Actress Audrey Totter, Femme Fatale of Classic Noir Films, Dies at 95

Audrey Totter dead

Audrey Totter, a steely blonde actress known for her leading roles in some film noir’s most prominent titles, including “Lady in the Lake,” “The Set-Up,” died Thursday. She was 95. Totter, who was living in the Motion Picture and Television Home in recent years, had a stroke and suffered from congestive heart failure, according to the L.A. Times.

Totter’s characters were not so much femme fatales who seduced men into trouble but ruthless, independent figures scheming to get the best out of a bad situation.

Totter did not begin in film noir — two of her early credited roles were supporting parts in comedies “The Sailor Takes a Wife” and “The Cockeyed Miracle” — but a well-received supporting performance in 1946 noir classic “The Postman Always Rings Twice” foreshadowed the direction of her career.

The actress made quite an impression in her first lead role in the Robert Montgomery-directed 1947 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s “Lady in the Lake.” Montgomery starred as Philip Marlowe in the film, but this experimental noir was entirely shot from the detective’s point-of-view — Montgomery appeared onscreen in the film only occasionally, reflected in a mirror — and so the camera was largely focused on Totter, playing the cynical, quarrelsome publisher who hires Marlowe but has secrets of her own.

In the 1949 film noir “Tension” Totter played the scolding, luxury-loving wife whose adultery spurs pharmacist Richard Basehart to homicide.

Another example of what has come to be seen as a typical Totter role was her resentful scheming cousin to star Joan Caulfield in Michael Curtiz’s 1947 Claude Rains starrer “The Unsuspected.”

Even in noir, the actress was sometimes given the chance to explore different avenues. One of her most high-profile roles came in the noirish A picture “High Wall” (1947), in which she starred opposite Robert Taylor as the sympathetic psychiatrist for the asylum-bound murder suspect (the New York Times review pronounced her character “a cool and efficient chick”). In Robert Wise’s 1949 noir masterpiece “The Set-Up,” Totter played the caring, worried wife of an aging boxer played by Robert Ryan; in 1953 Edmond O’Brien vehicle “Man in the Dark” — an oddity in that it was a noir shot in 3D — Totter starred as a seemingly hardened and calculating gun moll who unexpectedly chooses the right moral path in the end. And in the 1955 effort “Women’s Prison,” in which fellow noir veteran Ida Lupino played the villainous warden, Totter played an inmate sympathetic to new fish Phyllis Thaxter.

During her noir run, Totter also appeared in a number of films outside the genre — “The Beginning or the End,” about the development of the atomic bomb, and Broadway-set drama “The Saxon Charm,” with Montgomery — for instance. She also starred with Joan Leslie in Alan Dwan’s female-dominated Western “Woman They Almost Lynched.”

Totter’s career continued long past the heyday of the noir films for which she is best remembered.

Beginning in 1954, the actress was a regular on TV’s episodic anthology shows such as “Four Star Playhouse” and “Schlitz Playhouse.” She starred in the brief ABC comedy series “Our Man Higgins” in 1962-63 and guested on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Perry Mason,” “Dr. Kildare” and “Hawaii Five-O.” She recurred on Chad Everett series “Medical Center” as Nurse Wilcox and retired after appearing on “Murder, She Wrote” in 1987.

Born in Joliet, Ill., Totter began her career in radio and began her film career as a contract player at MGM.

She was married to Leo Fred from 1953 until his death in 1995 and is survived by a daughter.

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  1. Everyone loves it when folks get together and share views.
    Gresat blog, continue the good work!

  2. dorff63 says:

    As happens TOO OFTEN IN HOLLYWOOD, an early success in a particular role sentences the actor to be confined to that type of role. Totter snuck into a few sympathetic roles, but her PERSONA in tinsel town was “ONE HOT LADY.”

  3. I’m very sorry to hear of the passing of Ms. Totter. She was blessed to live on this Earth for 95 years. Her appearance in the 1946 film noir classic “The Postman Rings Twice”, (one of my top 5 personal fav. movies) was actually key to what eventually happened in the end. Audra’s character was the one who could not get her car started at the train station right after John Garfield’s character had dropped off Lana Turner’s character as she had to catch a train. At this stage in the movie, they hated each other – having gotten away with the murder of Lana’s much older husband. Audra’s character looking quite stunning caught John’s attention as she was looking ever so seductive in that car, bouncing in the driver’s seat and over-pumping the gas pedal thus flooding her car’s engine. She got out of the car to let John give it a try by saying that the hot cushion on the seat was made even more uncomfortable by the fact that she was wearing stockings on her legs – she made sure that John noticed.

    John was to eventually start up Audra’s car and before you knew it the two decided to take a little trip to Mexico. One doesn’t have to be a genius to figure out what probably happened; and with the movie being filmed any sexual fling could not be shown. John’s crucial mistake was he left his tie in Audra’s car’s glove compartment. Weeks later she was to mail it back to John only Lana intercepted the tie and sexy note that Audra wrote intended solely for his eyes. Lana, already hating John, (despite the two being married) was to tell the police that if anything sudden happened to her it was her husband’s doing. She was of the belief that John wanted to kill her.

    The ironic thing was, by the end of this great movie John and Lana did reconcile and found love between each other. John even got Lana pregnant, a fact she told him on the night just before she did die. It was an accident, John didn’t have his eyes on the road, crashed into an object and Lana was impaled. With that letter written by Lana which was to end up in the hands of the DA, (the same individual who was unable to prosecute her in the murder of her first husband) John was sentenced to death at the very end of the movie for what was Lana’s death.

    A great movie for which Audra Totter had a very brief, but key role!

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  5. D.Powers says:

    A wonderful actress. Loved her with Robert Montgomery in Lady in the Lake. So sad how she was injured and her career suffered.

  6. Frank W says:

    Wow! No comments. An actress not to be forgotten, forgotten.

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