Unlike most classic Hollywood stars, he looked “recognizably American.”
He often portrayed the principled father-husband, as he did so memorably in George Stevens’ 1953 western Shane, portraying the struggling homesteader — and faithful husband to Jean Arthur and loving and protective father to Brandon DeWilde.
And there he is in Delmer Daves‘ 3:10 to Yuma, once again a good man placed in a dreadful circumstance, taking his life in his hands by escorting a hardened and unnervingly relaxed criminal (Glenn Ford) to a prison in another part of the state.
But take it from us. Heflin could turn it on convincingly when a movie called for a good measure of nastiness. For behind that aw-shucks facade he was an accomplished craftsman who worked hard on each of the some 66 movie and tv roles he assumed before his death of a heart attack in 1971, at the age of 60.
Today’s focus is one one of Heflin’s meanest roles. Before we get to the title we have in mind, we should note that th actor, who spent most of the Forties at MGM, was fond of recalling that studio boss Louis B. Mayer once told him that with his looks, “you will never get the girl at the end.” So, he figured, he’d better work hard on his acting skills.
One of our favorite Heflin roles is that of the respectable ex-military man (happily married to Janet Leigh) who turns desperado (and who two-times with an aging Mary Astor) when he learns Robert Ryan is in town harboring an unpleasant secret. The movie is Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 thriller, Act of Violence. Heflin is the essence of mounting desperation in this part in one of our favorite film noirs.
Heflin’s most sinister part, however, came three years later in director Joseph Losey’s tidy film noir, The Prowler. Here he plays a Los Angeles policeman in lust with the wife of a late-night radio host, both older than his shapely spouse (Evelyn Keyes) and gone a lot of the time. Heflin’s cop is unrelentingly on the make from the start, and doesn’t give up.
The movie deals in a number of social and class issues (director Losey went on to a lengthy exile in Europe, becoming an art house favorite with such titles as The Servant, Accident and Mr. Klein), but boils down to such noir staples as sex, murder and betrayal. What is astonishing is how Heflin conveys the sinister core of his character behind a facade of Mid-western, all-American guy wholesomeness.
His interpretation of the predatory cop is the exact opposite of Heflin’s totally sympathetic turn as the upright homesteader in Shane. It’s a big reason why The Prowler has emerged in the eyes of critics, particularly in France, as one of the best film noirs ever made. Take a tip: catch up with this one.
Another Heflin movie to check out is Phil Karlson’s Gunman’s Walk (1958) in which he plays a hard-nosed, wealthy rancher who brusquely manhandles his two sons (Tab Hunter and James Darren). In Hunter’s superbly written 2005 autobiography (coauthored by Eddie Muller) Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, the actor wrote:
The intense one-on-one scenes with Van Heflin were my biggest thrill making ‘Gunman’s walk.’ To me, Van was the ultimate actor.
He completely disappeared into character , and everything he did was totally believable. Heflin confided to Hunter that his theatrical training was in the Delsarte system, a virtually forgotten discipline of gestures and movements created by the Parisian acting and singing teacher Francois Delsarte in the mid-nineteeth century.
It involved a whole set of rules coordinating the voice with the body, very rigid and stylized, and it seemed miles away from the easy naturalism that was Heflin’s stock and trade.
Hunter, never secure about his acting abilities, would ask Heflin to spend with him extra rehearsal time. He was so committed to the play, to everyone being good, he’d have taken as long as I wanted to get it right.
Believe me, not all actors are like that.