Smooth Talker: Alan Ladd in Film Noir

Alan Ladd had his start in film noir at the age of twenty nine, when he starred as the contract killer, Raven, who had been made rather than born a killer, in This Gun For Hire (1942). Although he was not the lead nor Veronica Lake’s romantic interest in the story, the film would catapult him to stardom and establish him not only as Lake’s perfect match onscreen, but also as the indelibly cool noir male lead. He would play characters who were unflappable under pressure. And despite his start as an amoral character, he would go on to often play roles that usually had a strong moral centre.

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His acting style was perfect for the genre. He would stare into the camera as if daring it to challenge him, and he could bite out a “sure, baby” like no other. But there was also a vulnerability about him that often suggested that the tough side of his characters hid a fragile centre that he was trying to hide from abuse. It seems that this was partially life imitating art, as Ladd suffered from severe self esteem issues, largely due to his height. This vulnerability meant that his performances, while largely self assured, also had a tinge of the uncertain, meaning that the audience could empathise with him when he found himself in dangerous situations. Which his film noir characters invariably always did. His understated acting style bares comparing to Robert Mitchum, who like Ladd, seemed tailor made for the genre. Both men always played roles that required them to be cool under pressure, but their acting style also meant that they were natural and likeable in their films. Ladd and Mitchum would both go onto be fixtures in Westerns, a genre which also perfectly suited their downplayed style.

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Ladd would appear in some of the finest, and most influential, film noirs of the 1940s and 50s. And although he does not receive credit for it, his performances would act as a template for later action performances that combined toughness with vulnerability. Although he got his start in This Gun for Hire, I will not be discussing that film today. Many people have written very fine pieces on the film, and I do not think I have all that much add. So I shall rather begin with another performance that introduced his persona as a tough, good guy.

A Glass Key for a Mausoleum 

The Glass Key was Ladd and Lake’s second onscreen pairing, and was released in the same year as This Gun for Hire. In the film Ladd plays Ed Beaumont, an intelligent political campaigner who dislikes violence, and is therefore the antithesis of his best friend and boss Paul Madvig (played by Ladd’s frequent co-star Brian Donlevy). A scene that typifies Ed’s preference for smarts is when, after being repeatedly brutally beaten, he manages to evade two heavies (one of whom is played by William Bendix, another frequent co-star) by setting the bedding alight and locking the two men in the room before jumping out of a window into a dumpster. Ed goes onto expose the corruption that has been festering in the city, as well as making sure that the right person is arrested for a key murder committed earlier in the film.

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While Ed Beaumont is perhaps not a lily white boy scout in the film, he is definitely the film’s hero; and the only character, aside from Janet Henry (played by Veronica Lake), who wants the double dealing and vote fixing to end, and for the true killer to be exposed. Lake manages to make Beaumont a complex character. A lesser actor would have faded into the background whilst Donlevy ran away with the picture, but Ladd’s cool, assured performance perfectly counterbalances Donlevy’s punch first ask questions later character.

Lake and Ladd’s witty repartee is also extremely enjoyable. One of my favourite exchanges takes place after Ed has made his escape and is convalescing in hospital:

Ed, “What’ll we talk about it?”

Janet, “You…”

pause

Janet, “Comfortable here?”

Ed, “More or less.”

Janet, “No fun?”

Ed, “No fun.”

Janet, “Hasn’t your nurse been treating you well?”

Ed, “Not as well as I’d like.”

Janet, “Poor boy. If I’d known you were being neglected, I would have come sooner.”

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While Ladd’s performance in the film is rock solid, having Lake as his co-star elevates his onscreen presence even more, as she is able to match him beat for beat. Their chemistry throughout the film is palpable, with long looks exchanged, and Ladd looking as if he wants to embrace her and shake her at the same time. Which should be cringeworthy, but Lake’s eyebrow cocking intimates that she knows exactly what’s up. Not only do they interact wonderfully, but they also look so good together. When they finally kiss at the end of the film, I had to suppress an enthusiastic whoop. One has to remain dignified, you know.

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A Flower Grows in Deceit 

The Blue Dahlia (1946) was Ladd and Lake’s third onscreen pairing, and was written by Raymond Chandler, who converted an unfinished novel into a screenplay. Paramount bought the screenplay specifically as a vehicle for Ladd. The film would go onto be a box office smash, and is probably the best known and regarded of Ladd and Lake’s four films together. The film was so popular that it went on to inspire the moniker given to Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia.

