He was tall, lean, and sported a voice tinged with a menacing whine. He invariably dressed to be noticed.
The characters he played enjoyed slapping leading ladies onscreen — a trait that earned him the sobriquet “the sadistic dandy.” No wonder he was one of the biggest males stars of Forties and Fifties film noir.
In a piece headlined, Duryea Says Heel Roles Keep Him Well Heeled, legendary columnist Hedda Hopper wrote that the actor actually consulted a psychiatrist, not on his own behalf but to try and figure out why his nasty screen portrayals elicited such a huge fan response.
It was completely politically incorrect, observed film noir historian Eddie Muller in his informative commentary for the DVD release of 1949’s Too Late For Tears. In that one, Duryea slaps Lizabeth Scott around.
At the height of his popularity, Duryea was actually promoted and sold by the studios explicitly for his onscreen caddishness. (The one sheet advertising Too Late For Tears shows Scott being struck under the headline, That’s Just To Remind You…You’re In A Tough Racket Now!)
It’s a terrific film, with double cross after double cross, and one of Joe’s favorites. He’s not sure, but he thinks it was the first drama he’d ever seen in a movie theater. Up until then he’d only been allowed to go to musicals and family pictures.
Actually, according to Muller, Duryea’s first big role came in 1945 in director Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window [Blu-ray], in which dangerous Dan as a dead man’s bodyguard hauls off against Joan Bennett. The scene had such an impact on audiences that variations of it were repeated in Duryea’s succeeding pictures. (In Paramount’s 1949 thriller, Dan pitches Dorothy Lamour off a tall building.)
The actor perfectly played the “McGoof,” said Muller, a term coined by writer Damon Runyon referring to a man who took advantage of women, then brushed them off when he had used them and taken all their money. Duryea did this better than anyone else in movie history.
The reality was that offscreen, Duryea was a cultivated (he studied English lit. at Cornell and grew up in White Plains, N.Y.), stage-trained actor whose private life was the soul of domesticity. His one and only wife, Helen Bryan, was his high school sweetheart. Their 35-year-marriage ended at her death in 1967. (Duryea was 61 when he succumbed the following year to cancer.)
In Criss Cross, director Robert Siodmak’s beautifully photographed (by Franz Planer) 1949 thriller, Duryea is third-billed behind Burt Lancaster and Yvonne DeCarlo as a gambler with syndicate connections with designs on DeCarlo, still enthralled by former husband Lancaster. We first see dapper Dan in an early scene sporting a white tuxedo jacket and fingering a carnation — a real nasty but one with an elegant sense of fashion.
As the title suggests, there are double and triple crossing galore before a climatic double murder as Duryea is nabbed by the cops. Essentially Lancaster and DeCarlo’s film, Criss Cross showcases Dan to excellent advantage. (Triva: DeCarlo’s silent but energetic dancing partner in once scene, uncredited, is a very young Tony Curtis.)
1946’s Black Angel offers a bit of surprise in how it presents Duryea. He is actually a good guy here, a pianist-songwriter who falls for a singer (June Vincent) trying to spring her innocent husband from death row. The villain here is Peter Lorre, who carries off his nightclub owner role with humorous panache.
Dangerous Dan comes off as a pretty nice guy who should have laid off the sauce. In promoting Black Angel, the studio proclaimed the movie was a rarity of sorts — in that costar June Vincent actually emerges unscathed from her many Duryea encounters.