Noirvember Day 25: Opposites in Noir

— Audrey Totter was destined to be a star.

One of my favorite Audrey Totter performances is in The Set-Up, where she plays the uber-supportive wife of an aging boxer. Another favorite Totter role is in Tension; there, she’s a perfectly awful wife who doesn’t give a second thought to stepping out on her milquetoast husband (and worse!). Both films were released in 1949, and both are solid films noir, but the parts that Totter played in each could not be more different; they’re virtual opposites, if you will.. And it’s Totter and these two roles who are the focus of today’s Noirvember post.

Born in Joliet, Illinois, on December 20, 1918, Totter was one of five children of a streetcar conductor from Vienna, and his wife, a native of Sweden. She was determined from an early age to pursue an acting career and she excelled at mimicry as a youngster, quickly learning to imitate the accents of her parents (and sometimes earning a spanking for her accuracy). Her decision to perform was confirmed at the age of 12 when she was enthralled by the performances at a visiting circus. “Of course, later, MGM publicity changed this to read that I ran away as a child and joined the circus,” Totter said in a 1988 interview in Films in Review. Although the tale of Totter packing “a comb and a few undies in a scarf and heading for the big top” was fiction, it can’t be denied that the youngster was bound for Hollywood. “My mother wanted to make me into a home girl,” she said years later, “but I knew I was destined to be a star.”

In 1944, Totter signed with MGM at a salary of $300 a week. She was seen in her first film noir two years later – The Postman Always Rings Twice – followed by three more noirs in the next two years: Lady in the Lake (1946), The Unsuspected (1947), and The High Wall (1947). Her final two noirs were The Set-Up and Tension.

The Set-Up

— Julie tears her ticket into shreds.

Based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March, the action in The Set-Up takes place during a single night at Paradise City, where boxing matches are held. One of the boxers on the schedule is Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan), who is nearing the end of a not-so-stellar career. He feels confident that he’ll win his upcoming match, but what he doesn’t know is that his manager (George Tobias) has accepted a payoff from a local gangster to ensure that Stoker will lose. Meanwhile, as Stoker prepares for the evening’s bout, his wife, Julie (Totter) is expressing her increasing unhappiness: “It ain’t I want to hurt you, but what kind of life is this?” she asks. “It makes no difference to me if you go back to the docks, or drive a garbage truck, or go on relief, even. It’s better than having you with your brains knocked out. It’s better than having you dead.” Despite her misgivings, Julie always attends Stoker’s matches, and always sits in the same seat, where Stoker expects to see her from the boxing ring. But not this night. Julie spends this night walking, thinking, pondering whether she wants to – or even can — continue to support Stoker in his unsuccessful endeavor. It’s clear that she loves Stoker, that she has struggled through years of hard times with him, that she has devoted her life to championing his dream. But on this night, as she tears up her ticket to the match and tosses it in the path of an oncoming train, it’s also clear that Julie has had enough. She couldn’t know, when she made the decision to stay away from Paradise City, that the night would end in a kind of victory for both her husband and herself.


— Claire is not here to play.

Next up, in Tension, Totter plays Claire Quimby, whose husband Warren (Richard Basehart) is the bespectacled, unassuming night manager of a drug store. Bored with her devoted but humdrum mate and frustrated with their modest lifestyle (which includes living over the store), Claire spends most of her nights stepping out with other men. She swipes pricey perfume from Warren’s store and doesn’t even try to hide her contempt for him – like on the day that Warren excitedly drives Claire to show her the new house he’s planning to purchase. Claire refuses to even emerge from the car, rudely drowning out Warren’s enthusiastic ravings by repeated honking the horn and telling him: “I think it’s a miserable spot. It’s 30 minutes from nowhere.” Finally, Claire narrows her sights on a single target: Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough), whose job as a liquor salesman pays for the kind of life Claire wants to lead – and she doesn’t bite her tongue when she tells Warren that she’s flying the coop: “I’ve got what I’m looking for and I’m gonna grab it while I’ve got the chance: a real man,” Claire tells Warren. “There’s nothing to talk about. It was different in San Diego – you were kind of cute in your uniform. You were full of laughs then. Well, you’re all laughed-out now.” But when Barney is murdered, Claire comes running back to Warren quicker than you can say “Jack Robinson” and relies on her feminine wiles when the police zero in on her as a suspect. The question is, will that be enough?

