Day 20 of Noirvember: Neville Brand’s Road to Noir
Neville Brand was once told that his face looked as though the entire Russian Army had conducted a three-day battle on it in their mountain climbing boots. The actor with the craggy kisser and villainous reputation wasn’t offended.
“Guys like me will be around this town a lot longer than the pretty boys because we are . . . one of a kind,” he said. “We may produce nightmares instead of pleasant dreams, but we aren’t forgotten.”
A bonafide hero of World War II who waged and won a hard-fought battle against alcoholism, Brand was typed throughout his film and television career as a “heavy,” but was able to show his versatility in roles such as the kind-hearted guard in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and the loud-mouthed, good-hearted Texas Ranger in TV’s Laredo. But it is the roles that called for a gun in his hand and a sneer on his lips that stand out in the memory, and these were the roles that he played in his six films noirs: D.O.A. (1950), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), The Mob (1951), The Turning Point (1952), and Kansas City Confidential (1952).
Today’s Noirvember entry talks about Brand’s war years and the road he took to the realm of noir.
One of seven children, Neville Brand was born on August 13, 1920 (some sources say 1921), in Griswold, Iowa. His father, Leo, a bridge builder, moved the family to Kewanee, Illinois when Brand was seven and divorced his wife, Helen, a few years later. To help support his large family, Brand landed a series of jobs, including soda jerk, waiter, and shoe salesman.
“I even worked in a bookie joint,” he told a TV Guide reporter in 1966.
According to Brand’s Paramount Studio biography and other published reports, the future actor joined the First Ranger Battalion at the age of 16 and was one of only 99 survivors of a 3,000-man unit that fought at Dieppe, on the coast of France. There is no evidence that Brand was ever a member of the Rangers, however, and his brother, Bryce Brand, later said that “there was a lot they printed about Nev that wasn’t true.” Other sources state that Brand’s graduated from high school, entered the Illinois National Guard, and was later inducted into the U.S. Army. Regardless of his origins of service, it is a fact that Brand distinguished himself during World War II; among his many medals, he was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery during an encounter with German soldiers. When his unit came under a machine-gun attack from a hunting lodge being used as a German command post, Brand dodged the enemy fire, entered the lodge from a rear door, and sprayed the occupants with a Tommy gun.
“I must have flipped my lid,” Brand later said of his actions.
Shortly before the war’s end, in April 1945, Brand was felled by a gunshot to his upper right arm and nearly bled to death while penned by enemy fire. (“I knew I was dying,” he said in 1966. “It was a lovely feeling, like being half-loaded.”) After his rescue, Brand was awarded the Purple Heart, and received a series of other decorations, including the Good Conduct Medal, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the American Defense Service Ribbon, and the European/African/Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon with three Battle Stars. His honors earned him the status of the fourth most decorated soldier of World War II.
Following his honorable discharge from the Army, Brand got his first taste of acting with his appearance in a 1946 U.S. Army Signal Corps propaganda film, which featured another future star, Charlton Heston. After this experience, Brand took advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights to study acting in New York and began appearing in a series of off-Broadway plays, including Jean-Paul Satre’s The Victors. He was spotted in this production by Hollywood producer Harry Popkin, who gave Brand a small role in his picture, D.O.A. (1950) , which served as Brand’s foray into the world of film noir.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Join me tomorrow for Day 21 of Noirvember!