Monday, January 11, 2021

Helen Walker

Helen Walker as psychologist Lilith Ritter in Nightmare Alley.

After seeing Helen Walker's performance as the twisted psychologist in Nightmare Alley (1947) I wondered why I had never heard of her before. So last week we embarked on a Helen Walker film festival, watching four movies from the middle and end of her too-brief career.

Image source: Classic Movie Favorites

Cluny Brown (1946), screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt, based on the novel by Margery Sharp; directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

The final film completed by Ernst Lubitsch before his death, Cluny Brown features his trademark lightness of touch as well as typically risqué dialogue, this time featuring plumbing as a metaphor for sex.

As the plumber-heroine Cluny, Jennifer Jones displays an unsuspected flair for comedy and a British accent that often vanishes completely, while as Adam Belinski, a penniless Czech refugee from the Nazis, Charles Boyer offers his usual suavity. Both have wound up at the country estate of Sir Henry (Reginald Owen) and Lady Alice (Margaret Bannerman), where Cluny is a new serving maid and Adam is the guest of family's son and heir Andrew (Peter Lawford). (Lady Alice finds Adam's name hard to remember, because "so many foreigners do have foreign names, don't they?") Though both Adam and Cluny have been given places of a kind, they are both fundamentally out of place: he is separated from his homeland, and she from the work that she most enjoys. As he tells her, "Wherever you're happy—that's your place."

Helen Walker plays the Honorable Betty Cream, Andrew's presumptive fiancée, who has been invited to the house for the weekend by Lady Alice to try to patch things up with Andrew after a row. Andrew is sincere but a bit dim, while Betty is self-possessed, coolly witty, and gets some of the better lines.

After Betty's screams rouse the house one night and Adam is discovered coming out of her bedroom it precipitates a crisis that results in Andrew finally proposing to Betty (though it's really the other way around) and having it out privately with Adam. Right afterward Betty surprises Andrew taking something from a drawer:

Betty: Why, Andrew Carmel, are we starting out with a secret? Is this the kind of marriage we're going to have?
Andrew: Darling, trust me. Please trust me.
Betty: Darling, if I trust you now I'll always have to trust you. And I won't. Now what have you got behind your back?
Andrew: I suppose you think it's rather foolish of me to lend the professor 50 pounds. [Andrew, of course, is getting rid of Adam.]
Betty: Foolish? Give him 100 pounds, 200, 300.
Andrew: Oh, now, wait a minute. I'm very fond of the professor, but after all, walking into your room like that. . .
Betty: Thank heavens he did. If I hadn't screamed last night, we wouldn't be engaged today. You always behaved so well, I might have died an old maid.
Andrew: You're so right, Betty. We all behave too well. We never do the wrong thing at the right time. I've said it before and I'll say it again: what England needs is more Belinskis!
Betty: I think one is quite enough.

Cluny Brown may not rank with Lubitsch's greatest work, but it is a charming and affectionate send-up of British manners and mores, and its oppositions are never simple ones. It makes me wonder why both Jennifer Jones and Helen Walker didn't get to play more comic roles.

Image source: Dr. Macro's High Quality Movie Scans

Call Northside 777 (1948), screenplay by Jerome Cady and Jay Dratler, adaptation by Leonard Hoffman and Quentin Reynolds, based on articles by James P. McGuire; directed by Henry Hathaway.

Based on the real-life wrongful conviction of Joseph Majczek and Theodore Marcinkiewicz for the murder of a Chicago policeman in 1932, Call Northside 777 has a semi-documentary style enhanced by filming in many of the actual locations involved. James Stewart plays P. J. McNeal, a character based on Chicago Times reporter James P. McGuire, who is sent by his editor to interview the Tillie Wiecek (Kasia Orzazewski), mother of convicted cop-killer Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte). Although she earns her living scrubbing floors, she has carefully saved her money for over a decade and has placed an ad offering a $5000 reward for information about the true killers. Although initially skeptical, McNeal gradually becomes convinced of Wiecek's innocence, but faces obstruction by the police and justice system as he pursues the case.

Helen Walker plays McNeal's loving wife Laura, who urges him to continue investigating the case despite his initial skepticism. When we first see her she is fixing a late dinner for McNeal; as he eats it he works on a jigsaw puzzle that she's started. While the jigsaw puzzle is perhaps too obvious a metaphor, their interplay over the pieces nicely encapsulates the mutuality of their marriage. It's not a large role, but she makes it memorable.

In Call Northside 777 Helen Walker embodies the supportive Good Woman (in the typology proposed by John Blaser in "No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir"). But as Nightmare Alley proved, she could also brilliantly play the femme fatale, as she did in her next major role.

Impact (1949), screenplay by Dorothy Reid and Jay Dratler, directed by Arthur Lubin.