Although Audrey Totter doesn’t get the recognition these days that she deserves, one only needs to take a look at her vastly different performances in these two noirs to know that she unquestionably possessed a unique and versatile talent. If you’ve never seen her in these features, or it’s been a while since you watched them, do yourself a favor and give Audrey Totter a look. You’ll be glad you did.

And join me tomorrow for Day 26 of Noirvember!

~ by shadowsandsatin on November 25, 2022.

9 Responses to “Noirvember Day 25: Opposites in Noir”

  1. Great post! Audrey is the best – and well appreciated by Noir fans. She is so good in The Set Up, it’s a shame she was somewhat typecast. Also love her in Lady in the Lake.

  2. I’m sorry to skip your opinion of Totter in The Set-Up. It’s among those lauded noirs I haven’t yet seen and saved for special occasions, but agree she was impressive in Tension. One thing, though—her breakdown at the end when caught is splendidly acted: Her sudden crumpling into lost, pleading jelly is as superb as it is startling, given her previous brassy, brittle performance, but I wonder if she didn’t play Claire until then as TOO brassy, grasping, and grubbing for the good life, by which she means the idle life, really; the lazy life.

    That makes her guilt, apprehension, and collapse a short scene of superficial triumph, only. The bad girl gets her just desserts, no more satisfying than the cardboard bad guy getting a bullet in the guts in the final shootout.

    For all the time we spend in her company I would have liked the script and performance to offer more nuance to her character. People don’t become like Claire without prolonged, deep damage. Not that we needed flashbacks to a painful childhood or anything that silly, but something… haunting, rather than one more avaricious schmuck.

    There’s an interesting difference between scripts that give a character lines to chew the scenery with, versus lines a good actor gets to play with and suggest a history through. I enjoyed Tension, but it’s more the former than it is the latter.

    –fwiw, the introduction to Cyd Charisse’s character is a treat. A photographer giddily perched on two railings to get the desired view of her subject… no wonder Warren was smitten.

    –I also love the speed at which noir from the 40s and 50s sets up its stories. I recently caught two films co-starring the underrated and in spite of her impressive catalog, the rarely mentioned Ruth Roman: Tomorrow is Another Day (1951), and 5 Steps to Danger (1957) and was happily impressed with how they rip along, setting up complicated plots and characters in short order. Scripts must have been much thicker, then, getting mood through dialogue rather than painfully prolonged establishing shots and lingering on vistas and nonsense. Of course those earlier writers were raised on writing. I wonder if that’s the difference? Screenwriters now don’t seem to take much pleasure in language. What a pity.

    • I loved your insights on Tension, Blair. I love the sheer awfulness of Totter’s character, even without a backstory, but learning more about her certainly would have been interesting!

      Thank you for mentioning the Ruth Roman films. I like her a lot and I haven’t seen either of these. I am adding them to my watchlist right now.

  3. I’ve been looking forward to this post ever since you mentioned you were planning to give Audrey Totter the Noirvember treatment, and it didn’t disappoint!

    Audrey Totter was excellent in both pictures, showing a range that too often went unacknowledged. I read that she was the first choice for the female lead in THE KILLERS, but LADY IN THE LAKE ran long so MGM pitched Ava Gardner as a substitute, and a supernova was born…

    I’ve always wondered if Bob Montgomery’s decision to bail on MGM after they gave him carte blanche on LADY IN THE LAKE impacted Totter’s career. The studio was so desperate to keep him after Jimmy Stewart left, they acquiesced to all of his demands, and then he left anyway. They must’ve been steamed…

    • I had to cut a few planned ideas off my calendar for the month, but I was determined to do this Totter post. I was just fascinated by how different these two wives were, and how well she portrayed each.

      That’s an interesting question about Robert Montgomery’s action affecting Totter. Hmm . . .

      • I’m fascinated by the difference in the two wives, too! What range!! It reminds me a little of Virginia Mayo making WHITE HEAT and THE WEST POINT STORY in a little over a year’s time.

  4. I always thought Audrey Totter had the most expressive eyes. I haven’t seen much of her filmography, so thanks for recommending these 2 new-to-me titles!

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