Many actors in film like to play against type.  It shows , they believe, that they can really act and not just be a movie star.

Gene Tierney (there she is above) did it in 1945’s Leave Her to Heaven, portraying a murderess. And not just your garden variety murderess at that.

Tierney had always been coolly inscrutable onscreen. But there was no denying her stunning presence; she was gorgeous. (One of her admirers was a young John F. Kennedy.) She’d portrayed fallen women, sophisticated women, exotic beauties.

But in Leave It To Heaven she was beautiful as usual — and downright evil.

Death followed pretty much her every move in this melodrama. As Ellen Berent, a stylish newlywed given to psychotic jealousy, Tierney delivers one of the most chilling performances ever seen in film noir.  It frightens Frank to watch it even today.

Concerned that her new husband’s crippled younger brother is an emotional rival in her marriage, Tierney’s character invites the young man (Darryl Hickman) out for a swim in the lake.  From a rowboat, she observes him paddling into dangerously deep water. He soon is in trouble. She does nothing.

‘You’re not making very much progress, Danny,’ says Tierney without a trace of urgency or emotion, immovable in the rowboat.

As he sinks below the lake’s surface, struggling for his life, Ellen watches implacably from behind her fashionable sunglasses, writes Eddie Muller, author of Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. The scene is a lengthy one and is tough to watch.

Muller calls Tierney’s character the most deranged femme fatale ever.

In her memoirs, Tierney (who had more than her share of personal offscreen drama, subject for another blog) wrote that as much as any part she played onscreen, Ellen has meaning for me as a woman….She believed herself to be normal and worked at convincing her friends she was. Most emotionally disturbed people go through such a stage, the equivalent of an alcoholic hiding the bottle.

Concludes Muller: There was no precedent for the morbidity of these scenes (in Leave Her To Heaven), somehow made all the more malignant by the overripe lushness of (Oscar-winning) Leon Shamroy’s (Technicolor) cinematography.

And what about Judy Garland in Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) , portraying a Jewish woman who had been the victim of Nazi persecution? It garnered her an Academy Award nomination.

Judgement was one of four films Garland made before her death in 1969, and her fans still give her performance mixed reviews. “She was very bad,” writes British critic-writer David Thomson.

Bosley Crowther, longtime critic for The New York Times, was kinder, noting that she portrays “a fat young hausfrau — whom Judy Garland makes amazingly real — (who tells) a horrifying tale of trumped-up charges of “racial contamination” against an elderly Jew.

In any case, no  Over The Rainbow hopeful yearning here.


And then there is Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley, portraying a con artist.

Power was, of course, perhaps Hollywood’s most handsome leading man of the 1940’s, something the photo above (from Nightmare Alley) belies in spades.

His World War II military service, from 1942 to 1946 as a U.S.Marine Corps pilot, changed things. Power felt he now wanted to shift from handsome leading man to more “serious” parts, and take firmer control of his career.  By 1947 Power’s star clout allowed him to take an unexpectedly grim screen turn the lead in the classic film noir, Nightmare Alley. 

It was his most challenging role — that of a carnival hustler reduced to carnival freak, biting off the heads of chickens as “entertainment.” Power’s performance is mesmerizing, making (his character) one of the most compelling characters in all film noir,” wrote Eddie Muller in Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir.

Ok, Tierney, Garland and Power. These are certainly among the most prominent examples of major stars trying their hands at playing against type. No, we haven’t covered the full field by any stretch.

What are some of your favorites?

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