If you spend enough time in the shadow gallery that is film noir certain faces start to haunt you. I’m not talking here about the icons like Mitchum or Grahame or Bennett or Andrews—their legends were set a long time ago, so we approach them with the expectation of greatness. And I’m not talking about recovered figures such as Lizabeth Scott or Ann Savage, who were forgotten in their time and then reborn as stars when noir enthusiasts discovered them and enshrined them as icons.
I’m talking about Martha Vickers. She’s remembered today for two roles, one she played onscreen and one she played in life. The onscreen role was her firecracker performance as Lauren Bacall’s nymphomaniac sister in The Big Sleep. The real life role was her stormy tenure as Mickey Rooney’s third wife.
Her part in The Big Sleep got her noticed but didn’t do much for a career that began to flounder almost immediately. She always gets noticed by audiences watching the film—she’s weird and sexy at the same time, always an exciting combo—and people often ask, “Whatever became of that girl who played the sister?” The answer is: she made a few more films, did some television, married and divorced Mickey Rooney, had some children, retired from films, and died young at the age of 46.
Yet, if you’re a noir geek, you can’t help but bump into her from time to time. She never made another film as good as The Big Sleep, but she pops up in supporting parts in interesting pictures like Raoul Walsh’s The Man I Love, or Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless, W. Lee Wilder’s The Big Bluff or the Paul Wendkos adaptation of David Goodis’s The Burglar. The two constants in these films are that Vickers is always good and she is always underused.
No one quite seemed to know what to do with her. Take the 1949 noirish drama Alimony. Here Vickers gets a rare starring role. She plays Kitty Travers, a would be singer who gets involved with a struggling composer named Dan Barker (John Beal). He’s already involved with boring nice-girl Linda (Hillary Brooke), but Kitty decides to steal him away when she suspects that he’s about to strike it big with a new composition.
What ensues is pure melodramatic hokum, with lots of reversals of fortune as Dan dumps Linda, and Kitty dumps Dan, and Linda takes Dan back, and Kitty comes back for Dan, and Dan dumps Linda again before Kitty turns around and dumps him again and…
Well, you get the idea. This kind of thing can be entertaining if it’s done right, but director Alfred Zeisler doesn’t bring much spark to the party. On top of generally flat scenes, he’s yet another director who failed to really utilize Vickers. She’s well cast as a gold digging vixen, yet curiously the director does nothing to showcase her sensuality, much less her oddball appeal. Vickers doesn’t even get a close up until halfway through the film, and that one seems like an afterthought.
It’s really too bad. Vickers had a way of teasing a man, of toying with him in a manner that was coy and aggressive at the same time. She would lower her chin and look up with her eyes and petulantly growl her dialog as if talking were a silly waste of time. She seemed like a bad girl doing a satiric version of a nice girl.
She was sexy, yes, but the real pity of her career is that she was such a quirky actress. There was no warmth to her (I’m speaking only of her charisma as it appeared onscreen, of course), and she seemed like a self-contained unit. It’s part of the reason she was so good as the psychotic little sister in The Big Sleep. She seemed to be off in her own little world.
Despite its flaws, something like Alimony manages to showcase some of this appeal. Like I said, she is well cast as Kitty. But, inexplicably, the film swerves in the last few moments and (I’ll just go ahead and spoil the “surprise”) she realizes how bad she’s been and apologizes to everyone involved. A femme fatale who learns her lesson and decides to be a nicer person. What a bummer.
And so, the fascination of Martha Vickers has at its center an absence, a desire that can never be met—the desire for that one great role which could make her a star. Her’s is a legacy of fragments, pieces of film here and there which go on teasing us with possibilities.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.