The classic era of film noir boasts a unparalleled hit parade of felonious backstabbers, ice cold torpedoes and all-around sociopathic S.O.B’s.It was as if the casting call for heavies in film noir focused on the hardest of hard cases, the yeggs that were just totally out of line.Even though these misanthropes had nothing coming, clearly a list of the best of the worst film noir heavies is overdue:
1. William Talman as “Dave Purvis” in Armored Car Robbery (1950)
Eight years before becoming television’s most inept District Attorney as Hamilton Burger in Perry Mason, William Talman cast an ominous presence in noir. He was odiously memorable in Armored Car Robbery, one of the best “B” movies ever made, going toe-to-toe with relentless copper Charlie McGraw before losing his cash (and head) somewhere on the Van Nuys Airport tarmac. Sinister looking, with curly-cue hair and flashbulb eyes, Talman took pleasure in double-crossing his heist partners, including murdering his girl friend’s husband (Douglas Fowley) who was inconveniently bleeding to death after being plugged by McGraw during the getaway. A man who disdains “loose ends”, Purvis becomes irked by the nuisance of emergent medical care. “All he gets is first aid!” snarls Talman, decidedly not a team player.
2. Robert Ryan as “Nick Scanlon” in The Racket (1951)
No other actor seethed with more super-heated rage than Robert Ryan. While it is not unreasonable to believe that some of the anger might be genuine because Howard Hughes compelled both Ryan and Robert Mitchum to co-star in this mediocre remake; this would be a bum rap. For Ryan, the quality of the material never dimmed the incandescence of his performance. His portrayal of Nick Scanlon is a transfixing send-up of a hands-on rackets boss (he enforces discipline by beating the crap out of his own bodyguard) with an inferiority complex. The vulnerability that fuels his ire is a worthless little brother (Brett King). “I had to buy him a chair at two different universities…” Ryan rages while pacing his carpeted penthouse before pausing to drop-kick a recliner exclaiming: “No, not that kind!” Ryan also clips off one of my favorite ripostes while fulminating at a corruptly impotent D.A. (Ray Collins) and his sidekick (William Conrad) over being jugged for murder: “Who do you think you’re dealing with? I was running this town when you two cheap jerks were eating in diners.”
3. Ted de Corsia as Willie Garzah in The Naked City (1948)
The Naked City might get more votes as a police procedural instead of film noir; however all of the darkness in this legendary flick is courtesy of Ted de Corsia. De Corsia was the visual template of the 20th century urban gangster; you could put his photo in a pre-school picture book between the cow and the cat with a label underneath his mug that read MOBSTER and all the kiddies would laugh and nod. Aside from resembling a protégé of Albert Anastasia, de Corsia possessed a thick Brooklyn baritone leavened by a continuous chain of Camels. During the first reel, Ted chloroforms a woman before drowning her in a bathtub then saps his drunken partner and dumps him in the East River with a perverse moral intonation: “Liquor is bad for your character…” Before his memorable swan dive off of the Williamsburg Bridge, there was time for more mayhem including shooting a blind man’s guide dog. There is something queasy about observing a perspiring De Corsia in a yellowed t-shirt performing calisthenics in a Spartan tenement walk-up that is reminiscent of a long-forgotten, perverse gym teacher from a New Jersey high school. While there are million stories in The Naked City, only Willie Garzah exuded an aroma of evil that would have pegged a smell-o-vision meter.
4. Charles McGraw as Moxie in T-Men (1947)
Charles McGraw possessed Hollywood’s most unrelenting profile that was complemented by a voice akin to toll road gravel mixed with inert material. Mark Hellinger initially exposed post war audiences to McGraw in The Killers (1946). Film noir and Charlie proved to be a perfect match as McGraw was able to forego part-time employment as a pinsetter at Sunset Lanes and forge a legitimate movie acting career alternately playing heavies or cops. From the opening moments of T-Men with a close-up of McGraw’s chiseled mug looming out of a doorway, it is clear that this was a unique performer who raised the bar for cinematic ruthlessness. “Moxie” was an appropriate handle. Charlie didn’t give anything up as a bad job from bending back Dennis O’Keefe’s fingers to obtain information, scalding Wallace Ford to death by locking him in a Turkish bath and cold-bloodedly executing Alfred Ryder. It was the casual manner with which McGraw went about his business, shaving in the same hotel room right after he murders Ryder that made his portrayal so unnerving. It somehow doesn’t quite square with Charlie’s eventual demise in this picture. How does one reconcile such panoply of mayhem with a conventional gut-shooting on the deck of a ship? No wonder the Breen Office had such a hard time doing their job.
