Let us establish here and now the Ted de Corsia Rule: Any movie with Ted de Corsia is worth watching. That’s not to say that Ted can redeem a complete stinker but he’ll always be worth the price of admission. You can stick that in the bank and start drawing interest on it. Ted’s a sure bet.
In classic noir, he was one of the great thugs, a man who seemed to have been born with a sneer on his lips and a head full of pomade. In film after film, he’s the world’s biggest sleaze, grifting his way through life, hatching schemes, ogling dames, slapping around a bunch of suckers and chumps. He makes being an asshole look like the meaning of life.
When he made his film debut in Orson Welles’s The Lady From Shanghai, he already seemed like a fully formed screen presence. Born Edward Gildea de Corsia in Brooklyn in 1905, he showed an early affinity and aptitude for accents. Starting in radio in the 1930s, de Corsia basically did it all—from newsreels like the March Of Time (where he did the voices of President Herbert Hoover, Huey Long, and Benito Mussolini among other notable figures) to mystery and adventure programs like The Shadow. He stayed a dependable radio workhorse throughout the 1940s before heading to Hollywood to work for Welles.
Although he had played all kinds of roles on the radio and on stage in New York, the movie camera knew a villain when it saw one and de Corsia quickly became a popular tough guy in crime films. For the next three decades, he did a little bit of everything—like any great character actor—with his baseline being the squinty-eyed bad guy. In between film and television roles, he continued to work in radio (on shows such as Night Beat, The Lone Ranger, and CBS Radio Workshop) and raised two daughters. He died of natural causes at the age of 69 in Encino.
With charisma to burn, he invigorated every film he was ever in, but it should also be noted that he was a real professional and a dedicated craftsman. It’s not for nothing that he worked with Orson Welles, Jules Dassin, Allan Dwan, and Stanley Kubrick—just to name a few of the top tier directors who regarded de Corsia as a sure bet. He sold every line with a sneer and a twinkle.
I wish this guy was in every movie ever made. Every time he walks on screen, I smile. His work was always impeccable—one reason why he was always a welcome presence in a film—but here’s a list of the best of his best performances.
Essential de Corsia Noir:
1. The Lady From Shanghai (1947): As a sleazeball named Broome, he shows up in the film with his hair slicked back and his top lip stuck to his teeth. He winds up gut-shot. This is the film debut that launched a thousand sneers and a thousand fatal stomach wounds.
2. The Naked City (1948): His turn as a remorseless killer named Garzah in Jules Dassin’s great docu-noir might be his keystone performance. The film was shot on the teeming streets of New York (it is a masterpiece of cinematography and an essential film for lovers of Manhattan), and de Corsia is as much an artifact of 1948 NYC as the Brooklyn Bridge. Available in a gorgeous edition from the Criterion Collection.
3. The Enforcer (1951): Humphrey Bogart plays a DA trying to crack a murder-for-hire ring. De Corsia plays a slimy killer-turned-prosecution-witness named Joseph Rico. An underrated film in many ways, this is a nice showcase for the way de Corsia embedded a trembling coward inside the protective shell of all his tough guys.
4. Crime Wave (1954): Andre De Toth’s noir masterpiece features de Corsia as a small time gang leader named Doc Penny who’s trying to outrun an obsessed cop played by Sterling Hayden. Even in a movie packed full of great character actors (Timothy Carey, Charles Bronson, Jay Novello), de Corsia’s menace shines hard and bright.
5. Slightly Scarlet (1956): Playing the oily rival to crime boss John Payne, de Corsia teams up with Arlene Dahl as the psychotic little sister of Payne’s girlfriend. Watching de Corsia and Dahl claw each other is like watching monsters mate.
6. The Killing (1956): Another all-star cast of misfits. Sterling Hayden assembles a gang to pull off a heist at a racetrack. Pivotal to his plan is a desperate cop played by de Corsia. Watching de Corsia play scenes with fellow noir stalwarts like Elisha Cook, Jr. is as fun as noir gets. Available from the Criterion Collection.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.