Audrey Totter was a Hollywood actress whose cool, seductive good looks ranked her at the forefront of film noir’s femmes fatales
Audrey Totter, who has died aged 95, epitomised the tough, hard-boiled blonde femme fatale during the Hollywood heyday of film noir, dark crime dramas that proliferated in the 1940s and 50s.
She was a performer of great versatility, ranging from the murderous floozy Claire Quimby in Tension (1950), and the long-suffering wife of the ageing fighter (Robert Ryan) in The Set-Up (1949), to John Garfield’s saucy girlfriend in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), co-starring Lana Turner.
She was also adept at comedy, as in The Sailor Takes a Wife (1946); Westerns, such as Woman They Almost Lynched (1953); and family dramas like My Pal Gus (1952).
Audrey Mary Totter was born on December 20 1917 in Joliet, Illinois. Her father was Austrian, her mother Swedish. One of her first acting roles was as Violet in a touring version of My Sister Eileen.
On reaching New York she became a favourite of radio producers, one of whom dubbed her “The Girl of 1,000 Voices”. Although hoping to break into the Broadway scene, she was offered film contracts by both Twentieth Century-Fox and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
After a bidding war, she accepted MGM’s offer, and remained with them for six years. The studio trained her to sing, dance and act, she took tennis and riding lessons, and was taught to swim in the MGM pool used by Esther Williams. Audrey Totter made her film debut in Main Street After Dark (1944) .
Most of her early films were “programme pictures” — short second features about an hour long. “Lionel Barrymore once told me I would not become a big star because I was too versatile,” she recalled. “He was right. I never became a Hedy Lamarr or a Lana Turner. But then I never had their burning ambition either.”
After The Postman Always Rings Twice, Audrey Totter appeared in a screen adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake (1947), with Robert Montgomery as the private eye Philip Marlowe, a film shot entirely from his point of view.
She received top billing when she played the psychiatrist Dr Ann Lorrison in another film noir, The High Wall (1947) with Robert Taylor and Herbert Marshall, and in the same year her character was murdered by Claude Rains in The Unsuspected. She appeared in Beginning of the End (1947), about the development of the atom bomb, and played second fiddle to Ray Milland in another forgotten noir gem Alias Nick Beal (1949).
Towards the end of her MGM contract, Audrey Totter starred with Clark Gable in Any Number Can Play (1950), which she considered “just awful”.
“MGM were putting me in terrible films that damaged my star status,” she said. “Gable knew I was terribly unhappy and did all he could to get me off the picture. The studio threatened me with suspension so I stayed on and completed it. I found Gable a caring and sensitive man, not at all like the rough and tumble characters he so often played on screen.”
She subsequently signed with Columbia, but when she met her future husband, Fred Leo, a doctor, she agreed to reduce her working hours in order to start a family.
After the birth of her daughter, she confined herself to small cameo parts in television series such as Rawhide, with Clint Eastwood.
During the 1970s Audrey Totter appeared in the daytime television soap opera Medical Center, and soon afterwards disappeared from view. In the 1980s, following the death of her husband, she was occasionally seen at film galas, including the Academy Awards, often on the arm of the actor Turhan Bey.
Her daughter survives her.
Audrey Totter, born December 20 1917, died December 12 2013