December 17, 2013
Audrey Totter, Actress in Noir Films, Dies at 95
Audrey Totter, who as a femme-fatale star of Hollywood’s noir films of the 1940s could twist figurative daggers with the subtlest arch of her perfectly plucked eyebrows, died on Thursday in West Hills, Calif. She was 95, and it had been decades since she last committed a crime — most were of the heart — on the silver screen.
The cause was complications of congestive heart failure, her daughter, Mea Lane, said.
Ms. Totter played a other kinds of roles in her career, including supportive wives and a caring nurse. But, formidable even at 5-foot-3, she preferred the dark parts — and they were the ones for which she is most remembered.
“The bad girls were so much fun to play,” she told The New York Times in 1999 in an interview with her fellow noir actresses Marie Windsor, Coleen Gray and Jane Greer.
One of Ms. Totter’s most memorable roles was also one of her earliest, as a young woman, stranded and sultry, in the 1946 film “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” When the character played by John Garfield offers to help with her broken-down car, she accepts his offer and gets out of her car.
“I’m going to wait standing up,” she says. “It’s a hot day and that’s a leather seat. And I’ve got on a thin skirt.”
A year later she had a more prominent role in “Lady in the Lake,” a murder mystery based on a Raymond Chandler novel. For most of the film the camera serves as the eyes of the main character, the private detective Philip Marlowe (played by Robert Montgomery, who also directed). Ms. Totter’s character, a conspiring publishing executive who hires Marlowe, often looks directly into the camera, sparring with the detective and by extension the viewer.
She appeared in several more noir films, including “The Unsuspected” (1947), “High Wall” (1947) and “Tension” (1950), in which she has an adulterous relationship and then persuades her husband, played by Richard Basehart, to falsely confess to killing her boyfriend.
While Ms. Totter was most noted for her work in noir, she was also critically praised for her part as the wife of an aging boxer in the 1949 drama “The Set-Up.” After her husband insists he is just “one punch away” from a chance to fight for a championship, she responds: “I remember the first time you told me that. You were just one punch away from the title shot then. Don’t you see, Bill, you’ll always be just one punch away.”
Audrey Mary Totter was born on Dec. 20, 1917, in Joliet, Ill. Her father, John, drove a streetcar.
Ms. Totter acted in touring plays and did radio work in Chicago and New York before moving to Hollywood.
In 1953 she married Dr. Leo Fred, an assistant dean in the medical school at the University of California, Los Angeles. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by two grandchildren and a brother, George. Dr. Fred died in 1995.
Ms. Totter’s film career largely ended in the 1950s, but she later had several recurring roles on television, including as Nurse Wilcox on “Medical Center” in the mid-1970s.