The Dames of Film Noir
They were the dames. The dolls. The femmes fatales. The beautiful but deadly leading ladies of the shadowy, cynical, hard-boiled films noir of the 1940s and ‘50s. They made smoking look sexy and suggestive, and they could lure the toughest lug into their evil web with a flick of their wrist and a wave of their long curly tresses.
Jane Greer, Audrey Totter and Marie Windsor were three of the most popular film noir actresses who more than held their own opposite such tough guys as Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Robert Montgomery and Robert Taylor.
Greer, who was under contract to RKO, came to fame starring opposite Mitchum in the 1947 classic “Out of the Past” and reunited with him in 1949’s “The Big Steal.” Totter, who was under contract to MGM, got her big break in Montgomery’s 1946 Philip Marlowe thriller “Lady in the Lake.” She also starred in Robert Wise’s 1949 boxing film “The Set-Up,” John Berry’s underrated 1949 thriller “Tension” and 1952’s “Assignment: Paris.”
The MGM-based Windsor’s credits include the 1948 John Garfield classic “Force of Evil,” as well as 1952’s “The Narrow Margin” and Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 robbery thriller “The Killing.”
Some of these actresses’ best work is on view during Turner Classic Movies’ 94-film, two-month film noir festival, “Summer of Darkness,” which kicks off Friday with “The Maltese Falcon.”
Included in the festival are a series of original features, titled “Cruel Beauty: The Women of Film Noir,” hosted by Scott Glenn. Greer, Totter, Windsor and Coleen Gray (“Kansas City Confidential” and “The Sleeping City”) are featured in joint interviews about their film noir experiences.
Recently, the very spunky and funny Greer, 74; Totter, 80; and Windsor, 76, got together over lunch at the Turner offices in Century City to chat about their careers. Totter and Windsor--who uses a walker because of recent back surgery--have known each other from their MGM days. Both are also friends with Greer, whom they met later in their careers.
Greer begins the conversation by pointing out that at 18 she was ordered by her drama teacher to learn how to smoke for her film roles.
Question: That’s amazing. Can you imagine a teacher telling students to do that now?
Jane Greer: I said, “I don’t smoke.” She said, ‘You’re an actress. You have to learn to do it. If the director says light up a cigarette, what are you going to do?” So I learned to do it. I got dizzy the first couple of days every time I took a puff. But eventually I got over that and began to smoke. Unfortunately, I got hooked. I finally quit about seven years ago.
Audrey Totter: In radio where I started, actors didn’t smoke because of the voice. I just simply never did. When I got out here with MGM, the director said, “Fake it.” I never inhaled. It was a very rare thing not to smoke. Everybody in Hollywood did.
Q: Do you think roles for women were better when you were acting than they are now?
Totter: Men today have better roles, don’t you think?
Greer: They don’t write for women as much. They had wonderful writers [back then].
Totter: MGM had so many women stars--Greer Garson, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow. They wrote for them. They had big men stars, but it was usually the women who got the [top] billing.
Q: Was ageism as much of a problem as it is for women today?
Greer: Yes. I was amazed when someone put me in a picture when I was 30.
Totter: They dropped your option or sent you a script that you wouldn’t do and you would be on suspension. You were finished. When I was 34 I got married [and left movies]. That’s what I did.
Greer: It was worse in a way [at RKO]. I had just gotten my good parts, “Out of the Past” and some other pictures, when Howard Hughes bought the studio. We had been very friendly, but this man was absolutely obsessed with people. He never came into the studio at RKO. He never set foot in it. But he had an office at Goldwyn Studios. He sent for me. I said, “Howard, congratulations.” We chatted for a moment and then he said, “Are you happy with [then-husband Edward Lasker]?” He didn’t like Edward. I said, “Oh yes, we’re very happy and we have a little boy.” He said, “I’ll tell you one thing as long as I own the studio you won’t work.”
I said that will kill my career and he said, “Yeah, I guess it will.” I didn’t work for a long time. But fortunately, writer Ketti Frings came over with a script and said, “I’d like Jane Greer.” She raised hell and said, “I don’t think the stockholders would much like [the idea she can’t work].” When the word “stockholder” got to him, he immediately decided I would do the picture. It was “The Company She Keeps” with Lizbeth Scott.
Q: Ms. Greer, weren’t you pregnant when you were making “The Big Steal” with Robert Mitchum?
Greer: I was having a hard time. I was eating a lot of cottage cheese. [In the movie], I wore a bolero, a little tiny bolero, and a long skinny skirt to almost the calf. There was a little tie at the waist. Unfortunately, three-quarters of the picture I was in this outfit. Luckily, we were in the car [doing scenes] a lot, but I tell you, I still had to starve.
Q: Did you have any idea that these low-budget pictures you made would become such classics?
Windsor: Nobody knew they were going to be films noir. But we were aware of the picture being--at least from my point--shot in low light mostly, black and white, always, good parts and heavy stories.
Greer: They were great parts.
Totter: They weren’t in color, so they were considered B-movies. Now the wonderful great color movies [from that time], you don’t see them as much.
Q: Did you like the studio system?
Totter: I did. I don’t know about you girls.
Windsor: I did.
Totter: We were protected. We didn’t have to worry about anything.
Windsor: We got a lot of coaching.
Totter: We had the best cameramen. Even if it was a B-movie, you still had the wonderful clothes. We were treated extremely well. I would be lost today trying to make it alone.
Greer: Today they have [casting] calls and there are 40 women showing up for one part.
Totter: Besides, I don’t think I want to make movies today with the nudity. Maybe that’s because I’m 80! And the swearing, I wouldn’t like that. They are porno movies, I’m sorry, but that’s what they look like to me. I sound like an old crotchety grandma.
Q: Ms. Windsor, you starred in Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 classic “The Killing.” What was it like working for him?
Windsor: It was very exciting. You had to have respect for this kid and he was practically a kid. When I first went into his office, he had these wonderful charcoal drawings all around the room of every shot he would do in the picture. His then-wife was an artist and she had done all of these. So the picture went like clockwork. Lucien Ballard, who has a few Academy Awards under his belt, was the cameraman. But I often felt he must have resented Kubrick because Kubrick kept telling him how to do the show. He was up on the camera as much as Lucien. But Kubrick was a very quiet, very sweet guy. It was like he didn’t want to offend anybody and he didn’t speak loudly. He was a very nice man.
Totter: [In the scene] when you take that makeup off with a towel in front of the camera--your nude face was so beautiful, I couldn’t get over it. I thought, “What guts.”
Q: You are all retired, but would you still like to act if you got a chance?
Greer: Not if I can help it!
Windsor: I am at this dangerous age--pushing 80 as Audrey [Totter] talks about. I don’t think they write many parts for us.
Totter: And there aren’t many 80-year-olds left to play them!
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When to See the Femmes Fatales “Summer of Darkness” begins Friday on cable’s Turner Classic Movies at 5 p.m. with “The Maltese Falcon” and continues every Friday and Saturday evening through Aug. 28.
The festival features Audrey Totter in “Tension” on July 3, “The Set-Up” on July 10, “Lady in the Lake” on July 17 and “The High Wall” on Aug. 21; Jane Greer in “They Won’t Believe Me” on July 10 and “The Big Steal” on Aug. 14; and Marie Windsor in “The Narrow Margin” on Aug. 27 and “The Killing” on Aug. 28.