The plot of Impact turns on false identities and misidentification: a hitchhiker speeding in a stolen car on a dark mountain road dies in a fiery crash, and everyone believes that it's the car's owner, San Francisco automotive magnate Walter Williams (Brian Donleavy), who has been killed. Just before the crash, though, Williams was assaulted by the hitchhiker and left for dead. Dazed, he climbs unnoticed into the back of a moving van that stops at the accident scene; he wakes up in a small town in Idaho. (Larkspur, California stands in for the nonexistent "Larkspur, Idaho" in the location shots.) There Williams discovers his "death" and realizes that his wife Irene (Helen Walker) and the hitchhiker (Tony Barrett) were lovers who had plotted to murder him. 

He meets a struggling gas-station owner, Marsha Peters (Ella Raines), and—his former life shattered—decides to stay on and help her as "Bill Walter." Eventually, though, he reveals his true identity, and at Marsha's urging returns to the Bay Area to clear his wife of murder charges—only to find himself imprisoned, accused by Irene of killing her lover. Now Marsha must try to prove his innocence. . .

One of the eerie things about Impact is how elements of the story echo events in Helen Walker's life. On January 1, 1947, she was driving at night in a borrowed car from Palm Springs to Los Angeles on Highway 99 (now Interstate 10). Outside Palm Springs she picked up a hitchhiking soldier, Robert Lee, and near Beaumont two other hitchhikers, Philip Mercado, an 18-year-old student, and his friend Joseph Montaldo. About 15 minutes later, "her car hit a dividing island in the roadway on the eastern outskirts of Redlands and turned over six times while rolling and skidding 600 feet," according to an LA Times report [1]. Investigators estimated that the car was traveling at 80 miles per hour, and a later civil suit brought by one of the passengers claimed that she'd been driving over 90.

Lee, sitting in the front passenger seat, was killed. Mercado and Montaldo, riding in the back seat, were thrown from the car and, though severely injured, survived. Walker herself suffered a fractured pelvis and collarbone, and several broken toes; she spent a month in the hospital. The Redlands policeman who pulled her from the wreckage said at the inquest that he smelled alcohol on her breath. She was charged with manslaughter but exonerated when it could not be proven that she was driving under the influence.

After Impact Helen Walker's career faltered. In 1950 she married furrier Edward Nicholas du Domaine, but the marriage was not a happy one, and lasted only two years. Perhaps she should have listened to her instincts: she told a the writer of their LA Times wedding announcement that "the first time I met him I hated him." [2] She testified to the judge in the divorce proceedings, "My husband resented my career, my friends in the motion picture business and everything else about me. In fact, he made me drop my friends and give up my contracts." [3]

Her career never recovered, although from the evidence of her next significant film her drinking may have played a role as well.

The Big Combo (1955), screenplay by Philip Yordan, directed by Joseph Lewis.

In The Big Combo, Walker's strong features look heavy, bloated, and in many shots (thanks in part, perhaps, to her deliberately dowdy hair, makeup and costuming) she looks much older than her 34 years. She plays Alicia, the sequestered wife of mob kingpin Mr. Brown (Richard Conte, from Call Northside 777). Alicia has been cocooned in comfortable ignorance, but once incorruptible cop Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) discovers her sanitarium refuge and undeceives her about Brown's murderous brutality she is convinced to give evidence against her husband.

The Big Combo is notable for its stunning, deeply-shadowed black-and-white cinematography by John Alton and its relentlessly grim atmosphere of darkness, violence and sex. Diamond's fury towards Brown is fueled in part by his jealousy of Brown's relationship with society girl Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), whom Brown apparently holds in sexual thrall. Brown disposes of anyone who might testify against him, including his second-in-command Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy, from Impact), while Diamond's girlfriend, burlesque dancer Rita (Helene Stanton), is riddled with bullets by Brown's henchmen Fante and Mingo (early-career roles for Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman) during a botched attempt to assassinate Diamond. The movie ends in a showdown between Diamond and Brown with Susan in the middle, facing a fateful choice about which man she will help.

After The Big Combo Helen Walker's acting career wound down with appearances in a few episodes of crime and Western TV shows. She died of cancer in her Hollywood home in 1968 at the age of only 47. But she deserves to be remembered for her best films, and especially for her indelible femme fatale performances in Nightmare Alley and Impact.

  1. "Actress Hurt as Car Upsets, Killing Soldier," Los Angeles Times, 3 January 1947, p. 2.
  2. "Actress Helen Walker Will Wed in Palm Springs," Los Angeles Times, 28 April 1950, p. A1.
  3. "Actress Says Mate Resented Career: Divorce Granted Helen Walker from Furrier on Testimony He Made Her Drop Contracts," Los Angeles Times, 10 June 1952, p. 2.

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