Queens of Noir Series: Miss Claire Trevor

Warner Brothers Starlet Claire Trevor

She has been called the “granddam of noir” by none other than premier film noir historian Eddie Muller. The reason behind this designation is probably because Claire Trevor starred as the femme fatale in some of the best examples of the dark genre ever to come out of Hollywood.

Long before she earned this title, Claire Trevor (born Claire Wemlinger) grew up in New York City, the only child of a Fifth Avenue tailor and his wife. Always drawn to the arts, the young woman attended classes at Columbia and then spent half a year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Claire landed a contract with Warner Bros. at the age of twenty, after working in repertory and stock theater for a couple of years. Throughout the 1930s, the young actress starred in shorts and played hard-luck ladies in a string of B pictures at the studio best known for yanking its subject matter straight from the day’s headlines.

It wasn’t until the 1940s that Claire became the depraved female centerpiece in a succession of some of the finest film noir offerings to be put on a strip of celluloid, and with each new picture, lucky fans got to watch the actress stretch her acting muscles with ever-increasing skill until she inhabited each heart-stopping role completely.

Street of Chance (1942)

“I’m not bad. I’m not a killer.”

—Ruth Dillon

Claire’s first foray into film noir was the rather run-of-the-mill crime drama Street of Chance. Burgess Meredith co-stars as amnesia victim Frank Thompson, who wakes up in the middle of a construction site on a street he doesn’t know, eventually locating a wife he hasn’t lived with for over a year. Determined to find out why he is being followed, Frank goes back to the street named Chance and is recognized by a beautiful blonde (Trevor) who tells him to get the hell inside—doesn’t he realize that he is wanted by the cops? After discovering that he is wanted for the murder of the very social Harry Diedrich, Frank decides to go to the Diedrich estate to try and clear his name.

Turns out that Ruth Dillon, the beautiful blonde, works as a maid for the Diedrich family and doesn’t want to return to the scene of the crime, pleading with Frank to run away with her instead. While trading barbs with the murder victim’s brother and his wife, Frank discovers that Grandma Diedrich, mute and unable to move, is trapped in a claustrophobic room upstairs but knows “who done it.” After hiding in the family’s greenhouse for a couple of days, Frank develops a way of communicating with old Mrs. Diedrich and learns that Ruth is the killer! Pulling a gun on her boyfriend, the maid coolly lets him know that she knifed Harry to death because he caught her stealing money for the couple’s marriage nest egg. Like a host of other femme fatales before her, Ruth dies in her lover’s arms after a struggle for the gun.

As if finding her way around the role of Ruth Dillon, Trevor completely underplays the laconic murderess. With little of the fire that she brings to her later noir roles, Trevor seems to sleepwalk through this picture, displaying only a glimmer of the diamond hardness she would soon become famous for.

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

“I haven’t been good. Not halfway good, but I need your help.”

—Velma Valento/Helen Grayle

Based on Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely, this noir begins with detective Philip Marlowe’s search for a singing tootsie named Velma Valento. Signaling a successful career makeover for her co-star Dick Powell, Murder, My Sweet casts Claire as the thoroughly blonde Helen Grayle—a lady with a truly remarkable set of pins that go from “here” all the way into next week. Married to a wealthy and much older man, the icy Mrs. Grayle just happens to be the unlucky dame who claims that her priceless jade necklace was pinched, and Marlowe is hired to find it.

The always laconic Marlowe finds himself wading through dead bodies, hit over the head, drugged, and falling for Helen’s stepdaughter, Anne (earnestly portrayed by the pretty Anne Shirley). He soon uncovers a racket in which a likable but slithering psychic teams with thugs to separate well-heeled women from their jewels. To nobody’s surprise, Marlowe discovers that it’s the cool Mrs. Grayle who has been pulling the strings the whole time. Amthor, the psychic, has been blackmailing Helen Grayle, and she initially agrees to part with her necklace but ends up keeping it for herself, offing the guy who is supposed to retrieve it for her. After the man who has been searching for Helen accidentally kills her blackmailer, the resourceful lady pulls a gun on Marlowe because he knows too much, but ends up getting pumped full of led by her long-suffering husband instead. The ever-obliging Mr. Grayle knocks off his wife’s blackmailer only to get himself killed in a struggle for the gun. As sometimes happens in film noir, Anne and Marlowe ride off into the murky darkness.

