Audrey Totter could handle herself. She had a “knows the ropes” vibe that made her the epitome of the silver screen dame. Though her apple-cheeked brand of bad girl wasn’t in many movies, she made such an impression in the films in which she did appear that she holds a special place in the silver screen dame pantheon. As the IMDB puts it, “one is hard-pressed to think of another true “bad girl” representative so closely identifiable with film noir…she always managed to set herself apart in even the most standard of programming.”
I know Audrey Totter best from her roles in Lady in the Lake (1946) and The Unsuspected (1947). Based on Raymond Chandler’s book of the same name, Lady in the Lake is distinguished by being shot entirely from Phillip Marlowe’s point of view, mimicking the iconic detective’s first-person narration in all Chandler’s novels. Robert Montgomery directed and starred as Marlowe, and we only see and experience Audrey’s character through his eyes. Whether she’s a get-down-to-business career girl, woman hot for her boss and then the detective, she maintains a steady “I’ve got this” glamour. Her know-how is as tight as her up-do, and she keeps Marlowe and the audience guessing until the end. Is she an ambitious professional, calculating gold-digger, manipulative vamp, or – disappointingly – a simpering mush under all that poise? In The Unsuspected, she’s a wily siren who steals Hurd Hatfield from her cousin. (Why either woman wanted Hurd Hatfield is never explained. In every movie, Hurd Hatfield has but one emotion – Hurd Hatfield. I’m sure Hurd is a very nice chap IRL, but in everything I’ve ever seen him in, he and his cheekbones are maddeningly impassive.) While the true dame honors in The Unsuspected (1947) go to Constance Bennett doing a lithe Eve Arden impression, Audrey steals scenes with her man-eating magnetism.
Audrey Totter’s vixens weren’t typically as high-toned. She was usually a tramp, or tramp-adjacent, in film noir, or film noir-adjacent films, like Main Street After Dark (1945)*, Tension (1949), The Saxon Charm (1948), Alias Nick Beal (1949), and memorably as the fed-up wife of a washed-up boxer in The Set-Up (1949). Though it’s a small role, she was John Garfield’s pick-up who almost distracts him from Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Unfortunately, Audrey missed out on some great roles that would have cemented her as a dangerous siren and/or tragic tramp. She was supposed to play the part Ava Gardner got in the noir classic The Killers (1946), but she was stuck in Lady in the Lake and missed out. (The role made Ava a star.) She was also supposed to play poor pregnant Alice Tripp in A Place in the Sun (1951) but the studio refused to loan her out.
While M-G-M had wanted to build Audrey into an A-list star, in the 50s the studio wanted to focus on family fare, and Audrey was just “too good at being bad”. She made a few films in the 50s, and did TV roles, but fir the most part, Audrey Totter hung up her trampy tricks and more or less dedicated herself to being a wife and mother. She was happily married to Dr. Leo Fred, the Assistant Dean of the UCLA School of Medicine, for more than 30 years until his death in 1995. She popped up every once in a while; Audrey Totter played Nurse Wilcox on Medical Center from 1972 -1976, and she her last role was in 1987 as a nun on Angela Lansbury’s Murder, She Wrote. What drives me crazy is that she turned down the role of “old” Rose in the blockbuster Titanic (1997), the role for which Gloria Stuart won an Academy Award. Not only would I have bounced in my seat a but when I saw Audrey in the movie, if Audrey Totter had walked across the stage to get her Oscar I would have loudly
screamed squealed in dame sisterhood.
Despite her missed opportunities, Audrey’s story is not a sad one. She wasn’t bitter about her typecasting. In a 1999 interview she said, “The bad girls were so much fun to play. I wouldn’t have wanted to play…good-girl parts.” She had a happy marriage, lots of friends, including fellow “bad girl” Gloria Grahame, and Hollywood-wise, she dated them all. (We’re talking Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Lew Ayres, David Niven, Robert Walker, Brian Donlevy…you get the picture.) Audrey Totter died just eight days short of her 96th birthday in 2013, leaving behind a good chunk of memorable ‘film fatales’ and thousands of fervent fans. Not bad for a bad girl, eh?
*Touted as “the true story of today’s girl gangsters!”