Following closely on the heels of the passing of Eleanor Parker comes the loss of one of my favorite Bad Girls, Audrey Totter. She just died at the age of 95, and just a week shy of her 96th birthday, which certainly shows that being Bad doesn't necessarily shorten your lifespan.
Usually very blonde, and often playing someone very, very bad, Audrey Totter was always very enjoyable to watch. Though there were other dangerous, bad blondes in Hollywood in the 40s and 50s, Audrey was the one for me. And even though she never really made it to A-list stardom, she did more than alright in her onscreen career, finding places in several undisputed classics.
After a supporting role in the classic The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Totter's career kicked into gear, and she followed up with leads in the underrated High Wall (1947) and Lady in the Lake (also 1947). Lady in the Lake had Robert Montgomery top-billed, and he directed it as well, but, since it was shot from the point of view of his character (Phillip Marlowe, private eye), he got little onscreen time, which made second-billed Audrey, for all intents and purposes, the central star of the film. She was more than up to the task.
But what is probably her finest hour, and best film, came in 1949, when she co-starred with Robert Ryan in the boxing/film noir classic The Set-Up. Where in Lady the "gimmick" was that the entire film was seen through the eyes of the character of Phillip Marlowe, in The Set-Up, the entire film plays out in real time. The film runs 73 minutes, and thus we see an unbroken 73 minute chunk of the life of Robert Ryan's washed up boxer, Stoker Thompson. Playing somewhat against type, Totter is his caring and understandably worried wife, Julie. The film is a short, taut masterpiece - one of the very best boxing films and/or noirs ever made, and again, Totter is absolutely on the mark and part of what makes the film so notable. I personally think Robert Ryan was the best dramatic actor in film in the first half of the 20th century, and in The Set-Up, Audrey Totter more than holds her own with him.
The Set-Up proved to be the high water mark for Audrey Totter, though she kept working (in films and TV) for decades to come. Like many other actors from that era, her last appearance was on an episode of Murder, She Wrote, in 1987. And, like many other almost-but-not-quite legendary performers from that era, I find her work ethic, and her ability to simply keep working, very admirable. It's easy to imagine her saying: Yeah, yeah, I was almost a superstar - but I gotta pay the bills, y'know?
Last night, my wife and I watched her in Tension (1951), an underwritten B with a great cast, featuring Totter, Richard Basehart, Cyd Charrise, Barry Sullivan and William Conrad, among others. Audrey plays the extremely less-than-faithful, no good wife of nice guy pharmacist Basehart, who is, of course, knocking himself out trying to make her happy. She, meanwhile, is ever on the prowl for a better offer, or just a good time. In one brief moment at the drug store soda counter, when an interested party makes an approach to Totter, she sizes him up with a withering glance, and sends him packing with one snarled word: "Drift!" One glance, one word, and one charismatic actress that brought it to life.
Now that Audrey Totter has drifted away herself, she will be missed.
December 15th, 2013
December 15th, 2013