To say that Trevor plays it cool in this one would be an understatement of gigantic proportions. One can almost hear the inner click of her steel-trap mind as she manipulates every man who is unfortunate enough to cross her path, but it is as the grasping Helen that Trevor comes into her own as a femme fatale. Unbelievably, the best was yet to come.

Born to Kill (1947)

“Most men are turnips.”

—Helen Brent

The cold-blooded Born to Kill is arguably one of the finest examples of film noir ever to hit the silver screen. In it, Trevor plays the always-knowing and rabidly selfish Helen Brent, a smart-as-a-whip dame who considers most men “turnips.” Her leading man for this outing is the high-strung bad boy Lawrence Tierney, who handles the role of the aptly named Sam Wilde as if he’s playing a schizophrenic game of Russian roulette.

After getting divorced in Reno, Helen discovers the mangled bodies of Sam’s girlfriend Laury (played ably in a marvelous star turn by character actress Isabel Jewell) and the boyfriend she’s been running around with just to make him jealous. Because reporting a double murder is always so messy, Helen wisely decides to leave town rather than inform the police. After meeting Sam on the train, Helen sees him as an “assured” man who knows what he wants—definitely not of the turnip variety, she reasons.

Unfortunately for Helen, her new love interest has a screw loose. Sam thinks it’s “feasible” to kill anyone who does him wrong for any reason. As a matter of fact, he’ll kill anyone who “makes a monkey” out of him. But the ever-resourceful Helen has a trick or two up her designer sleeve. She’s going to marry the owner of the Grover Steel Company. To this end, she returns to San Francisco and the comfort of her fiancé’s dependable arms.

Throwing a monkey wrench into her well-calculated existence, Wilde shows up on Helen’s doorstep, and she can only seethe while she watches Sam woo and then marry her wealthy stepsister, Georgia. Just to badger him, Helen accuses Sam of “having a secret.” Too late, the former Mrs. Brent realizes that Sam is the murderer of the couple in Reno and that she and Sam are kindred spirits.

Trevor attacks this role with all the steely aplomb of a Beverly Hills society matron planning a dinner party for a hundred. She is the ultimate cool customer when she meets with the dead Laury’s friend Mrs. Kraft in order to keep her from going to the police with her suspicions about Sam. “Perhaps you don’t realize,” Helen threatens icily, “it’s painful getting killed. A piece of metal sliding through your body…”

In order to save her bankbook and her soul, Helen runs back to her fiancé, Fred, but he’s had enough of her shenanigans and gives her the gate. Realizing that Sam doesn’t want her either, Helen coolly tries to get him to kill her stepsister, Georgia. But Sam turns on Helen when he figures out that she has squealed on him, and just to pay her back, he riddles her with bullets.

Raw Deal (1948)

“A girl can’t trust a guy—even when he’s locked up in the pen.”

—Pat Regan

Claire Trevor plays Pat Regan, a hard-luck dame who will do anything to keep her jailbird boyfriend in her arms, in RKO’s noir thriller Raw Deal, co-starring the incredibly likable Dennis O’Keefe, with pretty and sincere Marsha Hunt as the third point of their shaky love triangle.

While Pat assiduously works her underworld connections to get her man sprung from the big house, social worker Ann Martin (Hunt) is doing her best to get Joe Sullivan to cop to the error of his crooked ways and fly right. You see, Joe is in the slammer under false pretenses. He’s taking the rap for rotund mob boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr), who is doing everything he can to see to it that Joe goes six feet under.

Unable to listen to Ann’s oh-so-eloquent pleas, but attracted to her sweet prettiness just the same, Joe follows Pat’s lead and escapes stir only to find that he’s on the run from not just the cops but his former boss as well. The usual “on the lam” scenario unfolds as Pat and Joe find themselves escaping with the hapless Ann in tow because they need her set of wheels. Pat finds Ann’s insipid begging for Joe to go straight nauseating, to say the least, and one gets the idea that Trevor’s version of the character would happily push her competition down a bottomless ravine in a heartbeat. Indeed, Trevor gives the impression that Pat is completely without sympathy for anybody but Joe. After all, hasn’t life given her a swift kick or two on her shapely backside more than once?

The hapless Ann gets herself kidnapped by Rick, but when Pat finds out, she doesn’t tell Joe. Instead, she boards a ship bound for the honeymoon she’s always dreamed of—a honeymoon with Joe. As doesn’t often happen in film noir, Pat is reformed by her love for Joe and cops to the truth about Ann. Joe moves in to rescue Ann of course, and the social worker ends up proving her love for him by shooting his attacker dead. After tangling with Rick and a fire, Joe dies in Ann’s arms while Pat looks on, her arm cuffed to a waiting policeman. All of the pain that her character is feeling in that moment is present in Claire Trevor’s eyes.

