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.