost always had a likeable edge - Barbara Stanwyck was born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16th, 1907 in New York City to a Canadian immigrant mother from Nova Scotia. Starring in almost one hundred films during her career she received four nominations for Best Actress Oscars for roles in Stella Dallas (1937), Ball of Fire (1941), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and Billy Wilder's sleazy adulterous Noir thriller Double Indemnity (1944). Stanwyck is on more frames of celluloid than any performer on this list and seemed to add a certain class to every production in which she was engaged. This included extensive work in television were her performances as the proud matriarch in the western series The Big Valley (1965–1969) made her one of the most popular actresses on TV, winning her a second Emmy.

Notable classic Noirs include The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), The File on Thelma Jordon (1950), No Man of Her Own (1950), the afore mentioned Double Indemnity (1944) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). For a more in-depth analysis of her life seek out the book Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck from RH Value Publishing.

'The Divine' - Gene Tierney

 

Another New York born lady... Gene Eliza Tierney of Brooklyn was often regarded as the most beautiful woman of the 20th century. She is best-remembered for her performance in the Noir, or Noir leaning, films; The Shanghai Gesture (1941), Laura (1944), Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Whirlpool (1949), Night and the City (1950), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) and Black Widow (1954). These Noir works produced some of her most memorable performances.

 

Early in her career Tierney was offered the lead in MGM's National Velvet (Elizabeth Taylor), but when the production was severely delayed, she instead signed with 20th Century Fox in 1939. Her silver screen debut was as Elenore Stone in Fritz Lang's first color film, the western The Return of Frank James (1940) opposite Henry Fonda.

Gene was not free of the Noir curse of personally destructive circumstances as she battled severe depression which included treatment by hospitalization and shock therapy. This could have been a result of Daria, her prematurely born daughter (with husband, fashion designer, Oleg Cassini), who entered the world deaf, partially blind and had severe mental retardation. Potentially this may also have accentuated Gene's diagnosed bi-polar disorder. She is reported to have had affairs with Prince Aly Khan, co-star Tyrone Power and future president John F. Kennedy (causing her to admittedly vote for Nixon). Fans may wish to obtain Gene Tierney: A Biography by Michelle Vogel for a view on her complete life story.

'The Icy' - Lizabeth Scott

 

Emma Matzo was born in 1922 to Catholic-Slovakian parents. She studied drama in New York City and appeared in just over 20 films between 1945 and 1957 - many of which became central to the legacy of film noir including The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Desert Fury (1947), Pitfall (1948), I Walk Alone (1948), Too Late for Tears (1949), Dead Reckoning (1947), Dark City (1950) and Stolen Face (1952). Adopting the stage name Lizabeth Scott (which she legally changed it to in 1949 after four years of using it professionally) the former part-time model and Broadway understudy (at times for the great Tallulah Bankhead!) had an indefinable quality that the camera, and fans, found intriguing, seductive while an the same time congenial. Blonde, bright-eyed, and raspy-voiced Lizabeth was one of a handful of women who's grass-roots performances were often responsible for imbedding film noir characters with the qualities of trust, respectability and honor while frequently supporting a wayward protagonist. These characteristics often juxtapose the inherent selfishness and greed of many femme fatale personas.

According to Diana McClellan's book "The Girls," Lizabeth Scott (who never married) was essentially black-listed late in her career for her perceived sexual orientation. She was supposedly seen in Los Angeles lesbian night clubs and associated with like-minded women as reported in the gossip columns. Since her brief return to the screen in Pulp (1972 with Michael Caine) Lizabeth Scott retreated from public view and has declined all interview requests. She will have recently turned 85 years of age at the writing of this article.

 

'The Dangerous' - Faith Domergue

 

For most of her life Faith Domergue, (pronounced "Dah-mure"), had always thought she was of Spanish / French descent as are many people in her birthplace of New Orleans, Louisiana. However, much later in her life she found out that she was adopted and of English / Irish heritage - 'Black Irish' as it's known; people with dark brown or black hair of Irish descent. Regardless, Faith still had a remarkable 'look' on celluloid with penetrating, hypnotic, dark eyes that are still mesmerizing male viewers some 50 years later. A gifted child who spoke fluent French, Spanish and Italian, Faith was spotted at only 15 years of age by industrialist-producer-director-aviator Howard Hughes who signed her to his RKO studio as one of his many desirable protégées. But Hughes made her complete her high school education with a private tutor before launching her career as an actress.

Unfortunately the painfully long production of one of her very first films, Vendetta (1950), soured her on acting as a profession eventually impacting quite negatively on her the rest of her life.

For Film Noir fans her role as the warped and manipulative femme fatale Margo Lannington in John Farrow's classic, bustling, and dream-like Where Danger Lives (1950), with stalwart co-star Robert Mitchum, is ultimately a defining one. In an unforgettable scene, late in the story, we see the imminent confrontation of our protagonists - a doctor and a patient... on the run from the law. It was shot in one long take within the confines of the small, unlit hotel room where Margo and Jeff are seeking refuge before sneaking into Mexico. Farrow defines the film's climax within this limited space and the once-lovers impending desperate acts are soon to follow. As the characters, and camera, venture outside we are engulfed in shadows and the suspense of the conflict becomes overwhelming - reaching an unforgettable finale.

Faith's career saw her perform in some science fiction films including the iconic, cult classic This Island Earth from 1955. She passed away at 75 years of age in her Santa Barbara, California home in 1999.  

'The Spirited' - Peggy Cummins

 

Peggy Cummins was born in Prestatyn, Wales in 1925 and with a visage encapsulating both wholesome and stunning qualities she might have been the quintessential poster girl representing 'the farmer's daughter'. She had defining roles in two important movies that have acquired a strong journalistic following. She played Joanna Harrington in Jacques Tourneur's poetic and suspenseful Night of the Demon (1957) with Dana Andrews. But the most important cinema work of Peggy's career might easily be Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy from 1950 (also know as Deadly Is the Female). It is often considered one of the greatest 'B' movies ever made and an essential film noir. It was a 'Bonnie and Clyde'-like drama involving two desperado fugitives who emotionally spark desirous larger-than-life exploits in each other... with fatal consequences. Peggy also supported Noir in the UK with a lauded quasi-'dark cinema' effort entitled Hell Drivers (1957) where she co-starred with Stanley Baker, Patrick McGoohan, Herbert Lom, Sid James, Jill Ireland, David McCallum and Sean Connery.

Her parallels with Faith Domergue (above) are not only that she appeared in one immensely important film noir work but she was also romantically involved with Howard Hughes at one point. Approaching her 82nd birthday later this year (2007) individuals still comment on her elegance and beauty although legions of fans will always remember her as 'sharp-shooting sideshow performer Annie Laurie Starr'.



 

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