For a guy who was only about five foot two, Percy Helton was the biggest creep in film noir. He has one of those indispensible faces that is as essential to the genre as cigarette smoke and low key lighting. He’s in a million noirs, almost always playing the same guy: the creep. Sometimes he’s the creepy bartender, sometimes the creepy boxing promoter. When people say “They don’t make movies like they used to” what they mean, in effect, is that they don’t make movies with weird character actors like Percy Helton anymore. Short, perpetually old, with a body shaped like a garbage bag and a voice that was the mixture of a fifteen year-old girl and a petulant child molester, Helton somehow added authenticity and eccentricity to every movie he appeared in.
Born in 1894, he came from a vaudeville family and grew up on the stage, working for a time with the great George M. Cohan. He performed on stages large and small (including Broadway), and he began doing occasional film work as early as 1915. He finally committed himself to movies in 1947 when he played a drunk Santa Claus in Miracle On 34th Street—the same film, incidentally, that marked the film career debut of Helton’s fellow Goon Squad member Thelma Ritter. Helton, not unlike Ritter, was marked by this late arrival into films. Sure, you can comb back through some old silents to find glimpses of the young Percy Helton, but for most moviegoers he seemed to have be born 53 years old.
He became a constant fixture on the big screen after that, making just about every kind of movie in Hollywood, but being especially suited for the grimy, after hours world of film noir. He was in minor films like Call Northside 777 (1948), Larceny (1948), Alias Nick Beale (1949), The Crooked Way (1949), Thieves’ Highway (1949), Vice Squad (1953), and Crashout (1955).
He also made some of the best noirs of the classic era. He’s the sleazy little trainer who sets up boxer Robert Ryan in Robert Wise’s 1949 masterpiece The Set-Up. He’s a well-meaning little bartender in Robert Siodmak’s nearly perfect 1949's Criss-Cross. And in Robert Aldrich’s pivotal 1955's Kiss Me Deadly, he’s a sleazy doctor who gets his fingers crushed in a desk drawer by Mike Hammer.
His best role in a film noir came in 1953 with Wicked Woman, a tawdry potboiler by the Lennon and McCartney of the ‘50s B-movie, Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene. Though the duo made other impressive crime flicks, including D.O.A, The Well, andThe Thief), Wicked Woman is theirtrash masterpiece.
The film gave Helton his biggest role in a film noir (indeed it was one of the biggest roles of his screen career) and thus deserves a closer inspection. The great Beverly Michaels plays a sultry blonde named Billie Nash who blows into a town in the middle of nowhere and gets a room in a flophouse. The guy across the hall is a creepy little tailor named Charlie Borg (played by you-know-who). He’s about a foot shorter than Billie and thirty-years her senior, but she flirts with him to get some dinner and drinks. The next day, Billie talks herself into a waitressing job at a bar owned by a friendly lush named Dora Bannister and her strapping stud of a husband, Matt. Before long (hey, this thing is only 74 minutes), Billie and Matt are slipping around, meeting in the dark and promising to run off to Mexico together. Then Charlie spots them together.
Wicked Woman is the rare film that moved Helton to the center of the plot. At the start it looks like he’ll just be the creepy ladies’ tailor, fogging up the windows to his shop as he checks out Billie Nash’s legs. But soon he’s creeping around, spying on her, figuring out her plan to steal the rights to the bar and flee town with Matt. What does he want in return for his silence? One hint: it ain’t money.
Wicked Woman is a movie consciously made to be the equivalent of a trashy dime store novel. I can imagine an argument that this ambition is, in fact, the evidence of a lack of ambition. But if you love the sweaty stuff and the sleazy stuff, and if you think there is gold at the bottom of that particular well, then this movie is pretty damn great, and one of the greatest things about it is Percy Helton, who is fearless when it comes to playing a character designed to disgust everyone in the audience. What he’s playing here is pure id, human desire in its least attractive form, and there’s no sense of self-consciousness or vanity on his part, no sense that he’s done anything to protect himself from the scorn of the audience.
Percy Helton, my friends, was a great, great actor.
After his entry into television, the small screen used him even more than the big screen did. He was all over the place—in Superman and Hopalong Cassidy and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Lone Ranger and Flash Gordon and The Untouchables and Gunsmoke. And on and on and on. He did three episodes of Perry Mason as three different characters. He did seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including one episode titled, appropriately enough, “The Creeper.”
He died in 1971 at the age of 77. We haven’t seen anyone like him since.
Jake Hinkson is the author of several novels, including the newly-released The Big Ugly.
Read all of Jake Hinkson's posts for Criminal Element.