In the classic era, Warner Brothers was the most hardboiled of the major studios. It was the home of the gangster flick and the detective movie. In short, it was the kind of place that gave steady work to a guy like Barton MacLane.
MacLane just had a face you wanted to punch. On the Warner roster of hoods and heavies, he held a special place. He rarely played a nutjob. No, what he did was less flashy, but just as important to helping create the milieu of the classic crime flick. Barton MacLane was the king of the assholes.
Maybe it’s his voice, an authoritarian bark that seems to begrudge every word, a perfect tool for the hardscrabble Warner Brothers world. MacLane was great at playing pitiless cops, remorseless scoundrels, and grumpy lunkheads. (He wasn’t just confined to the urban crime flick, either. He could be an asshole while sitting on a horse, too.) If, as the old saying goes, acting is about reacting, then MacLane’s reactions vary from the slightly irritated to the deeply pissed off. It’s like he was born in a bad mood.
Born in South Carolina and raised in a strict Methodist family, MacLane was educated at Wesleyan where he excelled at sports, particularly football. He was so good, in fact, he got a bit part in one of the first football movies, 1926’s The Quarterback. Despite his athletic prowess, however, MacLane was a cultured man who wrote plays and played several musical instruments. He studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and started acting in a stock company in Brooklyn. He found his way into movies while still in New York via Paramount’s Astoria studio.
Soon enough, he was out in Hollywood, where he signed with Warner Brothers as a contract player. The studio soon seized on his size and brusque delivery, and MacLane began a career of playing, well, assholes.
In those years, he could often be found circling Humphrey Bogart. Eventually Bogie would go on to become the definitive Warner Brothers performer—the bridge between the gangster films of the thirties, the noir of the forties and the patriotic films of the war years—but in 1936, he was just another fast-talking goon billed underneath several people, including MacLane, in the Edward G. Robinson vehicle Bullets or Ballots. By the next, however, MacLane had taken the backseat when they appeared in the jailbreak drama San Quentin.
MacLane notched more and more crime flick credits. He was loaned out to another studio to back up Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney (and to play a rare nice guy role) in Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937). He also got his own series, playing gruff Lt. Steve McBride in the B-series of “Torchy Blane” films opposite Glenda Farrell’s spunky girl reporter: Smart Blonde (1937), Fly Away Baby (1937), The Adventurous Blonde (1937), Blondes At Work (1938), Torchy Gets Her Man (1938), Torchy Blane Gets Her Man (1938), Torchy Blane In Chinatown (1939), Torchy Runs For Mayor (1939). The Torchy films are good B-movie fun, with MacLane grousing and decking hoods as Farrell gets herself into ever deeper trouble.
When the forties hit, MacLane became an indispensible part of the darker fare that was coming out of Warner Brothers. He appeared in two key films in 1941. As a cop in Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra, he browbeat Ida Lupino and hounded Bogart to his death.
Later that year he gave probably his best known performance in John Houston’s The Maltese Falcon. This is how most noir geeks probably find him for the first time. As Lt. Detective Dundy, he’s a bellowing hulk of pure meanness trying to pin a murder on Bogart’s Sam Spade. Their verbal warfare is one of the highlights of the film.
Spade: Haven't you anything better to do than to keep popping in here early every morning and asking a lot of fool questions?
Lt. Dundy: And gettin' a lot of lyin' answers!
Dundy is the threat hanging over Spade’s head the entire movie. “Well, you know me, Spade,” he tells him. “If you did it, or if you didn't, you'll get a square deal from me and most of the breaks. Don't know as I blame you much, a man that kills your partner, but that won't stop me from nailing ya.” Dundy is the ultimate MacLane role, really. He’s a thug with a badge, the face of ruthless authoritarianism disguised as professionalism and moral rectitude.
MacLane stayed busy. Back in San Quentin (1946), he played an evil escaped convict opposite Lawrence Tierney. He appeared in Mysterious Intruder (1946), an entry in The Whistler series directed by William Castle. He was back giving support to Bogart in another Huston film in The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) playing a shady businessman. He was in 1949’s Red Light with George Raft and Raymond Burr. He plays a corrupt cop with his old Falcon partner Ward Bond in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950).
And on and on.
Like everyone else, he ended up on television—barking orders and slapping people around in cop shows or, increasingly, riding the range in westerns. By the mid-sixties his era had passed, and the kind of acting that he’d done in the thirties, forties, and fifties had long since become a caricature. As such, his final role was a reoccurring character on I Dream Of Jeannie, playing a military man until his death in 1969 at the age of 66.
He was one of those performers who was excellent almost without exception. In the world of the classic crime film, he’s pretty close to indispensible.
Jake Hinkson is the author of several novels, including the newly-releasedThe Big Ugly.
Read all of Jake Hinkson's posts for Criminal Element.