Ladd plays Lieutenant Commander Johnny Morrison, who along with his friends Buzz (played once again by William Bendix) and George (played by Hugh Beaumont), returns to Los Angeles after being discharged from the U.S. Airforce.

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But Johnny’s homecoming is a bitter one, his son is dead due to his wife, Helen’s, negligence, and he discovers that she is also cheating on him with a nightclub owner, Eddie Harwood, who owns The Blue Dahlia. After a terrible row, Johnny leaves and is picked up by Joyce, who is later revealed to be Eddie’s estranged wife. When Helen’s corpse is discovered in their house, Johnny becomes the chief suspect, and must find who the actual murderer is before he’s arrested.

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The Blue Dahlia is when things really clicked for Ladd in terms of solidifying his status as one of film noirs most memorable leading men. While he had played a man who disliked violence in The Glass Key, Ladd’s turn as Johnny shows no such qualms, and Ladd really showcases his physicality in the fight scenes, throwing punches as if it’s his job (which in this film, it is). He also chews through the dialogue and spits it out in disgust, which is perfect for a man on the run for a crime he didn’t commit after undergoing years of hell during the war. I completely agree with Variety magazine’s review of his performance which read:

…Alan Ladd does a bangup job. Performance has a warm appeal, while in his relentless track down of the real criminal, Ladd has a cold, steel-like quality that is potent. Fight scenes are stark and brutal, and tremendously effective.[18]

He and Lake are on top form during their scenes together. From the moment he climbs into her car the screen is positively alight with their charged chemistry. And there is a real hard hitting feeling of frustration and disappointment in the scene where he Johnny thinks Joyce has betrayed him. The ending of the film may not be favoured by some because of its upbeat tone, which Chandler apparently disliked intensely, but I think that Ladd and Lake manage to make it satisfying rather than hammy. My favourite exchange between the pair in the film takes place during their initial meeting, and shows why they are such a memorable film noir pairing:

Johnny, “You gotta have more sense than to take chances with strangers like this.”

Joyce, “It’s funny but practically all the people were strangers when I met them…”

 

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One Night in Saigon

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Saigon (1948) was the last of Ladd and Lake’s four films together, and is probably their best in terms of their onscreen dynamic after The Blue Dahlia. By this point their chemistry with each other had solidified to the point where the entire film revolves around the audience’s interest in their relationship, because it is their interactions and decisions that underpin the entire workings of the film’s plot.

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Ladd’s performance in this film typifies his cool, yet emotive capacities as an actor. He turns a role that could easily have just been one dimensional and uninteresting. But his care for his younger brother-like best friend, and his eventual tenderness towards Lake’s character ensure that his role is an interesting one. Ladd also imbues Larry Briggs with something else, something that dwells behind the eyes. As if despite his self assured actions, he is really a man haunted by his incapacity to protect his fellow fliers during the war, and his frustration at his own very human shortcomings and fragility.

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I wrote a more comprehensive analysis of the film here. 

The Transience of Beauty

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A rather misleading poster for the film

Despite harsh reviews from both Bosley Crowther and Dennis Schwartz, Chicago Deadline (1949) was another box office hit for Alan Ladd. And while the film invariably draws comparison with Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), I feel that that does little justice to the film or Ladd’s performance as Ed Adams, the film’s protagonist. And that is not because I do not think Laura is a masterstroke in the genre, but because Chicago Deadline has superficial similarities with the former.

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Chicago Deadline revolves around Ed’s efforts to solve what led to the demise of the beautiful Rosita (played by Donna Reed) from a tubercular haemorrhage in a dingy hotel room. While like Mark McPherson does with LauraEd slowly becomes fascinated with Rosita, largely because of her beauty, Ed does not distrust women to the degree that McPherson does. And while McPherson is largely hostile towards the gorgeous spectre that Laura casts, Ed does not resent Rosita. He wants to present the truth about her character, rather than the lurid femme fatale that the other newspapers are portraying her as. And there is also an important distinction, unlike in Laura, Rosita is really dead, and really cannot speak for herself. It is Ed who must give her a voice amongst a broken collage of impressions and memories about her. Ed also goes through more than McPherson to find out why his dead beauty is just that. He is shot and almost killed, and makes sure that everyone knows the truth about the corrupt forces that led to Rosita’s death at the end of the film, whilst in danger of keeling over himself.

