One of film noir’s most defining actors, Gloria Grahame brought her femme fatale characters a raw, vulnerable sensuality. She was not simply pretty. Her glamour and sexuality hid surprising, unexpected emotional registers. Her bad girls were human. Her characters were smart, daring, warm. I can never quite figure out Gloria Grahame on screen. Isn’t this one of those qualities that make you want to watch a film over and over again?
I have gathered here six of Gloria Grahame’s best performances, all in noir films, benefitting from François Truffaut’s assistance – he wrote often about her and it is easy to see that he had an affinity for her. “The beautiful eyes of Gloria Grahame make you die of love, then wait a little longer, until another movie is released.” That kind of screen magnetism is lost today.
In A Lonely Place (1950), directed by Nicholas Ray
Nicholas Ray pursued a strong narrative and visually overwhelming obsession in his film-making, which was very much against the Hollywood studio system, and this was most obvious with the films Knock on Any Door (1949) and In A Lonely Place (1950). François Truffaut named them Ray’s masterful films. And it was with these two films that Ray definitely made Humphrey Bogart the appealing hero, much more than an actor, a personality. Bogart wanted Lauren Bacall for the female lead in In A Lonely Place, but Warner refused to release her from her contract. Gloria Grahame was given the part instead and she excelled in the role, probably her best acting performance.
Grahame plays no femme fatale in A Lonely Place. She’s not the one who brings to Dix his doomed fate, as it often happens in noir films. She is the right kind of woman, the only one capable of taking him out his darkness. The fact that she fails, the profound breaking-apart at the end is what gives the film its long life and one of most haunting endings in the history of cinema. Nicholas Ray did not want to make Dix the murderer, as it turns out in Dorothy B. Hughes’ novel, where the character strangles Laurel to death in the climax scene. Ray’s vision paid off: the ending is actually bleaker in that it doesn’t matter that Dix is innocent, but that he could easily not be. “I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. Romances don’t have to end that way. Marriages don’t have to end that way. They don’t have to end in violence,” the director argued. A broken heart can be the worst kind of ending though. “Whether you’ve had your heart broken, or broken somebody else’s heart, Ray has here made room for every heart to relate to this film’s haunting outcome,” F.X. Feeney concludes in the book Film Noir: 100 All-Time Favorites.
Laurel Gray is Dix’s beautiful new neighbour, a failed actress, who seems to have a great influence on him. “She’s not coy or cute or corny. She’s a good guy, I’m glad she’s on my side,” says Dix of her. Now that’s a compliment I would take any day. She is his match. Cool and composed, she strides down the courtyard in a straight-lined skirt and turtleneck – simple, stylish, yet revealing a buttoned-up, controlled character. I have always admired the subtle, yet optimum effect of Gloria’s costumes in this film. In fact, every piece of clothing she wears (designed by Jean Louis) is buttoned up, from rollernecks, to even an evening gown and her fur-cuffed robe. Because she isn’t in control after all, and whatever hopes and dreams Steele and Laurel might have had, they are crushed too soon and too radically.
Crossfire (1947), directed by Edward Dmytryk
The film addressed racial discrimination and anti-semitism, one of the first Hollywood movies to do so. Most of Dmytryk’s noirs are psychological noirs. Gloria Grahame earned her first Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Ginny, a drinking dance hall hostess who holds the answer to a key alibi. Her presence on screen was succint, but it was the first time she portrayed a shadowy woman of questionable morality in an atmospheric noir. “It is permissible to have forgotten Crossfire,” Truffaut would write, “but not a young blond woman who was better than an intelligent extra. As a prostitute, she danced in a courtyard. Even professional critics noticed the dancer.” Truffaut might have dismissed Crossfire, but it was a film that showed that film noir is defined not just by design, cinematography and presentation, but especially by themes, issues and characters, and was the first so-called B-movie to be nominated for best picture at the Oscars.
The Big Heat (1953), directed by Fritz Lang
“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better.” Debbie Marsch
It is one of my favourite and one of the best all-time noir films, and it gets better as it unreels. On her first collaboration with Fritz Lang (and the first time she teamed-up with Glenn Ford in a Lang film), Gloria Grahame plays Debby Marsh, whose goal in life is to get a fur coat. Her Jean Louis costumes show that she has reached her aim. But not without consequences. She finds herself the victim of her gangster boyfriend (Lee Marvin), who sadistically throws a pot of boiling coffee in her face, believing her to be an informant to the police. “One of the definitive figures in the Lang universe, and she stands sanctified as the most hieratic of Lang’s American heroines,” Richard T. Jameson remarks in the book Film Noir: The Directors. One thing that set Grahame apart from other actresses was her willingness to go there — to show the ugly parts of life, physical or otherwise. In The Big Heat, she goes all the way.
