Noir Nook: Must-See Marie
We need to talk about Marie Windsor.
She was gorgeous. Talented. Adept at playing dames from the
deadly side of the tracks, but able to hold her own in comedy as well.
And she once held the title of Miss D. & R.G. Railroad.
But for my money, Windsor is most worth celebrating for her
presence in the world of film noir, with memorable roles in several pictures
from the era, including two of my all-time favorite, absolutely must-see noirs.
But more of that in a bit . . .
Born Emily Marie Bertelson in December 1919, Windsor was a native of Marysvale, Utah, and was captivated by acting as a child, once recalling that, at the age of eight, she decided that she wanted to be “another Clara Bow.”
“No one in the family ever said, ‘Oh, don’t be silly’ or ‘You can’t,’” Windsor said. “If that’s what I wanted, they were going to help me.” And help they did; her parents’ support included driving her to a town 30 miles away for weekly dancing and drama lessons. After high school, she studied drama for two years at Brigham Young University, and after winning the aforementioned Miss D. & R.G. Railroad beauty contest, Windsor used her prize of 99 silver dollars to buy a set of luggage and make her way to Hollywood. Once there, she sought out famed actress Maria Ouspenskaya – memorable in such films as Dodsworth (1936) and Kings Row (1942) – who took her on as a student.
Windsor paid for her room and board by working as a
cigarette girl at the popular Mocambo nightclub, a job that wound up leading to
her first big break. One night at the club, she was assisting producer Arthur
Hornblow with his coat when he asked her, “Are you working at this job because
you want to be an actress?” Windsor replied that she was and Hornblow
responded, “You don’t belong here.” He arranged for her to have an audition and
a short time later, she made her big screen debut as “Miss Carrot” in the
Frances Langford starrer, All American Co-ed (1941).
After bit parts in a series of pictures, Windsor moved to New York where she appeared on more than 300 radio shows and was seen on stage in plays like Follow the Girls, which attracted the attention of an MGM exec and led to a two-year contract with the studio. But despite appearing in 15 films alongside such luminaries as Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and Frank Sinatra, Windsor failed to make a splash until 1948 when she entered the shadowy noir realm with Force of Evil, earning nearly unanimous praise for her performance as the predatory wife of a syndicate king. She would go on to appear in several more noirs, including the two that I love best: The Narrow Margin (1952) and The Killing (1956).
The Narrow Margin stars Charles McGraw as Det. Sgt.
Walter Brown, a Los Angeles law officer who’s tasked with secretly escorting a mobster’s
widow, Mrs. Frankie Neall, from Chicago to L.A. via train so that she can
provide grand jury testimony about her late husband’s “payoff list.” The need
for secrecy and the danger involved are made glaringly apparent early on, when
Brown’s partner (Don Beddoe) is gunned down in Mrs. Neall’s apartment stairwell
with a bullet that was intended for her.
Windsor plays Mrs. Neall and gives us a pretty significant
peek at her persona from her first appearance. It comes when Brown and his
partner arrive at Neall’s apartment to take her to the train. She’s smoking a
cigarette and listening to music (which, judging by the reaction of the cop
who’s been guarding her, must have been playing non-stop). When she’s
introduced to her escorts, she blows smoke in Brown’s face and derisively
inquires, “How’s Los Angeles? Sunburn wear off on the way out?”
And that’s just the first of many wisecracks and smart
alecky jabs served up by Mrs. Neall. Once safely inside her train compartment,
she’s needling Brown non-stop, from complaining about the meals (“The food
stinks and so does your company!”) to vehemently urging him to accept the bribe
he’s been offered to turn over the payoff list. “You’re a bigger idiot than I
thought,” she tells him. “Wake up, Brown – this train’s headed straight for the
cemetery. But there’s another one coming along. The gravy train. Let’s get on
Sadly, for the viewer, Windsor’s character takes her leave
about halfway through the film. While she’s still around, though, she steals
every scene, more than holding her own with the gruff and growly Charles McGraw
and spitting out her lines like they leave a bad taste behind. The release of
the film was delayed for 18 months by RKO head Howard Hughes, but that didn’t
stop critics from noticing Windsor’s standout performance – she was singled out
by several reviewers, including one who praised her ”splendidly incisive”
performance and said she “looked capable of halving a railroad spoke with her
teeth.” He wasn’t wrong.
My other favorite Windsor film, The Killing (1956),
tells the tale of a motley crew of regular Joes who unite to pull off a crafty
racetrack payroll heist. The group is led by recently released ex-con Johnny Clay
(Sterling Hayden) and includes a beat cop (Ted de Corsia), a bartender (Joe
Sawyer), and a mousy racetrack cashier named George Peatty (Elisha Cook, Jr.).
Despite the intricate and nearly foolproof scheme, it goes the way of many a
well-laid plan and winds up in the crapper – but it’s a great ride while it
As Sherry Peatty, Windsor is the wife of the aforementioned
mousy cashier, and believe me when I tell you, she’s a real piece of work. She
clearly married George solely because of the lofty promises he made to her:
“Something about hitting it rich and having an apartment on Park Avenue and a different
car for every day of the week,” Sherry reminds him. “Not that I really care
about such things, understand, as long as I have a big, handsome, intelligent
brute like you.”
Sporting a blonde wig that puts Phyllis Dietrichson’s coiffure
to shame, Sherry is a fascinating character. She’s an unabashed gold-digger and
a remorseless two-timer who wouldn’t think twice about double-crossing her
hubby in favor of a younger, stronger, more handsome model (Vince Edwards). But
she’s no fool. On more than one occasion, she not only demonstrates her
intelligence, but also her ability to maintain grace under pressure and think
on her feet. One of my favorite examples of this comes when she gets caught snooping
around Johnny’s apartment as he meets with the men involved in the heist. Johnny
knocks her unconscious and when she comes to, she first tries flirting with him
and then she makes up a whopper about finding his address in her husband’s
pocket and suspecting him of stepping out on her. And then, for good measure,
she goes back to playing the coquette. Even Johnny has to admit that he’s
impressed: “You’re a no-good, nosy little tramp. You’d sell out your own mother
for a piece of fudge. But you’re smart along with it.”
No matter how many times I see Windsor’s performance in The
Killing – and I’ve seen it so often I lost count long ago – I’m positively
mesmerized. She gives a master class in bringing the femme fatale to life;
whether she’s merely applying cold cream to remove her make-up or using her
feminine wiles to extract secrets from George, you won’t be able to take you
eyes off of her. Interestingly, Windsor got the role of Sherry after director
Stanley Kubrick saw her performance in The Narrow Margin. “The minute he
picked up the paperback that became The Killing, he told [his partner]
that he wanted me for Sherry,” Windsor recalled. She would later count the film
as one of her favorites.
I must say, she certainly had good taste.
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all of Karen’s Noir Nook articles here.
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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