Helen Walker: My Favorite Helens
One of the many unsung actresses of film noir is Helen Walker, who was seen in several features from the era, including Call Northside 777 (1948) and The Big Combo (1955). Although, sadly, Walker’s life off screen (including struggles with alcoholism, a car accident that resulted in the death of a serviceman, and a devastating house fire) often overshadowed her film work, she was a talented performer who earned a solid place in the annals of cinema.
My two favorite Helen Walker film noir performances are as Lilith in Nightmare Alley (1947) and as Irene in Impact (1949). Both were co-starring roles and relatively small, but they packed a wallop, making her – for me, at least – the most memorable character in the films. (Watch out for spoilers — you’ve been warned!)
We first see Walker in Nightmare Alley during a nightclub performance by Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power), a former carnie who has parlayed his considerable talents into a phony but upscale act as a mentalist. From her table, she stares at him intently, her eyes filled with a mixture of admiration and skepticism as “The Great Stanton” appears to read the minds of the club’s patrons. When she tries and fails to stump him, the expression on her face never changes, but her eyes seem to fairly burn with interest.
Walker plays a psychologist, Lilith Ritter, who is typified by her glacial beauty and professional demeanor. But it doesn’t take long for Stanton to get under her skin – when he discovers that she secretly tapes all of her sessions, she reacts with righteous anger, but before long the two are in cahoots, with Stan reaping significant financial rewards from information gleaned from Lilith’s stash of recordings.
But when Lilith’s subtle but very definite romantic advances are disregarded by Stanton (who actually doesn’t even seem to be aware of them), Lilith undergoes a scary transformation – bringing life to the adage about a woman scorned. As Stan’s carefully laid plans start to implode and he insists that Lilith has stolen his ill-gotten gains, Lilith puts her medical training to use as she calmly tells him that he is losing his mind. “Really, Mr. Carlisle – I hate to say this to you, but you simply must have hospital care. These hallucinations of yours – we can’t have you wandering about getting into trouble. Can we?” she asks with cold-as-steel concern. “Please, Mr. Carlisle, put yourself in my hands. You can trust me, absolutely.”
In Impact, Helen Walker played Irene Williams, another dame whose beauteous exterior masked a devious mind and vengeful heart. Our first glimpse of Irene is in a photograph on her husband’s office desk – she’s alone in the photo, slightly off-center, arms folded, unsmiling, clad in black and gazing coolly at something in the distance. Her husband’s nickname for her is “Duchess.” It all makes sense as the film unspools.
Irene at first seems to be as utterly devoted to her husband, Walt (Brian Donlevy), as he is to her – but when we first catch her lying to him about a toothache, and then spot the smile that never reaches her eyes when she says goodbye to him on the phone – well, we know that all is not as it appears.
One of my favorite scenes in Impact is a very brief few moments before Irene is visited for the first time by the police detective (Charles Coburn) investigating Walt’s “death.” When she gets the call that he is on his way, Irene scurries around the apartment, rapidly changing from street clothes to bed wrap. Just before she crosses the room to let the detective in, Irene pauses, pats her hair into place, straightens her sash, and lifts her chin slightly – as if she’s about to go into battle.
And battle she does. Irene ultimately winds up in jail for Walt’s murder, but when he turns up alive, it only takes her a few seconds to recover from the shock and go on the offensive. “You wait all these months to tell this story. You let me rot in this filthy jail. You let everybody believe you’re dead! Pretty convenient, wasn’t it? A dead man can’t be tried for murder.” And she goes on to create a fantastic lie that ends up with Walt being charged for the murder of Irene’s lover!
Unlike Dr. Lilith Ritter, though, Irene doesn’t come out on top – she’s eventually tripped up by her own handwriting and her penchant for putting personalized monograms on everything from handkerchiefs to shirt cuffs. But at least she goes down swinging. And she’s darn entertaining while she’s still on her feet.
Both Nightmare Alley and Impact can be found on DVD. Check ‘em out – and pay close attention to Helen Walker when you do!