There are obvious choices for my favorite film noir actors: trenchcoat-draped Robert “Baby, I just don’t care!” Mitchum and Humphrey Bogart can do no wrong. Their line delivery alone makes them noir icons.They could make reading a shopping list sound like noir.
But everyone knows Mitchum and Bogie. Here’s a few of my favorite actors/actresses of a smaller marquee profile that you might consider when stepping into the dark, back alleys of film noir.
John Garfield. Noir greatness: The Postman Always Rings Twice. How Garfield is not a household name today is beyond me. He was a huge star seen in gangster, war movies and melodramas for Warner Bros. He is considered one of the great film noir actors from the classic era, starring in Fallen Sparrow, Nobody Lives Forever, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Body and Soul, Force of Evil, and ending his film career with the brilliant He Ran All the Way. They all pack a punch, but unlike other big stars of the era, his career is mostly forgotten—which is a crime.
Consider The Breaking Point,from 1950, which has finally been released on DVD and aired on TV. The film is another attempt at putting Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not on film. Why anyone would think it would be a good idea to redo a movie that made the Bogie and Bacall pairing famous is beyond me, since it would seem to be a bit pointless. But wait ’til you see it: all the Hollywood glamour is stripped. It ignores the original film, sticks to the bleak book, and is surprisingly good for a movie that didn’t need to be made again. I found it quite hard to watch again, especially when Garfield and Patricia Neal fight over their finances. More than 60 years later the pressures of their life are still hard to deal with.
The Postman Always Rings Twice is a bit of a re-tread of Double Indemnity (both written by James M. Cain), but while I don’t find Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck an attractive couple in Double Indemnity, Garfield and Lana Turner absolutely sizzle in Postman. The lust level is high in both films but I give the edge to Postman only because of the summer body heat you can feel watching it. (I know. Double Indemnity is a far better noir, but The Postman Always Rings Twice edges it on my favorites list out despite some flaws I’m aware of… and ignore!)
Van Heflin: Noir greatness: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Heflin had an amazing, distinctive sounding voice. It’s so authoritative that you would never expect a guy who sounds this commanding and confident could betray his fellow soldiers during war or kill a man just to take his wife—just two dark secrets the actor had to hide playing characters in film noir. He’s probably best known outside the noir world as a cowboy actor—or as the nut who wanted to blow up Dean Martin’s plane in the first Airport. Noir fanatics love to find him in 1940s and 50s film noir: Johnny Eager, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and The Prowler—another film just recently made available on DVD thanks to the Film Noir Foundation. Prior to its official release on DVD, noir fans would trade an old, taped-off-late-night-TV VHS of The Prowler (with the commercials cut out) until it finally became widely available just last year. It’s a crazy ride that ends up nowhere near where it started. When you watch it for the first time try not to read about it: see it fresh and you’ll be surprised by the story and the lead actor. Heflin is so strong that he completely sells the audience on his performance as a cocksure man who slowly becomes unhinged under pressure.
Gloria Grahame: Noir greatness: In a Lonely Place. The blonde still turns heads every Christmas when she flirts with George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life! It’s far from being a noir, but director Frank Capra absolutely captures Grahame’s sexy home-wrecker image that was so powerful in film noirs like Crossfire, The Naked Alibi and Human Desire. Her best performance (and they were almost always strong) came when she played a good girl(!) as struggling actress Laurel inIn a Lonely Place. She falls hard for—and ultimately gets her heart shattered by—unstable screenwriter Humphrey Bogart.
In a Lonely Place is a Hollywood-story noir (like Sunset Blvd.) that director Nicholas Ray and his writers had fun with. In a Lonely Place started as a simple pulp novel about a killer con man. The writers couldn’t find much to work with, so they ended up creating a whole new, brilliant story about a screenwriter tasked to adapt a book to a film—not finding much to work with, he creates a whole new, brilliant story. It’s like looking into the reflection of two mirrors facing each other. Grahame and Bogie manage to create a sense of sexual attraction that I couldn’t imagine another starlet being able to conjure up. Grahame couldn’t steal the movie from Bogart—there should have been an Oscar given to him for this—but she sure holds up her end.
Robert Ryan: Noir greatness: The Set-Up. Ryan, a liberal-minded, gentle man, knew he didn’t have Clark-Gable looks. He had an ugly mug, and used what was given to him to create some scary, dangerous characters in film noir, like the bigoted criminal he plays in the explosive Odds Against Tomorrow. (In which his live-in girlfriend is Shelley Winters—but he steps out on her with Gloria Grahame!) Odds (1959) may be the last great film in the noir cycle that began in the early 40s and ended in the late 50s.
The Set-Up is a boxing movie that takes place in a city that could only be seen inside a black-and-white film noir: boxing is the official sport of film noir, and Robert Ryan is the heavyweight champ. I have a bit of a complaint about the DVD that was released a few years ago from Warner Bros. The picture is too bright. The film should be literally darker than the exposure on the DVD… it may be a clear picture but the film should be darker… you shouldn’t be able to see all the shadowy, dank corners. I wish someone would correct this movie and release it again on home video. My complaints about the DVD shouldn’t totally kill the movie, however: it’s filled with a rogues gallery of puggly faces, all a bunch of hustlers, dead beats and hangers-on a great and truly unique boxing film.
I could go on and on about my favorites; these are just a few. Check out Barbara Payton, Tom Neal, and Diana Dors if you want to know more about noir actors that had equally tragic lives offscreen. Always be on the lookout for Charles McGraw, Barry Sullivan and Sterling Hayden, too—they rarely disappoint.
Those are my tops. Who are your favorites?
Steve Eifert is the editor of the blog Film Noir of the Week and manages Back Alley Noir: the official message board for the Film Noir Foundation. He recently wrote a piece on the pairing of Sydney Greensteet and Peter Lorre in film noir which appeared in Noir City Annual #3: The Best of the Noir City Sentinel Newsletter paperback.