There’s no question that Raymond Burr is most remembered today as the star of two tube series that riveted television viewers worldwide from 1957 through 1975.
But classic movie lovers are likely to prefer the Raymond Burr that turns up in the some 10 film noir titles of the Forties and Fifties, showcasing the hulking (nearly 6-feet-2) actor and his commanding voice in roles ranging from creepy villains to psychotic killers.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today to focus on Burr’s early screen career before Perry Mason and Ironside monopolized his principal professional identity.
Both of his hour-long TV series were mammoth hits — the first had a nine-year run on CBS beginning in 1957; the second was aired on NBC from 1967 through 1974. As Mason, Burr was the most accomplished yet principled defense attorney alive. As Robert T. Ironside, he was a wheelchair-bound former police official who heads up a crack, crime-solving team.
In short, Burr played pretty good guys in both TV series. But, happily, this is definitely not the case in the noir drama and policiers he made earlier in his movie career.
It was revealed after he died at age 76 in 1993 that he was gay, but that was never an issue in his career. The studios just didn’t see him as a leading man type. Burr often projected onscreen an air of self-satisfied evil that drew noir directors in need of a sleazebag.
Burr worked with some of the best movie directors: Fritz Lang, Anthony Mann, Joseph Losey and Douglas Sirk, among others. And, we shouldn’t forget his turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 thriller, Rear Window, portraying an apartment-dwelling husband who murders his wife, methodically disposes of her body and then menaces a wheelchair bound James Stewart.
In 1953’s The Blue Gardenia, Burr turns up as one “Harry Prebble,” a sleazy playboy whose impregnated girlfriend dispatches him with a fire poker. In 1947’s Desperate, he is the head of a gang of warehouse thieves who set up unsuspecting Steve Brodie in a botched heist.
1949’s Abandoned has Burr as a mobster involved in a Los Angeles baby-stealing ring. In 1948’s Pitfall, the actor pays an unstable private investigator who becomes obsessed with the woman he is tracking, portrayed by our noir favorite Lizabeth Scott. Burr gets beaten up before Scott ends a complicated plot about adultery with two slugs in his gut.
One of Burr’s more enjoyable turns as a sadistic villain arrives in 1950’s Red Light, a strange little picture which features George Raft, of all people, on the road to devout Catholicism. Raft is out to avenge the murder of his military chaplain brother but pulls back at the moment of truth to allow the Lord to do the work.
The Lord accommodates. Burr’s character, a vengeful ex-con, is electrocuted in the rain while clambering above a lighting fixture (spelling out “24 Hour Service”) above an apartment building. The ending is a combination of Journey Into Fear and White Heat. Great fun.
The scene that sticks, though, is Gene Lockhart’s grisly demise at the hands (and feet) of Burr’s ex-con, who kicks out the props holding up a tractor trailer bed under which Lockhart’s character is hidden.
As we hear the screams of the victim, the camera pans up to a shot of the sinister Raymond Burr as Cherney, smoking and smiling, note Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s in the third edition of Film Noir.
Now that’s the Raymond Burr we like to remember.