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I agree with Stephen O. Saxe’s review that describes the film as engaging and satisfying. And this is largely due to Ladd’s performance in the lead. Whilst Crowther and Schwartz both criticise Ladd’s character as one lacking in real vulnerability, I beg to differ. I do not think that he is any less tormented than Andrews is in Laura. I also think that there is no purpose in comparing two performances that are not only given by two actors who had entirely different styles, and who play characters who only have their obsession with solving a murder in common and not really any other meaningful character traits. Ladd is once again the king of cool, surviving the dangers that threaten to ensnare him, and charming the pants (quite literally) off of June Havoc’s character. But he is also a man who really cares for Rosita, who wants to find out what happened to her because she was a young woman, barely old enough to be out in a world of manipulative and cruel men; and to not relegate her to the sexpot who ended up a corpse category.

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A Punch with a Postage Stamp

In Appointment with Danger (1950) Ladd plays a postal inspector who must find the culprits who murdered a fellow postal inspector, and who may be planning to target a nun, Sister Augustine (played by Phyllis Calvert) who saw the men trying to dispose of the inspector’s body. Ladd goes undercover as a corrupt inspector in order to not only bring the men to justice, but to also stop them from staging a heist on a U.S. postal service van carrying $1 million. Things get a bit hair-raising as one of the gang comes to suspect Ladd and is also intent on murdering Sister Augustine.

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Ladd is in his element in this film. He delivers his lines with absolute ease, and even shows his capacity for physical comedy when, during a game of hand ball, he knocks out the thug who is determined to force him to make a move and blow his cover.

By this point Ladd was an established star, having starred in a series of successful film noirs, adventure vehicles, and romantic dramas, as well as two Westerns. And his performance conveys his experience as a leading man, as well as the studio’s confidence in his draw as a leading man. The entire film revolves completely around his fate. While the fate of Sister Augustine is also an important part of the film, she quickly becomes connected to Ladd’s character, and therefore acts as an extension of his arc.

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As with The Blue Dahlia and Saigon, Ladd shows his competence in fight scenes and in the physical demands of his role. He doesn’t look awkward or unbelievable when the final climatic clash of the film takes place. Throughout the film he looks like a man who can handle himself in a tough situation, and boy does he prove that to be true.

While his role in Appointment with Danger does not require him to be as emotive as in his previous film noirs, and it also doesn’t provide him with as much personal backstory; Ladd still turns in an extremely watchable and competent performance, imbued with that signature cool. He’s a man on a mission. And by George does he punch a lot of people in this film. It’s wonderful to watch.

Revenge in Technicolour

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Made four years after Appointment with Danger, Hell on Frisco Bay (1955) casts Ladd as an ex-police officer, Steve Rollins, who was wrongfully accused due to corrupt forces in San Fransisco. He is intent on clearing his name, and number one on his revenge list is Edward G. Robinson’s gangster, Victor Amato, who is pulling the strings of the Bay’s political scene. Ladd and Robinson are a wonderful combination. Ladd has that usual clenched jaw, steely eyed resolve, single mindedly pursuing his quest for revenge. Robinson gives another pitch perfect performance as a powerful criminal, who is loud where Ladd is soft and vulgar where Ladd is reserved.

A perfect example of the balance between Ladd and Robinson’s portrayals is when Rollins is summoned to Amato’s house for a chat. Whilst there, Amato offers Rollins a job in his organisation, but Rollins is having none of it. He grabs Amato and promises that he’ll get him, before outwitting Amato and his henchman, Joe (played by Paul Stewart), and escaping the house. Ladd plays the entire scene with a face devoid of expression, but his eyes are full of rage, which fills the viewer with unease. What is he going to do? Will he kill Amato right there and then? Robinson matches this intensity by being verbose and then filled with psychotic rage. Where Ladd’s face is a mask, Robinson’s is positively twitching with expression by the end of the scene.

