The Picture of Dorian Gray, the classic gothic tale outlining the dangers of extreme vanity, is deservedly one of cinema’s most famous portraits. But portraits also figure prominently in many noirs, where (and please forgive this brief foray into pretentious movie analysis 101) they symbolize a great many things, such as the desire to possess, control, worship, even destroy the object of one’s obsession. Portraits are usually idealizations of women, and “muse” can often be just another word for siren and femme fatale. Then again, portraits can also be truthful or ironic depictions, and reveal more about artist than subject. Staring down from a canvas, an absent or long dead figure can influence events, mock or haunt other characters (and their eyes tend to follow you around the room). Now, walk this way into the noir gallery for a look at ten of the most memorable works of dark art.
10. The Big Clock (1948)
Ray Milland works at Crimeways magazine, and a murder suspect thanks to a pretty frame provided by boss Charles Laughton. Elsa Lanchester is the eccentric (to put it mildly) artist who promises to draw a sketch of the man last seen with the victim. She saw the man at her auction, and is confident she can capture his “smug, self-satisfied” air. Milland is terrified of the potential result, but much to his relief, Lanchester would happily take a bribe, and her paintings are much too abstract (again, putting it kindly) to actually identify anyone slightly resembling a human. So, although it’s the biggest dud of a portrait to figure in a noir plot, it’s still memorably delightful for what it gives Milland in angst and grief, what it gives Lanchester in character development and what it gives us in suspense and comedy.
9. A Double Life (1947)
Ronald Colman won an Oscar for this performance as Broadway actor Tony John, whose ability to “lose himself” in a role is equal parts legendary and frightening. Othello is the role where Tony finally snaps; he grows obsessed, jealous and violent toward co-star and ex-wife Signe Hasso, and murders his girlfriend Shelly Winters. In Colman’s first scene we see him lovingly admiring grand portraits of himself, in costume as Richard III, and one of himself as… himself, as if just being Tony were as demanding a role as any on stage. Right from the start this story about acting begins, through portraits, to hint at Tony’s split personalities, self-conceptions and mirror reflections.
8. Born To Be Bad (1950)
Joan Fontaine plays the manipulative, conniving Christabel Caine. Mel Ferrer’s the artist painting her portrait, and makes her seem sweet and saintly when she’s really, as the novelist played by Robert Ryan aptly assesses, “two people”—apt, I tell you. Fontaine’s set her sights on millionaire Zachary Scott, and manages to wreck Scott’s engagement to Joan Leslie, first by dropping cruel suggestions, then by playing on Scott’s interest when he purchases Christabel’s portrait at auction. Practically before the paint is dry, the portrait becomes the symbol and focal point of men’s interest, its value goes up and down in relation to Christabel’s scandals, and its location changes with her relationships.
7. The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)
The first and late Mrs. Carroll is depicted as the angel of death in a tremendous but creepy portrait painted by her husband, artist Humphrey Bogart. Barbara Stanwyck is the second Mrs. Carroll, who starts to suspect that Bogart poisoned the first Mrs. C, and that the creepy portrait presaged her death. So it is with considerable and understandable alarm that Stanwyck, feeling increasingly unwell with familiar poisoning symptoms, realizes Bogart has been painting her portrait, which he keeps locked up and forbids her to see. Worse, there’s a potential third Mrs. C (Alexis Smith) in the picture, so to speak. When Stanwyck finally gets an eyeful of her freaky attic portrait (think: “Bride of Dorian Gray”) her worst fears are confirmed.
6. House of Strangers (1949)
The portrait of Edward G. Robinson as banker and intimidating patriarch Gino Monetti looms large over his dysfunctional Italian-American family, even after his death. Son Richard Conte returns for revenge on his spoiled and opportunistic brothers, after spending years in prison for trying to save the family savings and loan. Conte’s conversations with Robinson’s portrait serve the story, leading us into and out of an extended, explanatory flashback. Conte tells the portrait everything he didn’t get to say in real life, including his plans for revenge, and eventually, good riddance to all things Monetti.
5. Portrait of Jennie (1948)
To prepare for his role and avoid overly tortured and histrionic playacting, Joseph Cotten studied Robert Brackman, actual painter of the film’s portrait of Jennie. Cotten plays an unsuccessful artist whose muse almost drives him to ruin. Jennifer Jones plays the enigmatic Jennie, who seems to age radically every time she appears to tell tales that don’t mesh with reality. Cotten, while trying from memory to capture her ethereal beauty on canvas, discovers that she actually died years before, and his completion of her portrait marks an end to their contact on this world.
4. The Locket (1946)
Robert Mitchum is the artist, Laraine Day his muuuuse. His portrait of her makes him famous. Her mania, crime, lies and treatment of him, and his inability to convince other men of her danger, drives him to ruin and suicide. When Mitchum believes her excuses, he paints her as idealized and wearing the locket that figures so prominently in her story. But in his first successful portrait of her, she’s eyeless and spooky; Ricardo Cortez says it makes him think of a madwoman. That’s because Mitchum painted Day as the mythological Cassandra, she who was bestowed with the gift of prophecy, she who was ignored by suckers who most needed to take heed. Too bad for Mitchum he was one of them.
3. Scarlet Street (1945)
Edward G. Robinson appears again in a portrait noir, playing a nebbish who paints only on Sundays, locked in his bathroom, while his nasty wife threatens to pitch all his canvasses. When Robinson pretends to be an artist to impress Joan Bennett, she and boyfriend Dan Duryea cook up a scam which results in Robinson’s paintings being sold and celebrated under Joan’s name. Robinson’s wife suspects he’s having an affair, and in another jab to his ego, accuses him of stealing this “good” art from Bennett. Robinson ends up jobless, homeless, and peering in the window at his portrait of Joan (whom he’s murdered) which ends up selling for thousands of dollars that he’ll never get to enjoy.
2. Woman in the Window (1944)
Edward G. Robinson, looking in another window, returns to the art world (it’s a wonder he loved it so in real life, considering the number it did on him in les noirs). On his first night alone, while wife and kids are away, Robinson happens by a store window and spies the portrait of Joan Bennett. Stopping to admire her/it, he suddenly notices the same woman standing beside him, reflected in the glass. From there it’s a doozy of a drop to noir disaster, as Robinson: kills a man, hatches a plot, disposes of a body, lies to police and friends, faces blackmail by Dan Duryea, considers another murder and finally, suicide. Oops, but then he wakes up—fooled ya! Nasty trick on us, but next time he passes this now classic portrait (done by Hollywood artist Paul Clements) he says “not for a million dollars” and kicks up a dust cloud running away. The moral: fantasy is dangerous, and better left neatly confined within a frame, and safely stored behind glass. Also, dream plots are kinda shady.
1. Laura (1944)
Arguably filmdom’s most famous portrait, this one has it all–obsession, possession, idealization, suspicion, and when Laura returns, unreasonable expectation and comparison. The portrait’s perfection is doubly valuable because Laura is initially thought to be disfigured, and with detective Dana Andrews captivated by a canvas while the other characters “paint” their own self-serving portraits of her, the real Laura sure has a lot to live up to. Interesting background, Gene Tierney said in her autobiography, “it is one of the curious facts of movie-making that paintings seldom transfer well to film,” and that was certainly the case in this shoot. When Rouben Mamoulian started directing Laura, he used a portrait done by his wife Azadia, a popular Hollywood artist. However, once Otto Preminger took over directing the film, he had Azadia’s painting replaced with an enlarged photo by studio photographer Frank Polony, which was airbrushed to seem painted.
a version of this article previously appeared in Dark Pages Magazine