Noirvember Day 12: Oscar-Worthy Noir

The 2023 Academy Awards ceremony will be broadcast four months from today, on March 12, 2023. I’ve been a fan of the Oscars from way back. I can’t remember when I first started watching it, but for more than 30 years, I’ve had a tradition before the show of watching my tape of “Oscar’s Greatest Moments,” and when my daughters were growing up, we would dress up in our finery every year and have an Oscar feast (always pizza!) before watching the broadcast together.

Part of the Oscar excitement is seeing screen stars receive much-deserved accolades for their performances. But for performers in classic film noir features, those accolades were few and far between – and that’s a real shame. So for today’s Noirvember post, I’m starting a new series by sharing four film noir performances that I believe should have been formally recognized as Oscar-worthy.

James Cagney: Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949)

A psychotic gangster characterized by debilitating headaches and an unusually close relationship with his mother, Cody Jarrett was not your garden variety hood. Cagney’s performance – in a career filled with memorable characterizations – was simply superb. From his callous (and somehow darkly humorous) murder of one of his henchmen, to his shocking reaction when he learns of the death of his mother, to his iconic sendoff atop an exploding gas tank, Cagney delivers every time.

Gloria Grahame: Debby Marsh in The Big Heat (1953)

As the martini-loving girlfriend of a sadistic gang member, Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), Debby is perfectly content with her life until she encounters police detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford). When she learns that Vince and his boss were responsible for the death of Bannion’s wife, her life is never the same. From Debby’s first appearance, Grahame manages to draw you in: her Debby is at first playful and flirty, shallow and irreverent, but she matures with the escalation of her experiences, which include a vicious facial scalding at the hands of Vince. By the film’s end, we see that she is insightful, compassionate, and brave – and the heart of the movie.

Elisha Cook, Jr.: George Peatty in The Killing (1956)

With appearances in classic noirs like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, Elisha Cook is always a standout, no matter the size of the part. But as George Peatty in The Killing, he’s a revelation. A member of a motley crew of gents who unite to pull off a racetrack heist, George’s sole motivation is to impress and appease his gold-digging wife, Sherry (Marie Windsor). To be sure, George is not altogether likable, but Cook elicits our sympathy as he’s browbeaten by his wife and disrespected by his colleagues – and when he gets his ultimate revenge, we’re completely on his side.

Jean Hagen: Doll Conovan in The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Doll is in love with Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a low-level hood involved in a high-level jewel heist. Although Dix often treats her with indifference, Doll is content to be near him – and it’s Doll who cares for him when the execution of the heist goes awry. Hagen plays her with a heart-wrenching pathos; in her first scene, she shares with Dix that she’s lost her job and is locked out of her room. When she breaks down in tears, her mascara running and her false eyelash dangling, we feel her humiliation and defeat, even as she tries to laugh her way through it. And later, as she draws on a seemingly bottomless well of courage and determination to get Dix back to his home in Kentucky, we feel that, too.

What noir performances do you think deserved an Oscar, but didn’t even merit a nomination? Leave a comment and let me know – I’m making a list . . .

~ by shadowsandsatin on November 12, 2022.

15 Responses to “Noirvember Day 12: Oscar-Worthy Noir”

  1. What terrific picks these all are. All four are very strong performances, but in a way I’m most drawn to Jean Hagen who makes Doll so endearing in her brokenness. My other nominating would be EGR in Scarlet Street whose performance of a man going from henpecked, to murder, and then to horrible despair is truly outstanding. I would love for all the world to find a role to nominate Dan Duryea who makes his characters memorable above what another actor could do with the same role. Maybe Too Late for Tears or Black Angel. I think part of the problem it’s no clear whether his characters are meant to be lead or supporting and so he falls in the cracks. But I think he turns supporting roles into dominant performances.

    • “ I would love for all the world to find a role to nominate Dan Duryea who makes his characters memorable above what another actor could do with the same role. Maybe Too Late for Tears or Black Angel. I think part of the problem it’s no clear whether his characters are meant to be lead or supporting and so he falls in the cracks. But I think he turns supporting roles into dominant performances.”

      Exactly! Thank you for this!!
      When it came to maximizing a role’s impact, Duryea could make a dollar out of 50 cents. I think all three leads gave award-caliber performances in SCARLET STREET. I’d rewatch but it tears chunks out of me every time… but I’ll probably hear Duryea whispering “lazy legs” in my ear all. day. long.

  2. “From Debby’s first appearance, Grahame manages to draw you in: her Debby is at first playful and flirty, shallow and irreverent, but she matures with the escalation of her experiences, which include a vicious facial scalding at the hands of Vince. By the film’s end, we see that she is insightful, compassionate, and brave – and the heart of the movie.”

    Amen, sister.

    I never understood why the Academy honored her for THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL instead of THE BIG HEAT….

    I second all the other nominees, and humbly submit Yvonne De Carlo in CRISS CROSS for consideration.

  3. “From Debby’s first appearance, Grahame manages to draw you in: her Debby is at first playful and flirty, shallow and irreverent, but she matures with the escalation of her experiences, which include a vicious facial scalding at the hands of Vince. By the film’s end, we see that she is insightful, compassionate, and brave – and the heart of the movie.“

    Amen, sister.

    I’ll never understand why the Academy honored her for THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL instead of THE BIG HEAT… And I will never get over Barbara Stanwyck in DOUBLE INDEMNITY losing to Ingrid Bergman in GASLIGHT…

    I second all the nominees, and humbly submit Yvonne De Carlo in CRISS CROSS for consideration.

    • I totally agree, Maudie — Grahame was adorable in TBATB, but in The Big Heat, she was a revelation. And I second your nominee in return — I loved De Carlo in Criss Cross. I think it’s the best performance of her career.

  4. Love your selections. Sad that both Gloria Grahame and Jean Hagen are unappreciated when they always enhanced films. Think of Ado Annie in Oklahoma and Lina Lamont in Singing in the Rain. Their little physicality additions that made their characterizations. Both were versatile not just in noir
    gammunyee

    • Thank you, Marian. I think that Jean Hagen is especially underrated and underappreciated — and you are so right about their versatility! Everybody couldn’t do everything — but these ladies sure could!

  5. Totally agree with these choices! Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat… what a performance.
    I also would have added Louis Calhern in The Asphalt Jungle and Richard Conte in The Big Combo.

    • Omigosh, Carol, these are perfect. First of all, if it had been up to me, Richard Conte would probably have won at least five Oscars — and I think his performance in Asphalt Jungle was the best of Calhern’s career. Great picks!

  6. Love these. Marilyn in Don’t Bother to Knock, and Linda Fiorentino in Last Seduction. John Payne for.. now I have to think which one of 3 or 4…!

    • These are both great — I’m trying to do a neo-noir post before Noirvember is over (not sure if I’ll make it). If I do, The Last Seduction is definitely on the last. I can’t understand why Linda Fiorentino didn’t become a star.

  7. Jean Hagen definitely deserved an Oscar nod. I love the way you described the scene where she’s lost her job AND is locked out of her room. It is a masterclass in acting.

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