Least Wanted—Film Noir’s Character Actors: Harry Morgan

The old saying that there are no small parts, only small actors, has surely caused thespians of all sizes to roll their eyes and gnash their teeth. But there are performances that stick in the mind forever with only a brief scene or two, and sometimes with no lines at all—bit-part equivalents to Bernstein’s Girl on the Ferry in Citizen Kane, the face glimpsed once and still recalled decades later. Who can forget Theresa Harris in Out of the Past, as the glamorous (ex-)maid luxuriating in a Harlem nightclub, wearing a fabulous cascade of flowers on her head and bantering slyly with a visiting detective? Or Edith Evanson as the aging spinster secretary with a gimpy leg who risks her life to help the hero find his wife’s killers in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat? There is nothing in City That Never Sleeps more memorable than Wally Cassell as “the mechanical man,” an actor hired to impersonate a robot as a publicity stunt in the window of a burlesque joint. Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal pivots on the fleeting appearance of Whit Bissell as a distraught wife-killer whose hunted-animal pathos rearranges the mood and dynamics of the story.

Often, one misremembers just how small these parts are, as I always do with Harry Morgan’s role in Frank Borzage’s Moonrise (1948). This tenderly brooding Southern Gothic noir is especially rich in supporting characters and rare—for noir—in depicting not just isolated individuals, but a community. The story centers on Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark), a young man haunted and persecuted all his life because his father was hanged for murder. But the film is also a portrait of a small town: its humid, glistening swamps and derelict, cobweb-laced plantation mansions, its open-air dances and county fairs, ancient Civil War veterans and jive-talking soda jerks, small-minded bigotry and big-hearted redeemers. Danny’s closest friend is an embittered, philosophical black man named Mose (Rex Ingram) who has “resigned from the human race” and who calls his dogs “Mister” because “there isn’t enough dignity in the world.” The bond between outsiders was Borzage’s great theme, and it is expressed even more poignantly, and wordlessly, through the character of Billy Scripture (Morgan, credited here as Henry), a mentally disabled deaf-mute.

That this role never seems exploitative or cloyingly saccharine is thanks to Morgan’s exceptionally natural and empathetic performance. The part is rarely mentioned in appraisals of his career. Born Harry Bratsberg and raised in Michigan, Morgan was never a leading man, but worked prolifically in film and television, best remembered for his long-running role as Col. Sherman T. Potter on the TV show M*A*S*H. Some character actors made a living by being easily typecast (need a butler? Call Robert Grieg. A gangland henchman? Call Jack La Rue. A beady-eyed, hard-nosed bank manager? Call Charles Lane). Morgan, by contrast, was versatile, turning his homely, average looks to very different uses. He has a glowering, thuggish menace in The Big Clock and Dark City (the latter marked the start of his close friendship with Jack Webb, with whom he would co-star on TV’s Dragnet), but he is just as believable in the role of a buttoned-up coward in High Noon or a pensive cowboy in The Ox-Bow Incident.

In Moonrise, we first see Billy Scripture at a dance, being teased by a group of young men and women who bait him with a glittering compact mirror—he likes shiny objects—and laugh as he clumsily grabs for it. When Danny breaks in and stops their fun, his protectiveness toward someone even more cruelly ostracized than himself shows a better side of his confused and rough-edged character—though the darker side re-emerges moments later when he wonders aloud, dismissively, why he is “talking to a dummy.” Morgan is able to inhabit this helpless and childlike man without condescending to him, and to convey Billy’s adoration of Danny without sentimentality. His wordless performance fits into a film that shows Borzage’s roots in silent cinema, filled with visual symbols and expressionistic effects, like the opening montage that compresses Danny’s family history and early life into a concise but devastating shadow play.

Billy’s most important role in the story is to find the jackknife that Danny lost in the woods during a fight in which he accidentally killed a long-time enemy. Desperate to get back this piece of evidence, Danny goes to the shack where Billy lives, a sad little room with newsprint papering the walls and a skeletal iron bedstead. Frantic and frustrated because he can’t make the deaf man understand what he wants, Danny screams at him angrily. Billy opens his mouth wide as though mimicking him, or vainly trying to force out a sound, and then, in a heartbreaking touch, he strokes Danny’s lapel. Something about this appeasing gesture seems to prompt the brutal attack that follows—as though it were gentleness and kindness itself that Danny is throttling. The scene has a kind of horrible intimacy, as they fall across the bed amid the lurching shadows from a swinging lamp. When Danny comes to his senses and lets go, Billy’s gasping breaths are loud in the silence—the only sounds he makes during the whole movie. The most piercing thing in this upsetting scene is not the way that, after the attack, Danny gazes in horror at his hands, more certain than ever that he is cursed by his “bad blood.” It is the way Billy, lying on the bed, gazes up at his protector, who has just tried to kill him, with an indefinable mixture of love and fear that seems to understand everything, and nothing.

Just before this scene comes a lovely moment that serves no purpose in advancing the plot but goes to the heart of the film. Billy, walking home at night, stops where a set of bare, child-sized footprints are preserved in the sidewalk, his own name written below in the cement. This image of a man whose childhood self is literally set in cement connects Billy with Danny, who has been warped by his bitter past and a family tragedy he can neither remember nor shake off. It could be a mawkish moment, the overgrown infant in his knit cap and pathetic, moth-eaten sweater measuring his big work-boots against his own long-ago prints, but Morgan salvages it with a performance that is at once deeply felt and inaccessible. In a cryptic close-up, he shows Billy remembering, or thinking about, something, but it’s impossible to know what.

This kind of fleeting glimpse into another story that the movie doesn’t tell is one of the greatest gifts that character actors can bring. It is not a matter of stealing the spotlight, but of deepening the shadows.