The one scene that every film noir fan remembers Dorothy Malone for is her brief appearance in Howard Hawks’s 1946 adaptation of The Big Sleep. Private eye Philip Marlowe is investigating a phony bookshop that operates as the front for a pornography ring. He ducks into the legitimate book store across the street to see if the proprietress there can give him any info on her creepy neighbors. And who should he find except the prettiest girl in the world.
He questions her. Her hair is up and she’s wearing glasses—but she has that sexy librarian vibe, especially when she tells him, “You begin to interest me…vaguely.”
She tells him what he needs to know about the creep next door. He starts to leave, but it’s raining outside and when she says, “It’s coming down pretty hard out there” something in her voice insinuates that she’s not interested in the weather.
When she gives him the sexy librarian look again, he says, “You know, as it happens I have a bottle of pretty good rye in my pocket. I’d a lot rather get wet in here.”
She flips the sign and lowers the shade, takes off her glasses and lowers her hair. “Looks like we’re closed for the rest of the afternoon.”
And…fade to black.
That, folks, is how you implied fornication in 1946.
The scene is greatly expanded from Raymond Chandler’s source novel (Chandler’s Marlowe is far more sexually uptight—even repressed—than Hawks’s Marlowe). In keeping with the film’s freewheeling, let’s-just-be-entertaining ethos, the scene was included Hawks later said, “Just because the girl was so damn pretty.”
That pretty girl was the wonderful Dorothy Malone. If you watch the famous bookshop scene in The Big Sleep you will see the one truly memorable moment she ever played in a film noir. She was a dark haired beauty with sensuous lips and big, knowing eyes—a killer combination that for some reason no other noir director ever really utilized.
Her brief moment in the bookshop with Bogart should have immediately led to better parts, but instead a long string of filmmakers did something that is still bewildering: they cast her as series of good girls, dutiful nurses, and dowdy housewives. Malone was never bad in any of these roles, but they never used her to her full potential. That would come later.
Which is not to say that her noir films were not good. Some were terrific in fact. She plays sultry Kim Novak’s good girl neighbor in Richard Quine’s brilliant Pushover, and in the excellent Private Hell 36, she’s the understanding wife of Howard Duff’s ethically tortured cop. She’s Zachary Scott’s angel of mercy in the entertaining Flaxy Martin. Occasionally, she got a little more to do. Playing a nurse in The Killer That Stalked New York she got to help fight a small pox epidemic set off by a diamond smuggler returning from overseas. In all of these films, however, she is called upon to do little more than be pretty and kind. Her thankless role as Barry Sullivan’s overly understanding wife in the lackluster Loophole was the low point of these kinds of roles.
Had her career ended there, she might have been little more than a film noir footnote, but then she was rescued by another, far more flamboyant, genre: the melodrama.
In 1956, she dyed her hair platinum blonde and starred in Douglas Sirk’s masterpiece Written On The Wind. Malone plays the nymphomaniac sister of alcoholic playboy Robert Stack. She’s in love with Stack’s best friend Rock Hudson, but he’s in love with Stack’s pregnant wife Lauren Bacall. Jealous, she convinces Stack that Bacall’s baby really belongs to Hudson. And then…well, let’s just say the conversation gets a little heated.
This is full blown no-bones-about-it melodrama—a wide screen bonanza of lush interior design eye-popping Technicolor, snazzy costume changes, whispered pleas of love, shouted denunciations, alcohol consumption by the gallon, and enough implied sex to start an STD epidemic.
Malone finally gets her day—and effortlessly upstages her old Big Sleep costar Bacall it must be said—playing a character who hates herself and her sloppy brother in equal measure. She’d be a tragic figure if not for Malone’s sheer ebullient sex appeal. She’s the master villain of the piece, but like all master villains in true melodrama, we end up loving her for being the most exciting person on screen. Here, finally, is the Dorothy Malone who should have been leading men to their doom in all those film noirs—her bedroom eyes finally beckoning to the bedroom. Sure, I’ll ruin your life, they seemed to say but, damn it, I’ll be worth it.
The film was a smash hit, made Malone a star, and won her an Oscar. This led her to some plum roles: reteaming with Sirk and Hudson for The Tarnished Angels, headlining the Barrymore biopic Too Much Too Soon, staring down Henry Fonda in Warlock.
Her biggest role was on the mother of all prime-time soap operas, Peyton Place. It seemed a reasonable place, given her Sirk bona fides, for her to end up. Her time on the show didn’t go smoothly, however, and after much bickering with producers she was written off the show. She sued for breach of contract and eventually settled out of court. After that she worked steadily in television, with occasional forays into film, until she retired in the early 1990s. Her last film role was as Sharon Stone’s family-murdering friend Hazel Dobkins in Basic Instinct.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.