Ladd’s character is definitely one of the best examples of a man on a mission in film noir. He stalks his way through the storyline, punching and attacking, and biting out his dialogue. But once again, he is a character who shows much vulnerability. It is clear that he loves his wife, Marcia (played by Joanne Dru), but he feels deeply betrayed by an infidelity she committed due to loneliness, and he also wants to protect her from having to mourn his seemingly guaranteed death. Ladd and Dru’s chemistry is excellent, as every scene they are in together is tinged with longing and regret. When they do eventually reunite, it is a wonderful thing.

What also makes Hell on Frisco Bay so interesting is the fact that the filmmakers seemed to be aware that Ladd could not play the same characters he had in the 1940s. He was older and therefore needed to be cast in a more mature role. And the film gives him the opportunity to show, like Lee Marvin in Point Blank, that an older noir lead with a vendetta is even more dangerous than a young one.

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Angels in the wood 

 

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The Man in the Net (1959) was Ladd’s last film noir role. By this point he had starred in nine films in the genre, and played the lead male role in eight of them. The plot and style of The Man in the Net is very different to Ladd’s earlier film noirs. Firstly because it is not set in the city and secondly because Ladd is not portrayed as physically powerful or particularly imposing. Unlike in The Blue Dahlia or Hell on Frisco Bay,  Ladd does not hunt down the killer while smacking confessions out of people or stalking about. He is a gentle, quiet man, who is helped in his quest to expose the witch hunt he is the target of, by the local children who he has been kind to.

Ladd portrays John Hamilton, an artist who has moved from New York to a small town in Connecticut to help his wife, Linda (played by Carolyn Jones) recover from her alcoholism and erratic behaviour. John makes sure that no one else is aware of Linda’s troubles, and he is so successful, that when she is murdered, no one believes John when he tells them that she was not the charming woman she pretended to be, and that she actually verbally abused him. Matters are not helped by the fact that Linda had become friends with the town’s snobbish jet set, and that she lied about John abusing her. The only ones who believe John’s innocence are Vickie (played by Diane Brewster) who is in love with John, and the town’s children, who are all determined to help John anyway they can.

While a critic for The New York Times, Richard W. Neson, said that

“Mr. Ladd, on the other hand, performs in his usual, cool style, which under the hectic circumstances mutes his personality to the point of unreality”[13] 

I feel that if Ladd had played the role with the same kind of manic energy that Jones played Linda, then the entire film would have been thrown completely out of balance. The viewer needs Ladd as an anchor in a film that is saturated in tense energy that reaches breaking point by the film’s climax.

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If Ladd had suddenly, and uncharacteristically, acted out the film with the same desperation that Dana Andrews does in Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, movie audiences who were used to his cool persona would have been utterly confused. And it would have come across as being forced and disingenuous. Because of this Ladd manages to imbue his performance with a quiet desperation, which features moment of emotional snapping, as in the scene where a cassette player he needs to prove his innocence doesn’t want to work. These moments of high ratcheted tension interspersed amongst a performance that shows his continuing attempt to not crack under pressure really pack a punch which would have been lost had Ladd been manic throughout.

All in all, I feel that The Man in the Net is a film that really shows Ladd’s maturation as a film noir lead. From the very young, beautiful boyish character of Ed Beaumont, where Ladd is still slightly unsure of his own onscreen magnetism, to the quiet, determined veracity of John Hamilton; Ladd shows his growth throughout the genre.

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Carolyn Jones, Alan Ladd and Michael Curtiz celebrating Ladd’s 50th motion picture on the set of The Man in the Net

Alan Ladd was one of the finest film noir leading men of the era. While people rightly praise Bogart, Mitchum and Powell, I think it’s time that Ladd received more credit for his style that became an indelible part of the genre: cool, confident, but also vulnerable and human. Critics may have claimed that he was always too much like a superman in his noir, untouchable, but I don’t think that’s entirely right. While he is the strong lead who you route for, you are also aware that he is using that toughness to hide his fragility in a world that will use it against him. And I think that that’s what we have to remember about Alan Ladd. He was a gentle man, who felt things very deeply. And while his characters always seemed triumph, in the end, Ladd seemed to be like Raven in This Gun For Hire, someone who became the victim of a system that wanted to use him.

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What are your thoughts on Alan Ladd’s film noir performances? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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palewriter2

I adore classic and horror films and it's so lovely to be able to speak to other people about it.

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