Film Noir Flashback: Audrey Totter Shines In ‘Tension’ & ‘Lady in the Lake’

Movie buffs may be familiar with such screen sirens as Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner or tough minded leading ladies Barbara Stanwyck, but lately I’ve been digging deeper into film noir’s rich history and have recently discovered an unforgettable actress: Audrey Totter.

The 95-year-old died December 2013 of congestive heart failure in West Hills, Ca.. It’s the city of my childhood, and if I knew of Totter’s work before her passing, maybe I would have tracked her down and requested an interview.

But that’s speculation. What’s actually real is Totter’s lasting impact on the film noirs of yesteryear.

Although she also had a successful run on the TV series Medical Center (as Nurse Wilcox), Totter’s cinematic forays were her calling card.

Audrey Totter in 'Lady inthe Lake' (Warner Bros.)
Audrey Totter in ‘Lady inthe Lake’ (Warner Bros.)

“We didn’t realize back then (the films) were as good as they were. I’ve always been fond of Lady in the Lake, Alias Nick Beal, The Set-Up, and Tension,” said Totter in Eddie Muller’s book Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir. “They were, I suppose, B movies, at a time when the studios put all their energy into the costume pictures, the big musicals. Now it turns out that people look at these B’s far more than the big musicals. There’s a whole cult around them, fans that love film noir, and run these pictures over and over.”

Here are two Audrey Totter pictures I’ll be running “over and over”:

LADY IN THE LAKE (1947)

Directed by and starring Robert Montgomery, Lady in the Lake (105 minutes) is a unique installment look at principled private eye Philip Marlowe, thanks to its subjective, point-of-view camera work from cinematographer Paul C. Vogel.

Marlowe (Montgomery) submits his mystery story “If I Should Die Before I Live” to a crime magazine, and publishing executive Adrienne Fromsett (Totter) takes an immediate liking to Marlowe. Even though Marlowe tries to play it cool with Fromsett by checking out her platinum blonde receptionist (Lila Leeds), Fromsette has Marlowe in her grips from get-go.

Knowing she’s not exactly a spring chicken, Adrienne Fromsett is determined to marry her boss, Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames), but first she hires Marlowe to find Kingsby’s missing wife. With the wife out of the way, our femme fatale can live happily ever after with the well to do Kingsby.

Though Montgomery plays Marlowe as a cranky private eye who’s exasperated with Fromsette’s schemes, a seeming damsel in distress is our hero’s Achilles heel. Fromsette, however, is not just a helpless, desperate lady or a subtle manipulator – she’s a little bit of everything. During the narrative’s final moments, we have no idea if Marlowe’s gamble to trust Fromsette is his winning hand or a fool’s bet – and Totter plays all of Fromsette’s shadings with inspired fervor.

Audrey Totter in 'Lady in the Lake' (Warner Bros.)
Audrey Totter in ‘Lady in the Lake’ (Warner Bros.)

Though Lady in the Lake is an initial must-see for the subjective camera work (Brian De Palma paid homage to Montgomery’s visual aesthetic during a sequence in The Black Dahlia), the picture’s most alluring special effect is Totter’s piercing eyes and scene stealing work (although it’s a Marlowe film, she’s the most memorable character in Lady in the Lake).

TENSION (1949)

Barry Sullivan & Audrey Totter in 'Tension' - (Warner Bros.)
Barry Sullivan & Audrey Totter in ‘Tension’ – (Warner Bros.)

I love underdogs, and it’s a total shame that Tension (95 minutes) isn’t as well known as Totter’s most signature films (Lady in the Lake and The Set-Up). Cinematographer Harry Stradling (he lensed the Alfred Hitchcock movies Suspicion and Mr. and Mrs. Smith), knows his way around light and shadows in this beautifully shot noir (the night scenes are particular standouts).

Audrey Totter is Claire Quimby, the disenchanted and materialistic wife of bespectacled pharmacist Warren Quimby (Richard Basehart). As Warren works himself to the bone to purchase his dream house in Culver City, Claire galavants around town with any guy that carries a fat wallet and owns a fancy car.

After Claire leaves Warren for a Malibu residing meathead named Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough, whose career would eventually effected by the Hollywood blacklist), Warren changes his meek ways and transforms himself into Paul Sothern, a traveling cosmetic salesman. With a fake identity in tow, Quimby plans to kill Barney and win his wife back in the process.

Upon landing an apartment in Westwood, Sothern/Quimby falls in love with kindhearted neighbor Mary Chanler (a subtly luminous Cyd Charisse), thus putting his murder operation in jeopardy.

Audrey Totter in 'Tension' - (Warner Bros.)
Audrey Totter in ‘Tension’ – (Warner Bros.)

Totter knocks this role out of the park, as Claire is a lady who’s looking out for number one. Whether it’s seducing a cop (Barry Sullivan, who also serves as the film’s opening narrator), cuckolding her puppy dog eyed hubby, or giving her latest lover the surprise of his life, Claire’s end goal is living in the lap of luxury (even if a few men die in the process).

It’s surprising that Tension director John Berry didn’t get a crack at more film noirs, as he has a confident command of the genre (his last film was the 2000 drama Boesman and Lena which starred Danny Glover and Angela Bassett).

Both Lady in the Lake and Tension are prime examples of Totter’s scenery stealing talent, and though I haven’t checked out High Wall and The Set-Up, I’m sure Totter delivers the goods.

Lady in the Lake is part of The Film Noir Classics Collection: Volume Three and Tension is part of a DVD double feature (along with the Robert Mitchum film Where Danger Lives) that can be purchased at WBshop.com and it’s also one of the films featured on The Film Noir Classics Collection: Volume Four.

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