Least Wanted—Film Noir’s Character Actors: Thelma Ritter
The Breaking Point: All at Sea
The Criterion Collection
Getting old, in Hollywood, is at least a misfortune, if not a crime. But film noir had plenty of room for actors who looked the worse for wear, whose mileage showed on their faces, whose youth was less a memory than a distant dream. Noir gave them meaty roles—often pungent, even rancid—that exploited the toughness and grotesquerie of aging. Not sweet gray-haired mothers and amiable codgers, but weathered tarts like Mary Astor’s bone-weary hooker in Act of Violence (1948); leathery survivors like Thelma Ritter’s stool pigeon Moe in Pickup on South Street (1953), saving up for her gravestone; gleefully dirty old men like Percy Helton’s revolting would-be sugar daddy in Wicked Woman (1953). Some performers were on their second or third acts when they washed up in noir. Astor had started as a teenage beauty in silent movies; Jay C. Flippen, so memorable in They Live by Night (1948) and The Killing (1956), had been a singing comedian in vaudeville. A number of actors from the pre-Code era turned up again in noir, carrying with them the bitterness and disenchantment of the Great Depression.
Take Wallace Ford, who by the late 1940s was a tubby, rumpled little man with a nasal voice and an anxious, friendly face in which a large cigar was a permanent feature. Becoming a regular in film noir, Ford taught Humphrey Bogart to crack a safe in Dead Reckoning (1947), put a stewed Dan Duryea to bed in Black Angel (1946), patched up a bloodied Robert Ryan in The Set-Up (1949), fired a shot at John Garfield in He Ran All the Way (1951), and died at the hands of Charles McGraw—cruelly broiled in a steam room—in T-Men (1947).
Ford’s early life was as tough and sad as anything he ever acted on-screen. Born Samuel Jones in Lancashire, England, he wound up in a London orphanage and was shipped to Canada, where he passed through seventeen foster homes, some of them farms where he was treated as slave labor. At twelve he ran away and joined a vaudeville troupe called the Winnipeg Kiddies, and as a teenager hoboed around the United States with another road kid called Wallace Ford. Young Sam took his friend’s name to honor his memory after watching him fall to his death under the wheels of a fast freight. “The train didn’t stop,” he told a reporter in 1938, “and I was too cold to cry.”
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