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.

 

Need a gangster or thug, get Marc Lawrence was the call.  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 an actor they were.  

 

Every genre has its definitive actors, those who are associated by their persona or simply by 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.   One unique aspect of film noir is that it encompassed a defined period of time in which the evolution of the genre and the influence it played in actors careers can be traced.

 

Many film noirs of the 1940s  tended to be  “A”  list offerings.   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. While James Cagney was king of Warner Bros. Gangsters of the 30s, he was not much of a factor in film noir.   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 as much to do with their exposure to film noir as anything other factor.  But that tended to change by the early 1950s as the studios cut cost and production.  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 became 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.   See prominent film noir actor profiles  HERE.

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 queens in noir roles as this was a genre about hard reality, 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.   Still, there were opportunities for beauties like Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner to have substantial roles.  But for the most part it was average looking women like Jane Greer, Gloria Graham, Evelyn Keyes, and Audrey Totter that defined noir.   They had a sultry allure that proclaimed their 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 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 at best) but in later film noir roles she was ridiculously miscast.   And Betty Davis,
the tough dame you would expect to perfect for film noir was a no show.     

Fred MacMurray
Double Indemnity
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 con- tributed 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 lacked for work as the studio system evolved.

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 the 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
99 River Street
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
Anglela Lansbury
Please Murder Me
Violent men
Schemers
Marc Lawrence
The Asphalt Jungle
James Flavin
Conflict
Marc Lawrence
The Asphalt Jungle
James Flavin
Conflict
Barry Kelley
The Undercover Man

A most average looking Cathy O’Donnell had featured roles in six film noirs playing the type of woman you would expect to find in such circumstances in real life

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 murders 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
See the the roster of film noir’s characters  HERE
Noir Actors
Characters
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