Dark Passages

Least Wanted—Film Noir’s Character Actors: Wallace Ford

Least Wanted—Film Noir’s Character Actors: Wallace Ford

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.”

From earning tips by imitating Chaplin in saloons and pool halls, he worked his way up through stock companies to Broadway and then Hollywood. In the early thirties, as a reasonably trim young man with floppy hair and bright shoe-button eyes, Ford was within hailing distance of being a leading man. He was paired with some of pre-Code Hollywood’s sexiest women: Joan Blondell in Central Park (1932), Leila Hyam in Freaks (1932), Loretta Young in Employees’ Entrance (1933), and, in The Beast of the City (1932), a white-hot Jean Harlow, who shimmies wildly in front of him and musses his hair. Not bad for a former Winnipeg Kiddie. His jumpy, hard-scrabble energy suited these dizzy-from-hunger Depression movies, but as thirties films took on a more elegant gloss, and as he packed on the pounds, Ford settled into character parts. In noir he played has-beens and contented losers, men who carry around their disappointments the way he carried his added weight, with the relief that comes from giving in.

One of his best roles came in Michael Curtiz’s The Breaking Point (1950), a superb, wrenching adaption of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. Here he plays F. R. Duncan, the oily shyster who keeps getting protagonist Harry Morgan (John Garfield) in trouble with his shady schemes. Duncan first turns up in a smoky dive in Mexico, where Harry—the stubborn, down-on-his-luck captain of a charter fishing boat—has brought a rich client and his girlfriend. In his white tropical suit and panama hat, his face glistening with a sheen of sweat, Duncan looks like an unappetizing poached egg congealed on the counter of a greasy-spoon diner. A cut-rate Mephistopheles, he tempts the desperate, cash-strapped Harry with dirty money: first to smuggle Chinese immigrants on his boat, later to provide a getaway for a racetrack heist. Harry recoils every time he sees this self-styled operator, swatting away his friendly overtures with physical disgust, and you can’t blame him: sleaze reeks off of Duncan like a suffocating mixture of body odor and cheap cologne. He winks twitchily whenever he says the word “honest”—perhaps it’s an allergic reaction—and he’s always whispering, psst-ing, glancing around shiftily, oozing all over the revolted Harry with jovial insinuations and ethical contamination.

“Don’t fight it” is his mantra: “Relax, let it happen.” His moral flabbiness and back-slapping geniality make him a perfect foil for Harry, whom Garfield plays with biting truculence, tense as a rubber band stretched to the snapping point. But Harry wouldn’t despise Duncan so much if he weren’t tempted by him, if the promises of an easy way out didn’t speak to the weakest part of him. (In the same way, he hates the seductive good-time-gal played by Patricia Neal because part of him wants her.) Making Duncan so physically gross and flamboyantly tacky serves to underline the tragedy of a proud man like Harry Morgan being brought down to his level—and the chance to bring him down, to prove that he too is really just a chiseler, seems to motivate Duncan as much or more than the “commission” he claims on setting up the deals. Their scenes together are entertaining, peppered with Harry’s ever more vivid and colorful insults (“He’s two pounds in a one pound bag”), but flavored too with an acrid taste of fear and failure. Under Duncan’s big talk is panic and cowardice, and resentment of the tough guys who smack him around and disrespect him. He’s a small-timer who knows his time is up.

In any ecosystem, there are top-level predators and hapless prey; there are charismatic megafauna, and then there are the creeping vermin. In noir it is bottom-feeders like Duncan, and actors like Wallace Ford willing to inhabit their cheapness and desperation, who keep the system running, who keep things real.

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