5. Hope Emerson as Evelyn Harper in Caged (1950)
Caged might have been a film noir version of a woman’s picture, but Hope Emerson was a non-gender specific nightmare. Amazonian at six feet tall and weighing in at over fifteen stone, Evelyn Harper is preeminent as a sadistic matron (“You want to know how this place should be run?” “With a piece of rubber hose…”) who solicits bribes, beats prisoners and, in a shocking sequence, shears off star Eleanor Parker’s hair. It was the added touches of embellishment to Emerson’s character that burnished her sadistic forays into something much more sinister. The racket of dispensing goodies to cons that could pay the freight, a bottle of hooch stashed under the mattress, the obsessive gobbling of chocolates and the use of political chicanery to undermine straight-arrow warden Agnes Moorehead. Harper even struts into her charges ‘bullpen”, grotesquely dolled up, to gloat about her latest boyfriend’s car (“Must be a truck, sniffs one con). Emerson’s performance in Caged received a Best Supporting Actress nod but she lost out to Josephine Hull in Harvey for God’s sake. There is no justice in noir, baby.
6. Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum in Ace in the Hole (1951)
Kirk Douglas was born to play Chuck Tatum. Insatiably ambitious to the exclusion of anything else, everyone in Tatum’s orbit is quickly overwhelmed by his chutzpah or simply steamrolled flat. There are interesting parallels between this ruthless newspaper reporter exiled to a backwater Albuquerque daily who obsesses about a triumphal return to his New York newsroom haven, replete with pastrami on rye and Yankee Stadium box seats, and the authentic Kirk Douglas who, by many accounts, was quite a piece of work back in the day. In stumbling upon a man trapped in a New Mexico cliff dwelling and inflating it into a global extravaganza complete with live news coverage, Ferris wheels and a corrupt sheriff, Tatum allows nothing to come between him and ambition until it is too late. When the trapped man’s venal wife (Jan Sterling) comes on to him, he slaps her across the face and spits out; “…get rid of that smile and wash your face… go peddle your hamburgers.” Everything, even a quickie in the backroom of a roadside diner with the victim’s spouse, becomes secondary to Tatum’s Ahab-like quest for professional redemption. Douglas’ performance is a remarkable tour de force, eclipsing similar characterizations in Champion and Detective Story. Someone who knew Kirk Douglas during this period opined to me once that the relentless movie star could be, “a hard guy to like”. Just so is Chuck Tatum.
7. Neville Brand as Chester in D.O.A. (1950)
There have been so many cinematic psychos since the classic noir period that it is quite a chore to remember the actors who made it up. In D.O.A., Neville Brand plumbed frigid depths never seen before on the big screen. In addition to having a mug designed for cinematic sociopathy, Brand’s characterization was more than brutally unsettling. In kidnapping Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) for a sinister criminal, Majak (Luther Adler), it becomes readily apparent that Chester is not only vicious, but mentally ill. “Aww, soft in the belly, can’t take it…” Brand iteratively intones this mantra in baby-speak that he punctuates by thrusting a .45 automatic into Bigelow’s stomach. Luther Adler ends up apologizing for Chester’s shortcomings before sentencing O’Brien to death: “He’s an unfortunate boy. He’s psychopathic… he must see blood… I am sorry, Mr. Bigelow…” Neville Brand was genuinely haunted by close combat while in the Army in during World War II; the actor was decorated with the Silver Star among other medals. Brand became a Jekyll & Hyde alcoholic who charmed intimates and co-workers with his intellectual prowess- he was a voracious reader-and skilled acting, but was also a terrifying drunk. Neville Brand’s eyes in D.O.A. conveyed a harrowing cinematic nuttiness, but it is genuinely sobering to contemplate the actual demons that resided within.
