Audrey Totter, film noir femme fatale and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract player best remembered for the mystery crime drama Lady in the Lake and, at RKO, the hard-hitting boxing drama The Set-Up, died after suffering a stroke and congestive heart failure on Thursday, December 12, 2013, at West Hills Hospital in Los Angeles County. Reportedly a resident at the Motion Picture and Television Home in Woodland Hills, Audrey Totter would have turned 96 on Dec. 20.
Born in Joliet, Illinois, Audrey Totter began her show business career on radio. She landed an MGM contract in the mid-'40s, playing bit roles in several of the studio's productions, e.g., the Clark Gable-Greer Garson pairing Adventure (1945), the Hedy Lamarr-Robert Walker-June Allyson threesome Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945), and, as an adventurous hitchhiker riding with John Garfield, Tay Garnett's crime drama The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).
Audrey Totter: Femme fatale at MGM and elsewhere
Even though Audrey Totter lost the female lead to fellow MGM contract player Ava Gardner in Universal's Robert Siodmak-directed 1946 film noir The Killers, the movie that made Gardner a star, by the following year Totter was alternating between leads and top supporting roles at her home studio, where she was usually cast as tough-talking, somewhat vulgar, sensual dames – much like those Gloria Grahame was playing at the time. Note: Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Greer, Veronica Lake, and Lizabeth Scott (91 years old last September 29) played more upscale femmes fatales and/or tough dames; and, perhaps with the exception of Scarlet Street, so did Joan Bennett. Claire Trevor, for her part, would play older versions of the Audrey Totter/Gloria Grahame characters.
In 1947, Audrey Totter was featured opposite actor-turned-director Robert Montgomery in the film noir Lady in the Lake – unique in that the movie is visually told from the point of view of the protagonist, private detective Phillip Marlowe (Montgomery), whose face is seen only when he looks at himself in the mirror. Totter capably plays the sensuous but steely magazine editor who hires Marlowe to solve a crime – in which she herself may or may not be involved.
She was no less difficult to pin down in John Farrow's Paramount release Alias Nick Beal (1949), a mystery thriller in which she is associated with Ray Milland's titular Nick – who may or may not be the devil in the flesh. Back at MGM, in John Berry's Tension (1949) Audrey Totter is the cunning, unfaithful wife of mild-mannered Richard Basehart, who creates a more assertive alias so as to kill her lover (Lloyd Gough) but gets sidetracked when he himself falls in love with Cyd Charisse. Some serious identity issues come to the fore when the wife's lover is found dead.
“The bad girls were so much fun to play,” Totter would tell the New York Times in 1999. Yet, she had her share of good – or at least non-murderous – girls as well. In Curtis Bernhardt's High Wall (1947), she is a psychiatrist who attempts to help self-professed murderer Robert Taylor; in Claude Binyon's The Saxon Charm (1948), she almost has her stage career ruined by the egotistical Robert Montgomery; and in Mervyn LeRoy's Any Number Can Play (1949), she is the sister of neglected wife Alexis Smith (Clark Gable is the neglectful husband).
'The Set-Up': Classic boxing drama
Audrey Totter's best film is probably Robert Wise's RKO-released The Set-Up (1949), starring Robert Ryan as an aging boxer who is given one more chance to win a fight. Watching the raw, gutsy The Set-Up – the story is told in real time – it's hard to believe that Wise is the same filmmaker responsible for something as artificial as The Sound of Music. In fact, The Set-Up remains the best boxing drama I've ever seen, far more dramatically effective and violently realistic than Martin Scorsese's revered Raging Bull. Two good reasons for the film's emotional punch are the superb performances of both Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter – hers a subordinate (and sympathetic) role as the boxer's anxious, disillusioned wife.
Audrey Totter's MGM contract came to an end in the late '40s. She was off the screen in 1950, but would resume working, mostly in B fare, throughout the '50s. Movies included Allan Dwan's Western Woman They Almost Lynched (1953), in the title role, playing opposite other performers who had seen better days (John Lund, Brian Donlevy, Joan Leslie); Fred F. Sear's war drama Mission Over Korea (1953) at Columbia, as an army nurse playing second fiddle to John Derek and John Hodiak; and, of more interest, Lewis Seiler's Women's Prison (1955), cast alongside brutal superintendent Ida Lupino, Jan Sterling, Cleo Moore, and Phyllis Thaxter in this cheaply made Columbia release.
Following two low-budget 1958 movies, Albert C. Gannaway's Western Man with a Gun and Edward L. Cahn's war drama Jet Attack, Audrey Totter's big-screen career was virtually over. She would return in minor roles in three mid-'60s productions (The Carpetbaggers, Harlow, Chubasco) and one 1979 release, Vincent McEveety's The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, a poorly received Disney production starring Tim Conway and Don Knotts.
Audrey Totter television work
On television, Audrey Totter could be seen from the mid-'50s all the way to the late '80s, including recurring roles in Our Man Higgins (1962-63), opposite Stanley Holloway; and, as a nurse, in Dr. Kildare (1965-66), starring Richard Chamberlain, and Medical Center (1969-1976), starring Chad Everett and James Daly.
TV movies included Michael Ritchie's The Outsider (1967), starring Darren McGavin; The Nativity (1979), with Madeleine Stowe as Mary, John Shea as Joseph, Jane Wyatt as Anna, and Totter as Elizabeth; and a small role as a receptionist in Robert Michael Lewis' City Killer (1984), with Gerald McRaney and Heather Locklear.
Additionally, Audrey Totter was a guest star in, among others, The Ann Sothern Show, The Loretta Young Show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Police Story, Matt Helm, and, inevitably, Murder, She Wrote – her last appearance in front of the camera.
Audrey Totter: 'I acted best with a gun in my hand'
In later years, after her film noirs reached a wider audience via cable television and home video, Audrey Totter said that she began once again getting work offers. As quoted in the Los Angeles Times, she would tell the Toronto Star in 2000: “What could I play? A nice grandmother? Boring! Critics always said I acted best with a gun in my hand.”
Audrey Totter is the latest notable film personality to pass away in the last couple of weeks, following Paul Walker (The Fast and the Furious), Jean Kent (The Woman in Question), Édouard Molinaro (La Cage aux Folles), Eleanor Parker (Oscar nominated for Caged, Detective Story, and Interrupted Melody), and Rossana Podestà (Helen of Troy).