31 December 2013

Good-bye, 2013, Good-bye, Audrey Totter!


by Terence Faherty

Audrey Totter
Many superstitious people will breathe a sigh of relief tonight--or rather, tomorrow morning at 12:01 a.m., when 2013 heads west.  It takes with it the usual carload of movie celebrities, a few of whom will be honored at the Oscars in March.  A much more comprehensive tribute is currently airing on Turner Classic Movies.  Tucked away among the bigger names--Eleanor Parker, Joan Fontaine, Peter O'Toole, etc.--is one that resonated for me:  Audrey Totter.  She died on December 12 at age 96. 


Totter and Robert Taylor,
up to their necks in noir
Totter, an apple-cheeked blonde, was a femme fatale of film noir.  She wasn't in the class of Joan Bennett or Claire Trevor or Ava Gardner, stars who dipped a toe in noir.  Totter was more like Jane Greer, a contract-player-grade actress for whom the noir flowering of the late 1940s was a career high point.  Totter was in the original The Postman Always Rings Twice (though outshone by a luminous Lana Turner), The Unsuspected, The High Wall, and The Set-Up, to name a few.

My favorite Totter film is Lady in the Lake, perhaps the strangest of the Raymond Chandler adaptations--at least until Robert Altman happened along.  The film stars Robert Montgomery, who also directed, so he may be responsible for some of the strangeness.   Two of the odd features are relatively minor:  the movie is set at Christmastime (the opening credits feature carols and Christmas cards) and Philip Marlowe is both a P.I. and an aspiring writer.  (Everyone secretly wants to be a mystery writer, even characters in mysteries.)

The film's major oddity is that, for the bulk of its running time, the camera takes the place of Marlowe.  We see what he sees and only see Marlowe when he chances to look at a reflective surface.  Some sources claim that this gimmick was intended as a substitute for the distinctive first-person voice of the novel.  If so, it was an odd choice, as it did nothing to replicate Marlowe's voice that a simple voice-over couldn't have done better.  In fact, it makes the movie so static that it could be called a barely-movie.  It also put a lot of pressure on the supporting cast, who had to play directly to the camera.  Totter headed that group and so had most of the close-ups.  Luckily, she could handle them.

Totter from Lady in the Lake, Philip Marlowe (Robert
Montgomery) seen as hand (left) and reflection in the mirror 

Though not entirely successful, Lady in the Lake will be around for a while, in part because it's the novel's only film adaptation, in part because it was so experimental.  So Totter, who died during the Christmas season, will be seen in her prime amidst the trappings of Christmas for years to come.

Totter's death prompted a couple of thoughts.  One is that a life as long as hers makes the person in question seem almost like a time traveler.  Woodrow Wilson was president when she was born, an amazing thing.  Her Lake co-star, Robert Montgomery, who had a relatively long life for a World War II veteran, died in 1981, thirty-two years ago.  John Garfield, of Postman fame, who had a relatively short life (thirty-nine years), died in 1952, sixty-one years ago.  By his standards, Totter was granted two lifetimes and was eighteen years into a third.

The other thought is one more appropriate to this day, a day given over to life assessments and future dreams.  It is that any person working in a creative field, be it a femme fatale actress or a mystery writer, will be lucky to be remembered.  That person will be luckier still if his or her work lives on for a time.  My toast tonight will be that all of our best work will!     

7 comments:

janice Law said...

I certainly can second that! Happy New Year.

It's nice sometimes to see second tier writers and artists remembered, not only because that is where most of us belong, but because it is only out of the vast pool of work of varying quality that the great things emerge.

David Dean said...

Your toast is much appreciated, Terry. And Janice, your comment is right on the money.

A very happy, healthy, and productive New Year to all!

John Floyd said...

Terry, I always enjoy your discussions of the film trade. I look forward to many more in 2014.

Eve Fisher said...

Great article. I'll have to check out the original "Lady in the Lake".
Happy New Year to all!

Herschel Cozine said...

Audrey Totter reminded me in many ways of Veronica Lake. And for my money she was a better actress than Lana Turner. It is interesting how some actors and actresses resonate with the public and become superstars, while other, equally talented, live on the fringe. I suppose the studio system had something to do with this. Audrey deserved more "respect" than she got.

Keep those articles coming, Terry

Leigh Lundin said...

I hadn't known the name of Audrey Totter before. I often think of my grandmother who grew up in the horse-and-buggy era and yet lived to see a man landed on the moon. How wonderful is that!

Happy New Year, Terry and all!

Jeff Baker said...

Ray Bradbury wrote a story called "The Time Machine" which goes into much the same wondering about someone being like a time traveler over the years they have lived. It's collected in "R Is For Rocket," and probably a few other places. And Happy New Year!