Marc Lawrence, James Flavin and Barry Kelley looked like characters out of central casting, and that’s exactly where they came from.  They were among film noir’s most prolific character actors.

Marc Lawrence got the call whenever a gangster or thugs was needed.  In a career that spanned 70 years Lawrence appeared in 181 films, usually as a hoodlum of some sort.   While most of his roles were small, he certainly had the ability to play more substantial parts.  The best of these would be in The Asphalt Jungle where he played Cobby, the smalltime bookie and fixer.  Lawrence even appeared in two James Bond films as what else but a gangster.

What Lawrence was to gangster roles, Flavin was to cop roles.  Flavin appeared in 384 feature films, invariably as a cop, be it uniform or detective.  Like Lawrence, most of Flavin's parts were small, but he too could carry himself in more substantial roles.  Such was the case in his co-starring role in the low budget RKO programmer, Destination Murder.

While he did not appear as often as Lawrence or Flavin,  Barry Kelley was certainly film noir’s most versatile character actor.  Kelley played judges, crooks. prosecutors, politicians, shyster lawyers and cops - both good and bad, all with equal credibility. For all their collective work, Lawrence and Flavin appeared in only two films together but never shared a scene.  Kelley appeared in several films with Lawrence including The Asphalt Jungle where in one lengthy scene just between the two of them, they showed just how good of actors they were.  

Every genre has its definitive actors, those who are associated by their image or simply the number of films in which they appear.  In that regard, film noir is not much different.  Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Glenn Ford and Robert Ryan easily come to mind when discussing film noir.  Not only did each have a lengthy resume in noir, they also developed the unique persona of the genre. But there are plenty  of  contradictions and misconceptions.   For instance, James Cagney’s name may resonate film noir but his limited involvement in the genre suggest otherwise. He was one of Warner Bros. gangsters during  the 30s and certainly played his share of violent characters in the dark dramas of that era.  But by he time film noir  came around in the 40s the versatile Cagney had moved on to comedy, musicals and even westerns.  He only  made two real  noirs, 1949s White Heat and Kiss Tomorrow  Goodbye  the fallowing year.  Those films are both good and Cagney is true to his former gangster persona, but that’s the extent of his noir work.  So it would be a stretch to say he had a notable presence in film noir.  The same could be said of Bette Davis.  Even though she was one the big screen’s most manipulative women, her roles in film noir were limited to a few marginal films.

On the other hand, Robert Taylor is probably the most overlooked actor in film noir.  Primarily known for his roles in romantic dramas, he was one of MGM’s leading men of the 40’s and early 50s staring in many of their big budget productions like Ivenhoe , Quo Vadis. and Valley of The Kings.  Even though MGM was a studio that lagged in film noir, Taylor was the actor they went to when the studio did venture in the genre.  He appeared in a half dozen noirs and though his performances were usually generic he did leave a film noir legacy.  One unique aspect of film noir is that it encompassed a defined period of time in which the evolution of the genre and that of the actors who took part can readily be traced.

Father  (and mother) were killers

Four  All-American parents from television iconic family shows;  Fred MacMurray - My Three Sons, Brian Keith - Family Affair,  Hugh Beaumont - Leave It To Beaver and Jane Wyatt - Father Knows Best,  but each played a killer in film noir.

For actresses,  film noir offered limited roles.  Playing a strong women in noir usually meant you were a femme fatale or worse yet, a murderer.  Against that would be the dames, broads and just plain losers.  On the other hand there was no prerequisite for beauty in noir roles as this was a genre about hard reality and for the most part devoid of glamour.  You are more apt to find beauty in the bimbo girlfriends of mobsters than anywhere else in noir.  Howard Hughes put Jane Russell in three noirs when he owned RKO.  The films are good, but not because of Russell who was nothing more than eye candy.  On the other hand, a very plain looking Cathy O’Donnell had featured roles in six noirs.  She played the type of women you would expect to find in real life noir circumstances.

Still, there were opportunities for beauties like Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner to have substantial roles.  But for the most part it was rather average looking women like Nina Foch, Gloria Graham, Evelyn Keyes, and Audrey Totter that defined noir.   They had a sultry allure that proclaimed their vulnerability - or badness.

The women  who chose to play in film noir were able to make their mark even if there was a lack of peer recognition. Playing a femme fatale in noir provided an opportunity to make an impression  that resonated with audiences.   Even though she had been long forgotten, Ann Savage’s obituary was widely reported because of the impact she made with her performance as a femme fatale in Detour.  Similarly Jane Greer left an indelible screen image as Kathie Moffat in Out Of The Past  notwithstanding an otherwise undistinguished career.  Barbara Stanwyck was one of the only top actresses who played in noir for most of its duration and was credible.    Joan Crawford won an Academy Award for her performance in Mildred Pierce (a marginal noir) but miscast in later film noir roles. And Betty Davis, the tough dame you would expect to be perfect for film noir was a no show in the genre.     

Fred MacMurray Borderline Hugh Beaumont Bury Me Dead Brian Keith Nightfall Jane Wyatt The Man Who Cheated Himself

What film noir lacked in star power it made up with a roster of character actors.   Few people would recognize them by name but the bit parts and occasionally featured roles they played were a crucial element in creating the the atmosphere that was unique to film noir.   The reoccurring appearance of so many  gives the impression of a repertory company at work but it was an aspect that contributed to defining the genre.  They tended to play specific types, be it cops, gangsters or any other character germane to the story.   By the late 50s as film noir faded, most of these actors found steady work in television while many former “A” list actors retired or pursued  other careers.