In an interview with Silver Screen, Grahame once said, “I dote on death scenes, or any kind of Spillane-type manhandling, because it is those scenes which linger in an audience’s memory. I don’t want to be typed as a woman with a face nice enough to look at, but I am interested in roles that sometimes turn a cinema-goer away in horror. So I didn’t mind having my face horribly scarred because my gangster boyfriend threw a pot of boiling coffee over me. Being glamorous in movie roles all the time is not only artificial but horribly monotonous… So far, no one has offered me the role of the Hunchback of the Notre Dame. Believe me, I’m the girl who would play it.”
Human Desire (1954), directed by Fritz Lang
“It seems that Jean Renoir and Fritz Lang had in common a taste for the same theme: an old husband, a young wife, a lover (La chienne, La Bête humaine, The Woman on the Beach for Renoir; Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window, Human Desire for Lang). They also have in common a predilection for catlike actresses, feline heroines. Gloria Grahame is the perfect American replica of Simone Simon,” writes François Truffaut in his book, The Films in My Life.
Human Desire is the second screen adaptation of Émile Zola’s novel, after Renoir’s great La bête humaine. I am not considering it a remake, because I believe this is one of those films which should be considered on its own, not in relation to previous adaptations. Because it is a good noir – actually I loved it more now, the second time I watched it, than the first time around. Lang’s noir has a spare, uncompromising visual style and direction reminiscent of his German expressionism period. Grahame plays Vicki Buckley, the persecuted wife of brutal and insanely jealous railroad courtyard boss Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford). She is classic scheming femme fatale, one of the closest to classic femme fatale that she played in noirs. But even here, her character touches other sides, too, as she is not only seductive pretty blonde and conniving temptress, but also lady in distress, disturbed and abused wife. Trailing on Truffaut’s comparison between Simone Simon and Gloria Grahame, Grahame is more devious, more rotten and more desirable, but also more human than Simon. That’s because we like Vicki in the beginning. Whatever her past, she’s left that behind when she married, and it is her husband who forces it on her again and pushes her towards the dark side of the tracks. And when she meets Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford), she seethes with desire and lust and she is prepared to do something about it – “You’ve killed before, haven’t you?”. She is more than good at being bad.
Naked Alibi (1954), directed by Jerry Hopper
Naked Alibi “perfectly corresponds to the need for a drug that any lover of American films irresistibly experiences,” wrote Truffaut. Much of the narcotic allure of this hard-hitting B-noir about two relentless and ruthless characters, on each side of the law – a virtuous police officer (Sterling Hayden as Joe Conroy) who conducts an investigation of his own to catch a vicious thug and cop killer (Gene Barry as Al Willis) – is due to Grahame’s magnetic performance as Willis’ bar-singer mistress, Marianna.
In the hands of another actress, this part could easily have been a fill-in role, but with Gloria, the film seems to rearrange itself around her. Dressed in a revealing lingerie dress (gowns by Rosemary Odell), Marianna performs a sexy number that rivals that of Rita Hayworth in Gilda. When she realises Willis has been two-timing her, she throws in her lot with Conroy on Willis’ tail.
Sudden Fear (1952), directed by David Miller
In his early film criticism, Truffaut said that outside of two short sequences in Sudden Fear, “there is not a shot in this film that isn’t necessary to its dramatic progression. Not a shot, either, that isn’t fascinating and doesn’t make us think it’s a masterpiece of cinema.”
“Gloria Grahame’s acting is all in correspondence between cheeks and looks. You can’t analyze it, but you can observe it,” the same Truffaut would write about the American actress in Sudden Fear. Grahame is Irene Neves, the ruthless old flame of Lester Blaine (Jack Palance), the gold-digging husband of playwright Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford). But unlike in Human Desire, Grahame brings no edge of wounded vulnerability to her part here. She is unquestably cruel, greedy, venal, unremorseful in plotting against her lover’s wife. First seen in veiled virginal white and then in vampish black (costumes by Sheila O’Brien), Grahame reeks of malevolence, even while scheming murder on a dictaphone disc. This noir is largely remembered because of Joan Crawford, but I disagree. There are many attributes Sudden Fear has: Hitchcock-style suspense, it’s directed and photographed to great effect, and, as Truffaut argued, it has “an ingenious screenplay with a fine strictness, a set more than respectable, the face of Gloria Grahame and that street of Frisco whose slope is so steep”. Indeed, San Francisco was made for film noir. And so was Gloria Grahame.
photos: 1,2- Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in A Lonely Place, 1950 (Columbia Pictures, Santana Pictures) / 3-Gloria Grahame and Jacqueline White in Crossfire, 1947 (RKO) / 4-Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat, 1953 (Columbia Pictures) / 5-Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford in Human Desire, 1954 (Columbia Pictures) / 6-Gloria Grahame and Sterling Hayden in Naked Alibi, 1954 (Universal Pictures) / 7-Gloria Grahame and Jack Palance in Sudden Fear, 1952 (Joseph Kaufmann Productions)