Thursday, December 21, 2017

Remembering Audrey Totter on her 100th Birthday

Several years ago I was out visiting San Francisco and JeniferS showed me a noir she knew I'd never seen, starring Richard Basehart, Cyd Charise and an actor she adored but with whom I was unfamiliar, Audrey Totter.  The movie was Tension, and it was all kinds of terrific.  But, yes, Jenifer was right, Audrey Totter was absolutely phenomenal in that movie, stealing focus in every scene.

December 20th marked the 100th birthday of Audrey Totter, born in Joliet, Illinois.  Ms. Totter passed a few years ago, but her films have found another life - particularly her noir work - as a new generation of devotees have taken to the genre.

Totter appears in a diverse body of movies, high and low budget, with co-stars everyone remembers like Claude Rains, or with folks who are best remembered by mid-century movie buffs.  She plays a central or lead role in many films, and supporting roles in others.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Totter has an incredible range.  You can throw her at anything and she can do it.  She's still undeniably a force on screen, but she also actually *acts*, and doesn't just play the same character in every film in which she appears.  Her intellectual doctor role in High Wall has nothing to do with her wild-dog gunfighter in The Woman They Almost Lynched.

In "The Unsuspected"

Totter did comedies and westerns, too, but is remembered as a noir femme fatale (although, arguably, she played the heroic female in many of these movies, with Alias Nick Beal using her ability to do both to great effect).  Later, she'd do television, including western and hospital series.  Those are harder to come by, so I can't say I've seen them.  But I have tried to watch as many of Totter's films as possible.  And she never disappoints.  Heck, her work in The Set-Up is downright heartbreaking.

Frankly, all of you should stop what you're doing and watch The Set-Up right now.  It's an early project by acclaimed director Robert Wise (who did everything from Sound of Music to Star Trek the Motion Picture) and co-stars Robert Ryan in a sort of perfect noir boxing movie.

In "The Woman They Almost Lynched"

The past few years I've developed a personal holiday tradition of watching Lady in the Lake, mostly starring Totter, although directed by Robert Montgomery and featuring his voice, the camera spends more time pondering Totter than any other subject as the movie was a novelty, shot from the POV of private detective Philip Marlowe.  So, in a way, Audrey Totter has also become part of my holiday tradition.  Go figure.

In "Lady in the Lake"
Not every star gets endless hagiography and, in part because she led a life that didn't lend itself to the tabloids, she is best remembered by movie fans for her work.  Totter semi-retired from acting circa 1980.  As I understand it, and from clips I've seen online, she was delighted to speak about her career and discussed her noir work with Eddie Muller.  In addition to some stellar performances on celluloid, she also left behind a family, including a granddaughter who does some work in the entertainment industry.

In "Tension"
I'm still very glad Jenifer introduced me to Ms. Totter's work, and I continue to enjoy catching her movies as they become available or I have a chance to see them.

Some films that are a little easier to get your hands on (but we'll recommend any one of her films):

  • Tension
  • The Unsuspected
  • The Set-Up
  • Lady in the Lake
  • Woman They Almost Lynched
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice (smaller part)

Happy 100th, Audrey.  And thanks for everything.


Copake home owner said...

Though I am writing four years after this piece came out, it seems - in no small part due to the continued attention placed on Totter by TCM’s Eddie Muller - it seems like Totter’s rediscovery has only increased since her hundredth birthday. She really had an extremely wide range of skills as an actress as the author indicates, and it is always a joy to behold her utilizing them in any film she is in. bravo, Ms. Totter, and thank you!

The League said...

Eddie Muller has done a tremendous job of putting the spotlight on so many actors, and I very much appreciate his efforts to point out the folks you may have otherwise missed. It doesn't hurt that he took notice and interviewed so many of these talents. I completely agree about Audrey Totter's range! Even as a single character in a film, she's capable of so much (and smart directors used that). And then you see her in a different film, and could not be more different. If you get a chance - watch "Alias Nick Beal". She gets to do a little of everything.