8. Lawrence Tierney as Sam Wild in Born To Kill (1947)
During the decades after Dillinger (1945), Lawrence Tierney’s legendary temper, liberally doused with booze, transformed him into a scary head case who brawled his way out of acting into hard scrabble survival work as a bartender and hansom driver. Tierney stories were not unfounded gossip; Larry had the knife scars and lengthy arrest sheet to back up the tales. His portrayal in Born to Kill was the perfect doppelganger for an authentic Tinseltown buccaneer. Sam Wild was a paranoid, cold blooded bastard who serially murders out of the sheer pique of being inconvenienced. In a movie where all of the characters are either sociopathic or dysfunctional, Tierney more than meets his match in socialite wannabe Claire Trevor. This most perverse couple share a memorable scene together where they get sexually turned on recalling a senseless murder that opens the picture. Wild’s factotum, Elisha Cook Jr. attempts reason by scolding, “Sam, you just can’t go around killing people, it’s not feasible”, as if his pal breached social etiquette by reaching across the dinner table for a salt shaker. Wild immediately fires back: “No one cuts in on me”. So much for rehabilitation. Hollywood’s version of Lazarus, Lawrence Tierney would find professional redemption as an actor beginning in the 1980’s. Sam Wild was not so fortunate.
9. Raymond Burr as Rick Coyle in Raw Deal (1948)
In a letter to the producers of Raw Deal, Production Code Chief Joseph I. Breen wrote that “…we specifically object to the Rick Coyle character using fire as a sexual stimulant . . . ” How much footage, if any, that Edward Small and Anthony Mann had to trim from Raymond Burr’s performance to earn their picture the MCA code stamp is unknown, but it doesn’t appear to be a more than a tad. Rick Coyle is a double-edged sword of deceit and cowardice, a gang leader who rules his minions through bonds of dread. Whether flicking his lighter under an associate’s earlobe, throwing a flaming Cherries Jubilee into a girl’s face who spills a drink on him or setting up Dennis O’Keefe to get killed in a jail breakout, Burr conveys an undiluted evil that few actors, if any, have yet equaled. Whether Burr deliberately piled on the tonnage to obtain gigs as a crime drama heavy or simply was struggling with a life long weight problem, his Raw Deal portrayal is a hugely visual presence. Swathed in a smoking jacket the size of a tent and with enormously long shoulders worthy of Phil Jackson, Burr was photographed by John Alton from a floor camera angle upwards ( re: Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon) with the actor appearing as a veritable parade blimp of odious sadism. Raymond Burr would eventually trim down and become memorialized on television as Perry Mason and Ironside, but no actor was ever better at playing the film noir heavy . . . (Desperate, Pitfall, Red Light among others) . . . literally.
10. Hume Cronyn as Captain Munsey in Brute Force (1947)
Hume Cronyn was by all accounts, a charming man, and not a performer easily associated with film noir heavies or villainous characters. The actor’s congenial presence renders his extraordinary performance as the authoritarian prison sadist in Jules Dassin’s Brute Force all the more remarkable. Captain Munsey is straight out of Auschwitz finishing school, (The Nuremberg Trials were in session during preproduction of Brute Force and the parallels are obvious) consigning prisoners to “the drainpipe”, driving a convict (Whit Bissell) to suicide by lying to him about his wife and beating a handcuffed Sam Levene with a grimy rubber hose accompanied by strains of Wagner while tidily washing his hands before and afterwards. More than ruthless ambition is at work within Munsey. Although he pursues a bureaucratic coup to undermine the hopelessly inept warden (Roman Bohnen), the alcoholic prison doctor (Art Smith) has Munsey correctly pegged as a pure sadist: “Where else would you have so many helpless flies to stick pins into…” Cronyn’s character finally lets his mask drop when he responds to Smith’s drunken pieties: “Authority, cleverness, imagination… these are the real differences that separate men” One visualizes the future Warden Munsey adopting a selection process with the prisoners akin to Dr. Mengele. When Burt Lancaster consigns Munsey to the prison version of the Pit, a muted, but spontaneous cheer arises from within the gut of the audience. Hume Cronyn’s performance in Brute Force is the personification of pure evil.
and lest we forget….
Mildred Dunnock, a wheelchair, phone cord and set of tenement stairs launched one of the more distinguished of 20th century movie actors in Kiss of Death (1947). Did Richard Widmark ever wonder if he could have patented his giggle?