Jack Lord The True Story of Lynn Stuart Lorne Greene Tight Spot

As the studio system was changing in the 1950s, actors who no longer were considered stars found work in film noir.  These actresses who had been leading ladies in comedies and musicals of the 30s and 40s  now found themselves in the unglamorous world of noir.

Nancy Davis Shadow on the Wall Claudette Colbert The Secret Fury Dorothy Lamour Manhandled Paulette Goddard Vice Squad Ginger Rogers Tight Spot What are they doing in film noir?

A number of actors who appeared in film noir became well known for other things.  Lucille Ball became an icon of comedy but in the Dark Corner she was deadly serious.   Nancy Davis became Mrs. Ronald Reagan and First Lady.  Jack Lord, Lorne Greene and Angela Lansbury each played killers in film noir but went on to star on television in three of that medium’s most popular shows ever.  Doris Day, Marilyn Monroe and Yul Brynner became major film stars.

Lucille Ball The Dark Corner Noir Actors No place for a lady Real characters Raymond Burr F.B.I. Girl Berry Kroeger The Dark Past Dan Duryea Manhandled Neville Brand Kansas City Confidential


A heartless, evil person is usually at the heart of every noir story.  While there was ample violence dished out by assorted thugs and henchmen, the heavies in noir would just as likely be a scoundrel,  blackmailer or other sleazy type.  And don’t forget females could be just as deadly in noir without every pulling a trigger.  Certain actors became adept at playing people you love to hate. Unlike today's films where the degree of violence defines the villain, in noir it was more sophisticated.  While Raymond Burr was noir’s most prolific and violent villain, other heavies dished out their share of beatings.   But violence wasn’t the only means of getting what you wanted in noir.  Extortion, double-dealing and frame-ups were just as effective and the specialty of  characters played by the likes of Dan Duryea, George MacCready and Berry Kroeger.  Their methods were generally not violent but they could generate as much antipathy as if they were cold blooded killers.  Perhaps that’s because these are the type of  schemers one might encounter in real life.

Repeat offenders Jack Lambert The Unsuspected Thomas Gomez The Sellout George MacCready The Big Clock Mike Mazurki Man In The Vault Yul Brynner The Port of New York Marilyn Monroe The Asphalt Jungle Doris Day Julie Angela Lansbury Please Murder Me Thugs Schemers James Flavin Conflict Marc Lawrence The Asphalt Jungle James Flavin Conflict Barry Kelley The Undercover Man

Jack Web and Vince Edwards each played serious bad guys in film noir.  Yet they went on to star in popular television shows playing esteemed characters.   In a bit of irony, Webb murdered his future Dragnet partner, Harry Morgan in 1951’s Appointment With Danger.  Before saving lives as Doctor Ben Casey, Edwards was taking them,  playing vicious killers in three noirs.

Jack Webb Appointment With Danger Vince Edwards City of Fear Redemption on the small screen Cathy O’Donnell They Live By Night Jane Greer They Won’t Believe Me Jane Russell His Kind Of Women Cleo Moore Over-Exposed Back to top

During the early years of film noir the studio system was in place.  As such, the actors who played in them were usually known commodities drawn from the studio’s contract roles.   But it was also a time when film noir played a defining role in the careers of many fledgling actors.   It’s remarkable  the number of actors whose careers were launched in film noir and went on to  became major film stars. The first Hollywood film appearances of  Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Richard Widmark, Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston were in film noir.   Glenn Ford,  Ava Gardner, Alan Ladd and Rita Hayworth had breakthrough roles in film noir after struggling in Hollywood.  For Hayworth and Ford it would come in the noir, Gilda.  Fred MacMurray, ostensibly known for romantic comedies, was salient playing dark characters in multiple noirs.  Lancaster, Douglas and Heston would come to define the virile leading men of their generation but in film noir they portrayed rather weak individuals, easily influenced by women.  Such are the nuances you find in the genre.  

Of course an actor’s  studio affiliation had much to do with their exposure to film noir.  But that tended to change by the early 1950s as the contract system was ending. Film noir became increasingly the province of  low budget B-film productions.  It was also a time when independent producers had  an abundance of available actors, those cut loose by the studio’s newfound austerity. Actors who had become stars in early film noir moved on to bigger and better things  which meant lower tier actors were able to get roles that otherwise might not have been available, but there were exceptions. Glenn Ford continued to star in film noirs into the 1960s at Columbia where he was under contract.  It would also be a source of work for some whose careers had seen better days; George Raft, Mickey Rooney and even Joan Crawford.  After 20 years of singing and dancing, Ginger Rodgers appeared in three noirs in the mid 50s playing some tough broads.    But it would be the second tier actors who would make up the core of film noir throughout the 1950s.  Mainstream supporting actors like Edmund O’Brien, Charles McGraw, Barry Sullivan and Dennis O’Keefe found leading roles in the B-noirs. This was also a fortuitous time for Sterling Hayden who could find work anytime he needed a paycheck.   

American Film Noir

James Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye - one of only two film noirs in which he appeared.

Femme fatale Bette Davis in The Letter.  She was otherwise a no-show in film noir.

Joe Sawyer is a familiar character actor who appeared in 181 films but surprisingly only 4 true noirs.