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Dark Passages

Least Wanted—Film Noir’s Character Actors: Thelma Ritter

Least Wanted—Film Noir’s Character Actors: Thelma Ritter

There is a short scene in Out of the Past (1947) where Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) checks a package in a hotel lobby. This is a tiny but pivotal plot point: the parcel contains important documents, and Jeff’s life hangs on keeping them out of the hands of the gangsters who want them. He slips a twenty to the heavyset, badly aging man behind the counter and suggests—in his characteristically cryptic, zen-hipster fashion—that the guy should keep quiet about the whole transaction: “Sometimes a bad memory is like what they call an ill wind, it can blow somebody luck.” The porter, with the beaten-down face of someone for whom life is a daily defeat, replies with perhaps the film’s saddest line: “I always say everyone’s right.”

I would argue that this porter (played by an uncredited actor named Philip Morris, very few of whose roles merited names) is an essential noir character, perhaps even more essential than the romantically doomed private eye in his trench-coat, or the slick, pin-striped gangsters who are after him. The true citizens of noir are not femmes fatales as slinky and sharp-clawed as panthers, nor their victims—big, handsome tough guys nursing their drinks and their wounds. They are the people no one wants, scavengers living on the threadbare margins and hanging on by their broken fingernails. They are night clerks in fleabag hotels, tippling landladies in crummy rooming houses, worn-out barflies and seen-it-all bartenders, stool pigeons and cringing patsies, cheap hoods and grifters scrabbling for survival in an unforgiving world. These roles are filled by a rogues’ gallery of character actors whose mere presence on screen summons a world of troubles.

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