Audrey Totter’s tough as nails persona radiated through the screen. Starting as a radio actor in Chicago and New York, she became a respected film actor with a searing gaze that was perfect for the film noir popular at the time.
She signed a seven-year contract with MGM and appeared in a slew of hardboiled movies. In Lady in the Lake (1947), she plays the icy but vulnerable Miss Fromsett. Director and co-star Robert Montgomery employed experimental and difficult techniques.
The camera gives us first person point-of-view of Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe. This required the actors to look directly into the camera and no one could have done it better than Totter. Montgomery said he cast her for her experience acting opposite an inanimate recording equipment from her radio days. When she glares back at the lens, the effect is chilling. Though it pushed filmmaking boundaries, it wasn’t a box office smash. But I really like it, and if you have never seen it, it is well worth watching.
Totter returned to familiar territory with The Unsuspected (1947) with Claude Rains (just off the Hitchcock hit Notorious). The murder mystery is set around a popular radio show host.
Memory, psychiatry and film noir meet in High Wall (1947) with Robert Taylor. The Set-Up (1948) is a realistic, gritty boxing crime drama directed by Robert Wise.
As the femme fatale character she cemented fell out of fashion, she met her husband. Dr. Leo Fred was the assistant dean of the school of medicine at UCLA. She transitioned back to radio acting and television appearances and then mostly into retirement. The two were married until his death in 1995.
When her movies starting being shown on cable and studied by film students, she was amused by the renewed attention. In 2000, she told an interviewer:
For years nobody bothered with me – didn’t know who I was, didn’t care,” she said. “Now I’m recognised on the street. It’s an amazing turn of events… I’ve always been fond of Lady in the Lake, Alias Nick Beal, The Set-Up and Tension. They were I suppose, B movies when the studios put all their energy into the costume pictures, the big musicals. Now it turns out that people look at these Bs far more than the big musicals. There’s a whole cult around them… Who knew these movies would be so popular 50 years later?
Totter died in 2013 at age 95. Thankfully, a number of her best films will be shown on Turner Classic Movies on August 6.
View the entire Summer Under the Stars schedule.
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Each year, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) fills their programming calendar with days, and nights, devoted to a single classic film star. During August, I’m going to highlight some of the stars, and their work, that I think shouldn’t be missed.