Jane Greer, 76, an actress whose extraordinary beauty and girl-next-door demeanor were subverted to marvelously diabolical effect in suspense films of the 1940s and 1950s, died Aug. 24 of complications from cancer, her son said.
The lissome, chestnut-haired Washington native made nearly 30 movies, beginning in the mid-1940s, but she was best known for her work as temptresses in the film noir style of cinema, which portrayed a shadowy, distrustful world and whose peak immediately followed World War II.
She received acclaim as Kathie Moffett, who manipulates a gangster (Kirk Douglas) and a laconic tough guy (Robert Mitchum) in Jacques Tourneur's "Out of the Past" (1947). That film is considered among the top noir prototypes, complete with wry one-liners, such as one character's description of Moffett as "like an autumn leaf blowing from gutter to gutter."
In a 1997 essay on the film's endurance, San Francisco Examiner critic Bob Stephens said Ms. Greer helped distinguish the work with a style that remained modern.
Ms. Greer, Stephens wrote, "isn't frivolous like a lot of noir demi-goddesses. Her sexiness comes from cunning, and she never relies on the flirtatious self-parody of such actresses as Lauren Bacall and Martha Vickers."
Although not as prolific as some of her peers, Ms. Greer has received increasing recognition since film studies departments sprang up in the 1970s and reevaluated the noir style, which went largely unheralded in its day.
Jeanine Basinger, Wesleyan University film studies department chair and an authority on women in film, said Ms. Greer's hallmark was blending an innocent veneer with undercurrents of raw villainy. "The terrifying thing of Jane Greer is that she seems sweet," Basinger said. "She is someone you could be set up with on a blind date."
Her other major noir roles included a woman with whom Robert Young has a tryst in "They Won't Believe Me" (1947); the coldhearted saloon owner in "Station West" (1948) with Dick Powell; and a demure-looking mercenary after money in "The Big Steal" (1949) with Mitchum.
Ms. Greer became so identified with bad-girl parts that the writers of "The Company She Keeps" (1950) changed her role to suit her film persona. During filming, Ms. Greer told an interviewer: "I had always played a dance-hall tramp or a gun moll or something, and this was my first part as a sweet young thing. I was very happy about it. But the writers soon fixed that: They switched me from a sister-in-law to a designing sweetheart. Instead of appealing to [her screen brother-in-law's] better nature, I was to shake him down for $2,000."
By the mid-1950s, Ms. Greer left the studio system that had typecast her and did freelance work at various studios, including playing actor Lon Chaney Sr.'s second wife in the Chaney biography starring James Cagney, "The Man of a Thousand Faces" (1957). She also had roles in television series, such as "Falcon Crest" and "Twin Peaks," in the 1980s and 1990s.
Bettejane Greer grew up in Northwest Washington and attended Western High School. Her mother encouraged her to take dance lessons and sing on local radio stations, and the teenager won a beauty contest sponsored by the old Washington Times-Herald in 1941 and was crowned the "Nation's Capital Glamour Girl of 1942."
Ms. Greer also did modeling work and appeared in a photo spread featuring Women's Army Corps uniforms, a key assignment in which crooner Rudy Vallee saw her and then summoned the 19-year-old to Hollywood.
She suffered quick disappointment in California, with a tempestuous marriage to Vallee and a stifling film contract with Howard Hughes in which she never appeared in a movie.
After a year under contract to Hughes, she sued for release in 1944 and quickly signed a long-term deal with RKO Radio Pictures. Hughes bought RKO in 1948 and vowed never to work with Ms. Greer, but she was a bankable last-minute casting replacement in "The Big Steal," which became a hit.
Director Taylor Hackford enticed Ms. Greer to return to noir in a small part in "Against All Odds," his 1984 film modeled on "Out of the Past," starring Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward. Washington Post critic Gary Arnold dismissed Hackford's work but praised Ms. Greer for projecting "a potentially sinister aura of refinement and fragility."
After divorcing Vallee, Ms. Greer married lawyer-producer Edward Lasker and had three children with him before their divorce in 1963.
Ms. Greer is survived by her twin brother, Don; sons Alex, Lawrence and Steve; and two grandchildren.