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Take Three: Gloria Grahame

Craig here with Take Three. Today: Gloria Grahame.

Take One: The Big Heat (1953)
When you think of Film Noir, you think of hard-boiled anti-heroes in fedoras, smoking, permanently with gun. But in some noirs it’s ladies first. Fritz Lang’s dirty, masterful noir par excellence The Big Heat has a first-rate femme fatale in Grahame’s Debby Marsh. Thank 20th Century Fox for replacement pleasures then: Grahame stepped in when original pick Marilyn Monroe’s fee became too high, giving the the film an extra sprinkling of salty sass. She excelled in each moment, whether heartfelt or hardened; I can only hazard a guess that Monroe might have made Debby’s eventual desperation too pleading. Under Grahame’s control Debby’s desperate dilemma was frenetic and wrenching. Never has the rapid flush of devastation been so well conveyed on screen as when she runs to Glenn Ford’s apartment to beg for cover.


Grahame’s transformation, from carefree nonchalance to scornful grittiness is more readily noticeable after a second viewing of the film. Indeed, The Big Heat deserves two watches for Grahame’s performance alone. She flips drastically in a scene wherein Lee Marvin (as Vince, her criminal beau) throws hot coffee in her face. It occurs off screen and we are withheld the image of her scarred visage until... well, let’s say she gets her revenge in an apt way. But her face, now fuelled with anger and half covered with bandages, tells us everything we need to know about what she’s thinking. It’s a beautifully judged and performance. No wonder Stephen Frears insisted on her influence for his Grifters ladies. Grahame had the film’s best line too. “Hey, that's nice perfume.” Vince says. “Something new,” Debby replies, “it attracts mosquitoes and repels men.”

Take Two: In a Lonely Place (1950)

As with The Big Heat, Grahame wasn’t the first choice for Nicholas Ray’s 1950 masterpiece In a Lonely Place. She was third in line to play Laurel Gray. This being a Humphrey Bogart film, the obvious choice at the time would have been Bogart’s wife, Lauren Bacall. But, under contract, Warner Bros. refused to loan Bacall out; Ray, who was married to Grahame (though they subsequently separated during filming) managed to get her cast over Ginger Rogers, too.

Laurel Gray is a struggling actress, living across the courtyard in an adjacent apartment to Dixon Steele (Bogart). In fact, this is how she comes to be embroiled in his affairs and ends up falling in love with him. We see her go from cool, aloof social gal to a woman in dire need of a supportive shoulder to spill her woes to; "is-he-isn’t-he a killer?" conundrums are tough to sort out. Grahame takes obvious pleasure in the spiky moments of dialogue between herself and Bogart, leaving the air in recently-vacated spaces pungent with tease. Referring to Bogart’s face she says

I said I liked it. I didn’t say I wanted to kiss it.

Off she walks, daring us to scuttle after her.

Her performance gives way to darker edges as the plot sinks further into muddy emotional territory, but throughout the entire film Grahame is on full actressing alert. Her last lines find their way out of her conscience at the close. “I lived a few weeks while you loved me...” She adds a sad “Goodbye Dix” at the end. In a lonely place, indeed.

Take Three: Crossfire (1947)

Grahame’s is the first name after the title in Crossfire, but she shares the screen caption with four others, a trio of Roberts: Mitchum, Young and Ryan, aptly sounding like a private detective firm. The Roberts³ head this 1947 noir from Edward Dmytryk. Grahame only really has two scenes in the film. But what a pair of scenes. Each is nearly ten minutes long and crucial to the plot. She dominates both with a characteristically captivating allure, leaving us wanting at least another half dozen more. We first see her emerge from a blurred dissolve: she enters the film as she enters the recollection of Ryan’s soldier. She’s in the Red Dragon, the “stinking gin mill” out of which she procures her men folk. She’s Ginny “because [she’s] from Virginia”, lit by cinematographer J. Roy Hunt as a seductive blonde vapour, only her showy attributes are spotlit: the hard glint in her eyes matches the gleam from her bling.

It’s her second scene, much later in the film, where she gives good talk to match the face. It’s surely the scene that earned her the Supporting Actress Oscar nomination (she would win the award in The Bad and the Beautiful five years later). The shimmy has dimmed - she’s dowdy in a housedress - but she's no less captivating. Here we see another side to Grahame, a defiant irritation, as Ginny is questioned on Ryan’s whereabouts the night of the anti-Semitic murder that propels the narrative. Dmytryk’s camera searches her for the answers the plot demands. Grahame’s greatness in the role becomes all the more evident because of this scrutiny.

Three more key films for the taking: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Oklahoma! (1955), Human Desire (1954)

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Reader Comments (11)

Annette Bening should so play her in a biopic.

March 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterThe Jack

The Jack --- oooh i do see it now. This post has reminded me that i *really* need to get on my "get more familiar with noir" self-programmed festival.

March 20, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

No way Bening could do her ... she was one of a kind I loved her.

March 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrick

Great piece Craig. She's still probably best known as the innocently slutty (as only Capra could do) Violet in It's a Wonderful Life but boy does she really sizzle when she plays the bad girl.

March 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert


Those three choices are great, but my favorite performance of hers is that spectatcular 10 minute ultra-erotic supporting appearance in Robert Wise's masterpiece Odds Against Tomorrow. Her duet with Robert Ryan and the way she gets horny and excited when he describes what killing people feels like is priceless.

March 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercal roth


March 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew R.

Wrong topic! Sorry!

But I do love Gloria Grahame.

March 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew R.

One receptionist at my doctor's was looking like a total Bening dead ringer the other day. Next time I'm in there I'll make sure it wasn't a fluke.

March 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTim B.

In my opinion her perf in THE BIG HEAT is superior to the one who earned her the oscar the year before

March 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermirko

Writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante wrote this article the day Gloria died in 1981. It's called "Sic transit Gloria Grahame". The moment I read it (I was 15 years old) It began my fascination with her. He says: "In Crossfire Gloria Grahame built her image forever: ugly, fascinating and fatal".
For those of you who can understand spanish, it's a worth read.“sic-transit”-gloria-grahame/

March 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSeisgrados

Robert - thanks! Glad you liked it. If I'm honest *shh* I haven't seen It's a Wonderful Life, like ever *shh* (and should really sort that out next Xmas), but would likely have written about her in that, as I've heard she has a great little role in it. I loved The Big Heat the most, I think.

Seisgrados - Thanks for this info. I'll check out your link, cheers.

Cal Roth - Wow, Odds Against Tomorrow sounds like ridiculously weird fun!

March 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCraig
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