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.”
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.”
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.”
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?”
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.