She could easily portray “a woman who drives men to the brink of disaster merely on a whim.”
She also felt right at home as the boss’ mistress, or coolly administering a shot of sodium pentothal to coerce the villain to come clean about a murder.
She was and will always be remembered as one tough broad. Not to be messed with.
Audrey Totter, our star of the week, died on Dec. 12 at the age of 95.
Born in Joliet, Illinois in 1918, she broke in professionally as a radio actress first in Chicago and then in New York. MGM summoned her in 1945, and a year later she made her first Hollywood movie, Main Street After Dark, playing a fetching young woman named Jessie Bell who is part of a family-run pickpocket ring. It was a good start.
Totter, of course, played her fair share of “bad girls” but she also spread her wings in a potpourri of movies including 1945’s The Sailor Takes A Wife, costarring Robert Walker and June Allyson in a romantic comedy about USO hostesses.
She turned up in 1952’s Assignment: Paris with George Sanders, Dana Andrews and Swedish actress Marta Toren. She was a sympathetic nurse-lieutenant in the 1953 war drama, Mission Over Korea with John Hodiak and John Derek. (That’s Audrey in the photo above with Ray Milland in 1949’s Alias Nick Beal.)
If not for about a half-dozen dark dramas, film noirs, Totter would be remembered as a reasonably competent supporting actress who, if not glamorous, was pleasing to look at.
In 1947 came theatrical releases of three of her best noirs. MGM’s Lady in the Lake, designed as a hommage to novelist Raymond Chandler, put Audrey opposite Robert Montgomery (who also directed) as detective Philip Marlowe. The picture is described by film noir analyst Eddie Muller as a lugubrious exercise in subjective camerawork… smug and jokey…Totter was its main attraction. In short, Audrey stole the show.
In The High Wall, she playing a medical doctor advising Robert Taylor about a murder he may or may not have committed. It’s in this picture that she works the sodium pentothal magic with a very nasty Herbert Marshall.
Michael Curtiz’ The Unsuspected put Totter in the company of Joan Caulfield (one of our Star of the Week subjects), Claude Rains and Constance Bennett in a complicated plot involving a radio personality going to great lengths to hide a murder. (A flashing neon sign seen through the murderer’s window blinks: “Kill…Kill…Kill.”)
In 1949’s The Set-Up, a superb drama about an over-the-hill prizefighter trying for one last score, Audrey is well paired by director Robert Wise with Robert Ryan in one of the few realistic boxing dramas ever made. (Note the presence of photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig as the ringside timekeeper.) Totter is tough yet supportive as the pugilist’s long-suffering wife, waiting in shabby hotel rooms on the return of her broken husband.
In 1950’s Tension, Audrey outdid herself in the femme fatale department by cheating on her mild-mannered druggist husband (Richard Basehart), and then murdering her boyfriend. The hapless druggest’s obsession with his wife’s infidelity propels him over the edge of reason, comment film noir historians Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward.
Totter’s career of some 90 movie and tv credits lasted until 1987. Her personal life was the model of comportment — her sole marriage to Dr. Leo Fred, an assistant medical school dean at UCLA, ended at his death in 1995. The couple had one child.
Totter joins her cinematic sisters, Marie Windsor, Coleen Gray, Jane Greer and Gloria Grahame, in the pantheon of strong, supremely fetching noir women who made the lives of their men just miserable.
We salute her memory.