Audrey Totter, film noir femme fatale, dies at 95


Audrey Totter. (Film Favorites/Getty Images)
December 14, 2013

Audrey Totter, an actress who specialized in playing temptresses, dangerous dames and women harboring dark schemes in a series of movies from Hollywood’s film noir period of the 1940s and ’50s, died Dec. 12 at a hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif. She was 95.

She had congestive heart failure after a stroke, her daughter, Mea Lane, said.

Miss Totter first set the screen afire with a small but sizzling part in the 1946 noir classic “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” When her car breaks down, she steps out as John Garfield — already enmeshed with another femme fatale played by Lana Turner — offers to look under the hood.

“I’m going to wait standing up,” says Miss Totter’s character, Madge. “It’s a hot day and that’s a leather seat. And I’ve got on a thin skirt.”

When Garfield raises the idea of driving across the border to Mexico, Madge takes the bait: “You’re an outlaw. Can’t stand captivity. Me too. . . . What time will we get back from Mexico?”

“Oh, uh, I got a whole week,” Garfield’s character says. “Come on, slide in.”

“All right,” Madge says.

Over the next several years, Miss Totter was in demand as one of Hollywood’s sexiest and most alluring actresses, often playing cynical and malevolent women who, in the words of film historian Eddie Muller, “had a heart as big and warm as an ice cube.”

One of her signature roles came in the 1949 film “Tension,” in which she was the faithless wife of a bland druggist. Her character was “a vile voluptuary — sin incarnate,” Muller wrote in his 2001 book “Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir.”

In the film, Miss Totter’s character kills one of her lovers, then manipulates her jilted husband into taking the rap for her.

“What’s the matter with you, anyway,” she taunted him. “You want the cops to move in here and live with us?

“If you haven’t got enough brains to agree with me, then keep your mouth shut. From here on in, I’m answering all the questions — got it?”

Miss Totter starred in “Lady in the Lake” (1947), directed by and starring Robert Montgomery as Raymond Chandler’s jaded private eye Philip Marlowe. In “High Wall” (1947), she was a psychiatrist trying to uncover the secrets of a brain-injured war veteran who falsely confessed to having strangled his wife.

She played the long-suffering wife of Robert Ryan, an aging boxer in “The Set-Up” (1949). In “The Unsuspected” (1947), with Claude Rains, she played a scheming wife in a complicated tale of murder. As in many of Miss Totter’s movies, the plot took a back seat to her performance, highlighted by her steely gaze and imperturbable composure.

At one point, a man is admiring a painting in her house.

“You know, it’s very much like Montreux in his middle period,” he says. “Who painted it?”

“My husband,” Miss Totter replies. “In his sober period. Before he married me.”

Miss Totter was considered for a starring role in “The Killers” (1946), but a scheduling conflict kept her off the project. The part went to Ava Gardner and made her a star.

“I had great parts,” Miss Totter said in 2001, “but the pictures just didn’t catch on — they didn’t do big box office.”

Only later was she recognized as one of film noir’s biggest stars, along with other actresses including Gloria Grahame, Jane Greer and Barbara Stanwyck. Considered B-movie throwaways at the time, noir films are now one of the most avidly studied genres from Hollywood’s golden age.

“For years nobody bothered with me — didn’ t know who I was, didn’t care,” she told the Toronto Star in 2000. “Now I’m recognized on the street, I’m asked for my autograph, I get loads of fan mail.”

She said she had to turn down a proposal from one teenager, writing back to explain that she was now a grandmother in her 80s.

“Who knew these movies would be so popular 50 years later? Maybe it’s because the world isn’t like that anymore. The fantasy of it. They painted with light in those days, it’s a look that just isn’t done anymore.”

Audrey Mary Totter was born Dec. 20, 1917, in Joliet, Ill. Her Austrian-born father was a streetcar driver.

She acted in radio dramas before going to Hollywood and signing on as a contract player with MGM. After film noir began to fade in the 1950s, she acted in westerns and television, including a recurring role as a nuse on “Medical Center” in the 1970s.

Although she briefly dated Clark Gable, Miss Totter was never tainted by a trace of scandal. One of her best friends was Grahame, whose offscreen life was more notorious than anything she did on camera.

“Most of my fellow Hollywood glamour girls led such tragic, wasted lives,” Miss Totter said in 2000.

In 1953, she married Leo Fred, a doctor and assistant dean of the UCLA School of Medicine. He died in 1995. Survivors include her daughter of Woodland Hills, a brother and two grandchildren.

Miss Totter’s final acting role came in 1987, when she appeared on an episode of Angela Lansbury’s “Murder, She Wrote.”

She continued to receive offers but seldom found anything that appealed to her.

“What could I play?” she asked in 2000. “A nice grandmother? Boring! Critics always said I acted best with a gun in my hand.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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