A look at some noirs featuring one of the screen’s best gentlemen.
Herbert Marshall was one of the classiest men in the movies, a pleasure to watch in any role, and one of my favourite actors. From his English background, a proper upbringing and education, a brief but by its nature a sedate and serious career as an accountant, and an actor’s training, he cultivated the air of the most dapper, polished, intelligent and refined gentlemen. From wartime experience which left him an amputee, he rebounded and learned to walk with barely a sign of his condition. He also adjusted his craft as a thespian to de-emphasize the physical and instead make the most of facial expressions, voice and speech. Consequently he was able to convey deep emotion and melancholy with the slightest reaction and gesture, and affection or condemnation with the least modulation of voice (and what a voice). First on stage (to which he never really aspired) then in movies, beginning in 1926 with silents, Marshall was one of the best noble and appealing romantic interests to all kinds of actresses and sometimes, as in Trouble in Paradise, revealed an unexpected but delightfully devilish streak beneath that polished and proper surface. As Marshall aged into supporting and character roles he could be counted on to convincingly portray many types: a kindly or stuffy elder, a pensive and wise relative or advisor, a guarded and mysterious or downright creepy and confident villain.
In Crack-Up (1946). Pat O’Brien plays an art expert who is adamant that he’s just been in a train wreck even though there’s no record of one happening. Third-billed Marshall gets a double introduction: once as he arrives to O’Brien’s side with Claire Trevor, and a second time as the film flashes back to his appearance at a lecture given by O’Brien before his weird train episode. For two intros we still know little about Marshall’s character other than he is a careful, still observer with some compelling reason to study this circle of art experts. We soon discover he does have a bigger role with power to tell the police to let O’Brien loose. Though he says he knows O’Brien from a joint art reclamation operation during the war, Marshall too vigorously defends the police (with furtive glances even) to fool us. Later (while looking good in a tux) Marshall begins to reveal he’s a Scotland Yard art investigator working on an art forgery ring. He gets some nice fluffy bits in this movie that contrast with the grit of O’Brien and Trevor, like the little speech about people-watching at a penny arcade, or the ends-justify-the-means glee with which he uncovers the real art at the end of the movie.
The High Wall (1947). Audrey Totter plays a psychiatrist helping amnesiac veteran Robert Taylor reclaim lost memories which may or may not include the murder of his wife. The movie starts with Marshall, troubled and drinking, addressed as “sir,” ascending in a really shadowy elevator (foreshadowing for his nastiness later in the film). We learn that he’s a publisher worried over the whereabouts of his secretary and a missing manuscript. Next thing we see is that very secretary, dead and being driven off the road by her husband Taylor. As Taylor tries to regain his memory, Marshall emerges as a suspect. In a chilling scene, the janitor/ maintenance man where Marshall lives makes the mistake of cornering Marshall and trying to threaten him with “things he knows” about his role in the murder. Marshall takes it ever so coolly, only cautioning the man about the penalties of blackmail (he has a unique definition of ‘penalties’). The janitor wants money and won’t take the hint, leading Marshall to deal with him in a most refined, bloodlessly efficient way– with the hook of his umbrella and the coldest of stares. Marshall is excellent, whether panicking or smug and overconfident and has a way of looking aside and away from people as they speak to him that’s very evasive and creepy.
The Underworld Story (1950). Here Marshall plays a newspaper mogul whose son murders his wife and then devises a plan to pin the crime on the black maid. Though clearly appalled by the idea, Marshall is swayed by the desire to protect his son, business empire and family name so he goes along with the awful plan. He uses his power and influence to turn opinion and odds against the maid, who isn’t helped much by the misguided, selfish and greedy actions of outcast reporter Dan Duryea. As the pressure is on to liquidate the troublesome Duryea before the truth comes out about his son, Marshall is pushed to take drastic action to keep him from dragging down the family any further.
Angel Face (1952) has Marshall again playing the father of a villain, but this time he sweetly indulges and horribly spoils his daughter, the disturbed Jean Simmons. He spends a lot of time making excuses and apologizing for her selfish behaviour, and spends a lot of other people’s money on her. His character is a struggling novelist who has married the rich Barbara O’Neil; in one revealing bit he tries to butter O’Neil up with that Marshall charm before laying on her that he charged $300 on her credit card to buy Simmons a dress. Simmons loves the luxury but all the gifts in the world can’t buy this overdevoted daddy’s girl any feelings of respect or warmth toward her stepmother. This role puts Marshall in a dependent and pathetic position; he’s an impotent failure in his career and also as a traditional masculine figure, unable to please his impatient and critical wife and out of control daughter. When the poor guy just wants to be dropped off near Wilshire, he falls victim to the vehicular trap that Simmons has set to get rid of stepmommy.
This is a version of an article I wrote on Herbert Marshall’s noirs for The Dark Pages Supporting Actors Issue.