Key Largo (1948)

“Honey, have you been cryin’? Why? Has somebody been mean to you?”

—Gaye Dawn

A topflight production from the get-go, Key Largo stars none other than Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In their final pairing, the two are more than deftly supported by the likes of Lionel Barrymore, Edward G. Robinson, and in a tour de force performance, Miss Claire Trevor as the hopelessly alcoholic gangster’s moll Gaye Dawn.

Directed by powerhouse John Huston, Largo is the tale of a hotel owner (Barrymore) and his widowed daughter (Bacall) who are trapped not only by a hurricane but also at gunpoint by Robinson and his gang of thugs. Johnny Rocco (Robinson) has just escaped from prison and plans on holding everyone prisoner in the hotel until the storm passes and he can sail away. Bogart is a guest who stumbles into the middle of this mess and finds that he is forced to be a reluctant hero in the face of the gangster’s unrelenting verbal abuse and violence—much of it directed at the hapless Miss Dawn. Indeed, one gets the idea that Rocco brought his former girlfriend along just so that he could have someone to kick around. Indeed, Rocco’s disgust with her alcoholism is palpable every second Claire is on the screen.

In a scene that likely led Miss Trevor to win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, the actress pleads for a drink with such pathetic vulnerability that it breaks your heart. Every emotion wandering around in Gaye Dawn’s head registers perfectly in Trevor’s eyes, and at one point, she looks at the alcohol swimming in her shot glass as if it will save her very life.

When Rocco offers to give his lover a drink only if she’ll warble “Moanin’ Low” for the assembled company, each note that escapes her scratched throat is an open wound, and we are invited to watch her self-destruct right before our eyes. Since Rocco snatches every shred of dignity from her without the slightest hint of remorse, it is completely fitting that it is Gaye—begging to escape with Rocco on the boat out of Key Largo in a gesture of utter self-immolation—who steals the gun that will kill him.

With a film noir lineup of parts like these, it is easy to see why Claire Trevor has been described as the queen of noir. She embodied the spirit of the femme fatale in all of its twisted glory in role after role on the big screen. It is for this reason alone that the actress deserves the title above few others.

The Queens of Noir Series: Miss Joan Bennett

image
Joan Bennett and Walter Pidgeon defy the Nazis in Man Hunt

The daughter of an acting dynasty, Joan Bennett was the middle child of theatrical matinee idol Richard Bennett and the sister of 1930s movie diva and fashion icon Constance Bennett. Never believing she was much of an actress, Joan simply fell into the family business, like the daughter of a grocer landing behind the counter of the family store.

Her first roles were on stage with her temperamental father, but by the early 1920s the beautiful blond was appearing on screen in small parts and the 1930s ushered in stardom with several showcase vehicles including the part of Amy in Little Women (1933) and Kay Karigan in the mammoth Trade Winds (1938).

The star of over forty films before entering the next decade of her life, Joan was always incandescent on screen, but seemed to hold a part of herself back, never able to get past her finishing school manners and cut velvet voice.

Despite the success that came with being a “movie star,” Miss Bennett (now a gorgeous brunette) wanted to be seen as a real actress. The opportunity to stretch her acting muscles finally came with her third husband, independent producer Walter Wanger and their partnership with the German directing genius Fritz Lang. The trio was part of Joan’s independent production apparatus, Diana Productions, and their focus became film noir. The genre would change the trajectory of the actress’ career.

While many of Bennett’s past directors had allowed the beautiful actress to glide effortlessly through performances on her looks, Lang demanded that Joan bring the characters she was playing to life on screen. A detail-oriented, methodical film-maker, Lang put the actress through her paces by making her undergo take after take until she finally got it right. Sensing that the German director was getting a more honest and genuine performance out of her, Joan never complained about all the hard work, and the results are mesmerizing.

image

Man Hunt:

The team’s first outing was Man Hunt (1941) in which Bennett starred as Jerry Stokes, a beautiful cockney prostitute/seamstress who rescues a hunter who tries to assassinate Hitler from the clutches of the Germans. Effortlessly essaying the hooker with the heart of fourteen carat gold, Bennett is luminous as the self-sacrificing Jerry who gives her own life to save the man she loves.

