Alexis Smith: A Dynamite Girl’s Film Noir

Alexis Smith (June 8, 1921 – June 9, 1993) was a versatile, Canadian-born actress who was equally at home playing in Hollywood Westerns, comedies, and noirs or just about any genre Tinseltown tossed her way. She played opposite many of the biggest Silver Screen draws including Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, Errol Flynn, and Cary Grant. The publicity machine of the era dubbed her the Dynamite Girl—casting her most often in the role of “The Other Woman”—and after two decades, she met her ultimate critical acclaim for 1959’s The Young Philadelphians opposite Paul Newman. Later, she turned to Broadway where she won a Tony Award in 1972 and in the very early 1990s was nominated for an Emmy Award for her guest appearance on an episode of Cheers. For nearly fifty years she was married to Peter Gunn’s Craig Stevens.

Here are three of the award winning actress’s films with the right mixture of crime, mystery, and noir.

The Two Mrs. Carrols (1947)

A lackluster (some say bad) performance from Humphrey Bogart, a too familiar plot al a Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion with a similar plot device of poisoned milk for the dying and a title that has been used countless times since and may be more popular than the movie itself (The Simpsons TV show had the most absurd variation with “The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons”). One thing’s certain, and that is this noir film is not boring. The story has Bogie playing a successful painter who murdered his first wife and is now married to Barbara Stanwyck. Before wife #1 passed, he painted her as an angel of death, and when Stannwyk sees that he has also painted her in a similar fatal light, she knows her time is limited. Alexis Smith plays the woman who is zeroing in her sights on the successful artist not knowing his dubious history. One of many films where Smith was supporting the two leads but her acting chops and beauty elevates such a minor role into something special. Not to be missed.

Trivia: According to Wikipedia, some academics have noted the film’s similarity to Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Oval Portait” in which an eccentric painter was more interested in painting his wife’s likeness and not realizing she had died during the process.

 

The Turning Point (1952)

Edmond O’Brien plays John Conroy, a district attorney who believes he can clean up his corrupt city. An old school chum Jerry McKibbon (William Holden) knows Conroy’s too wet behind the ears and is liable to get himself killed … especially considering he’s wise to Conroy’s corrupt police father being in with the bad guys that Conroy is attempting to send upstream. Alexis Smith plays Amanda Waycross, Conroy’s secretary and girlfriend, who is wary of McKibbon’s detached cynical approach to journalism. When she asks what he really thinks of her, McKibbon wryly answers, “handsome dame who does what she wants to do so why ask why.” But before long Waycross comes to understand what McKibbon is in their corner though complications arise when they fall in love and begin an affair.

The original NY Times review called the film, based on Horace McCoy’s Storm in the City, “A sober but uninspired drama.” I disagree and think it has aged well along with Smith’s performance that the paper downplayed by saying, “Pretty Miss Smith is confined to answering the telephone and trotting at the heels of both.” Hardly. Smith keeps the pace with Holden’s snappy, rat-a-tat dialogue (similar to his style in Sunset Blvd). Plus the film benefits from many outdoor scenes … a nice break from all the sound stage productions of the time.

 

The Sleeping Tiger (1954)

Smith plays wealthy socialite Glenda Esmond, wife of Clive Esmond (Alexander Knox) a psychiatrist who is held at gunpoint by Frank Clemmons (Dick Bogarde). Clive is idealistic and so he brings the young, handsome Frank to live at the mansion where the doctor will attempt to rehabilitate him. At first Glenda is opposed to the idea because, unlike Clive, she believes he can’t be helped, the problem isn’t a result from a bad childhood but instead he was born with the issues he can’t overcome. Regardless, she begins spending time riding horses in the country and one day Frank hits too close to home by telling the uptight Glenda, “I know your sort. I know you so well. You act as if nothing could shake you but in actual fact you are a tight wire and it wouldn’t take much to break you. Not very much at all.”

