Although largely forgotten by the general public, Audrey Totter lived on in the hearts of film noir fans for her vivid performances and striking screen presence in some of that sub-genre's most notable efforts. Lovely, but also possessing a degree of intensity in her gaze that seemed to have largely precluded her from standard-issue girl-next-door characters, Totter found her niche in darker fare. In productions like "Lady in the Lake" (1946), "The Unsuspected" (1947), "Alias Nick Beal" (1949), and "Tension" (1949), Totter portrayed a series of ambitious and duplicitous femme fatales out to take what they want through whatever means necessary. When that type of picture went out of style in the early 1950s, Totter mostly found herself relegated to supporting parts and television assignments. While she never received the breakout role that would have made her a top flight star, few actresses were so inextricably associated with the film noir thriller and even fewer could so effectively command the screen using Totter's potent combination of beauty and cunning. She died, aged 95, in December 2013.
A native of Joliet, IL, Audrey Mary Totter was born on Dec. 20, 1918. She gained some early acting experience via stage and radio work before landing a movie contract with MGM. The company started Totter out with supporting roles in minor efforts like "Main Street After Dark" (1945) and "Dangerous Partners" (1945), and she was also featured briefly in the Grade A film noir "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1946), starring Lana Turner and John Garfield. She soon graduated to leading lady status with the fantasy-comedy "The Cockeyed Miracle" (1946), but as it turned out, that brand of light entertainment would not be where Totter fit best.
It was a trip back to the crime genre in "Lady in the Lake" (1946) that really put Totter on the fast track and demonstrated just how perfect her looks and tough demeanor were for this sub-genre. Shot in the first-person view of director-star Robert Montgomery, the film's unusual approach required Totter to often emote directly to the camera, a situation that left her and the other performers the complete center of the viewer's attention. Having to deal with the audience almost literally face to face from start to finish in scene after scene would intimidate some, but Totter rose to the challenge and delivered a bold and memorable turn that was arguably the highlight of a middling production.
MGM recognized her obvious value in movies of this ilk and Totter was quickly cast in "The Unsuspected" (1947) and "High Wall" (1947), and was borrowed by other studios for "Alias Nick Beal" (1949), a unique combination of familiar noir types and tropes with elements of horror, and "The Set-Up" (1949). The latter, set in the boxing world under the direction of up-and-comer Robert Wise, gave her a somewhat different sort of part as the concerned wife of aging boxer Robert Ryan. Totter did well by the role, but fans treasured her more colorful characterizations and she was memorably evil in "Tension" (1949) as a brazenly unfaithful wife whose duplicity leads to murder.
Once her association with MGM had come to its end, Totter worked freelance for Universal in yet another noir effort, "Under the Gun" (1951). Unfortunately, that type of picture started to fall out of favor with audiences, so she alternated between leads and supporting assignments in other genres. This included relatively interesting fare like the Western "Woman They Almost Lynched" (1953), where she played the wife of notorious Confederate raider William Quantrill, and the 3-D thriller "Man in the Dark" (1953). However, the quality of the movies soon dropped, culminating in the cheap World War II effort "Jet Attack" (1958), later remembered solely for its inclusion in the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (1978). While she continued to do quality work more often than not, Totter was rapidly approaching middle-age and her association with hard-boiled noir seemed to have further limited her casting possibilities in the eyes of some Hollywood producers.
Fortunately, Totter's prospects proved somewhat brighter on television, where she made appearances on several live dramatic programs, was a regular on the western "Cimarron City" (NBC, 1958-59), and had a chance to display comedic skills in episodes of "The Red Skelton Show" (NBC/CBS, 1951-1971). She also starred on the sitcom "Our Man Higgins" (ABC, 1962-63), but like "Cimarron City," it only lasted one season. Totter returned briefly to movies via small parts in productions like "The Carpetbaggers" (1964) and the Carol Lynley version of "Harlow" (1965), and also enjoyed a recurring role on the hit drama "Medical Center" (CBS, 1969-76) from 1974 through 1976. Totter retired after guest starring in a 1987 episode of "Murder, She Wrote" (CBS, 1984-96) and spent part of her senior years as a resident of the Hollywood Motion Picture and Television Hospital. Audrey Totter, who had been battling congestive heart failure, died in Woodland Hills, CA on December 12, 2013.
By John Charles