image
Joan Bennett shines as Jerry Stokes in Man Hunt

Joan attacks her role with obvious relish. The pain fairly oozes from her every pore as she begs the rather cavalier Walter Pidgeon (as stalwart sharp-shooter Captain Allen Thorndike) to allow her to join him on the run from the Nazis who want to make him admit he tried to gun down Hitler. Her enormous eyes fill the screen, her each and every look begging Thorndike to love her. This was a Joan Bennett movie-goers had never seen before.

image
Joan Bennett ensnares Edward G. Robinson in The Woman in the Window

The Woman in the Window:

In 1944, Wanger’s independent International Pictures featured Woman in the Window, a film noir thriller in which Bennett’s character Alice Reed pulls sedentary middle-aged college professor Richard Wanley (beautifully underplayed by frequent Bennett co-star Edward G. Robinson) into a dark whirlpool of deception and murder. When Robinson spies the real life model for the painting of the ravishing woman he’s been drooling over for weeks standing in front of a gallery window, he readily agrees to accompany her to her apartment to “see her sketches.” Once inside, Wanley finds himself mistaken for Miss Reed’s latest conquest by her current flame. Violence ensues as the professor stabs the intruder to death with a pair of scissors.

image
Miss Bennett as the cool and calculating Alice Reed in The Woman in the Window

Window gave Joan what she really craved—the opportunity to submerge her off-screen personality almost completely in the character of the relentlessly cool Alice. Through dulcet tones, the actress delivers a gentle caress to her victim with every word. During the murder and its aftermath Bennett gets past herself enough to utter the breathless cries of a woman who is desperate to extricate herself from the situation, sliding quickly into brittle hardness when she convinces Wanley to get rid of the body of her lover.

image

Scarlet Street:

1945 brought the riveting noir Scarlet Street. This Diana Productions offering gave Joan the opportunity to do some of the finest acting of her career. As the carelessly grasping Kitty March, Bennett owns the screen. We see none of Joan’s usual finishing school airs and graces here. Kitty is nothing more than a grifter and a tart and the actress pulls out all the stops to let us know. A silky whine slips from her red lips with all the self indulgence of a wronged street walker.

image
Joan Bennett gives the performance of her career in the noir classic Scarlet Street

 

Robinson again plays Bennett’s victim in Street. A henpecked low-level clerk who’s a weekend painter, Christopher Cross falls hopelessly in love with the beautiful Kitty while she calmly extracts every bit of dough she can from him, ultimately convincing him to bankroll a swank apartment for her and her rancid boyfriend (Dan Duryea) complete with a studio in which Cross can paint. After showing Christopher’s work to an art dealer, Kitty claims to be the artist when she finds out his paintings will bring her a pretty penny. The professor is pathetically happy to allow Kitty to take credit for his work, but when Chris finds Kitty in the arms of Duryea, he kills her in a fit of jealous rage.

image
Miss Bennett seduces Edward G. Robinson as the grasping Kitty March in Scarlet Street

The Secret Beyond the Door:

image

The final Bennett/Wanger/Lang production was the silly The Secret Beyond the Door (1947). This is a melodramatic tale of a clueless bride (Bennett) married to a murderous husband who hides the truth about his serial killer tendencies behind (you guessed it) a secret locked door in his dark and moody family castle. Diana Productions needn’t have bothered. This gothic vehicle was a complete wast of celluloid.

image
Joan Bennett is up to her old acting tricks in the inane Secret Beyond the Door

Apparently aware that she was starring in a turkey, Joan falls back on her usual lady of the manor persona in portraying the breathlessly naïve Celia Lamphere. The actress is far better in the later Hollow Triumph (1948) and the Hitchcock-like Reckless Moment (1949).

The noir era of Miss Bennett’s career ended (most appropriately) with a gunshot. Her husband Walter Wanger shot the private parts of the actress’ agent Jennings Lang in a Beverly Hills parking lot. Apparently, the independent producer was sure his beautiful wife was having an affair with Lang. She claimed she wasn’t. Amazingly, Bennett came to her husband’s defense and refused to divorce him—that is until fourteen years later.

image
Joan Bennett and her husband Walter Wanger on the set of the disastrous Secret Beyond the Door

Scandalous or not, Joan Bennett became an actress when she began to appear in film noir vehicles under the tutelage of Fritz Lang. The breathtaking star cemented her place in cinema history by being part of them.