He’s proven correct and before you can say bored rich housewife Frank takes Glenda to a seedy nightclub in Soho. Her true nature is aroused and they soon begin an affair. Clive continues to analyze Frank, slowly pulling the thread of his patient’s upbringing and, in particular, his relationship to his parents. Noir with heavy doses of soap opera drama that is dated but still highly watchable thanks to the three leads that make the hokey plot quite engaging.

Some of Smith’s other noir milestones include Conflict also with Bogart, Split Second, and Whiplash. She may never have snagged a role that elevated her to movie star immortality (she had left Warner Brothers over dissatisfaction of parts to become a freelancer) but her sophistication, beauty, and solid acting is in a class all by itself and deserves another look.


Edward A. Grainger aka David Cranmer is the editor/publisher of the BEAT to a PULP webzine and books and the recent anthology collection, The Lizard’s Ardent Uniform and Other Stories.

Read all of Edward A. Grainger's posts for Criminal Element.

Comments

  1. Eleanor (Ellie) Miller

    I realize your focus here is on Smith as a noir star, but in fairness to her and those of us who really enjoyed and perhaps appreciated her more mature roles even more than her ingenue ones, can I just remind folks of those times when she shone(!)…more than held her own…either as the other woman and/or wife in the lives of fascinating men played for the most part by famous male stars. I’m thinking specifically of one of my all-time favorite films “Beau James” where Bob Hope (in the role he was born to play) starred as New York’s Mayor James J. ‘Jimmy’ Walker with Alexis as Allie Walker. I also loved her as Linda Porter playing opposite Cary Grant in the Cole Porter bio pic “Night and Day” as well as when she was the other woman in George Gershwin’s (Robert Alda) life in “Rhapsody in Blue”.

  2. David Cranmer

    EllieMNV, Another film of hers I enjoyed (and non-noir) was Gentleman Jim with Flynn. As a matter of fact I though she played off Flynn better than any other male star of the period. Oh, and I couldn’t agree more with Rhapsody in Blue and Night and Day. Thank you for reminding us of these terrific movies.

  3. David Cranmer

    Another, somewhat forgotten, non-noir Smith film is Stallion Road with Ronald Reagan. Sweeping melodrama as only old Hollywood could crank out. And though it was a minor role I liked her turn in Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence.

  4. Mates

    I don’t believe I have ever seen any of her movies though I remember her face and name.

  5. David Cranmer

    Mates, She became an accomplished character actor that you may have seen on shows like Dallas. I first saw Ms. Smith on an episode of Cheers but didn’t know it was her until doing the research for this article.

  6. Eleanor (Ellie) Miller

    <smile> Now that you mention it, I remember when she worked with Flynn in “San Antonio” and how well they seemed to ‘mesh’. But honestly, if you haven’t seen “Beau James” it’s well worth whatever it takes to track it down. It’s such a fantastic period piece and what a cast! Hope literally inhabits his role, but Paul Douglas as the old pro politico…Vera Miles as Alexis’s competition (Hope’s love interest) “Betty Compton”…fantastic! There are so many simply BRILLIANT moments: I’m thinking especially of the campaign sequences in various ethnic neighborhoods all themed around Walker’s song “Will You Love Me in December” AND the pure undiluted show biz of a vignette with Jimmy Durante (at I think it was a Friars Club roast) where the two of them do a soft-shoe routine to “The Sidewalks of New York” at the heighth of the Seabury investigation scandal. Obviously <wry g=””> I’m prejudiced…LOL.</wry></smile>

  7. David Cranmer

    I will definitly watch Beau James, EllieMNV. It doesn’t take me much to watch classic films and especially those with Smith in them. Plus being from New York I’ve always found such history nothing short of fascinating. Jimmy Walker was quite the colorful character.

  8. Eleanor (Ellie) Miller

    When you do, please do post your reaction here. I always really enjoy reading your comments about the films that you enjoy and especially why! <giggle> perhaps we might call you the literary Robert Osbourne…LOL.

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