Marie Windsor Centennial: Femme Fatale Extraordinaire

11 Dec

Marie Windsor would have turned 100 today, December 11, 2019. She was an unforgettable character actress who had a 50-year career in movies and television (1941-1991) and died in 2000 at the age of 80. She’s best known for playing femmes fatale in crime movies and film noir and outlaw women in westerns throughout the 1940s and ’50s. Her most memorable roles for me were in THE NARROW MARGIN (1952) and THE KILLING (1956) and the westerns, HELLFIRE and DAKOTA LIL. She also guest-starred in numerous TV shows, including four episodes of “Perry Mason.”

She had striking features, including high cheekbones, full lips, and large, luminous eyes, and a smooth, velvety voice that often masked a duplicitous nature. Her voice could turn from a purr to a snarl at a moment’s notice. When Windsor turned up in a film or TV show, you knew she had a secret or two or wasn’t what she seemed. I know she played good girls from time to time, but I have trouble remembering which films they were in. She did play a crew member on a voyage to the moon in the otherwise execrable CAT-WOMEN OF THE MOON (1953), but even there, the “Cat-women” were no match for her.

In their book, Broads (re-titled Dames when published in the U.S.), a collection of short tributes to actresses who specialized in playing bad girls, British film historians Ian & Elisabeth Cameron, authors of the previous volume, Heavies, describe Windsor like this:

Marie Windsor was one of the most memorable of the minor stars of the ‘fifties, and had a screen personality that was quite unique….She was the best of the female heavies.

One of the reasons that our previous volume [Heavies] did not contain any women was that type-cast heaviness seems to be a male prerogative. Such a small proportion of screen heavies are female that one finds anomalies like Barbara Stanwyck tackling a large number of sympathetic parts for which she is manifestly unsuited. Few lady heavies could stand alongside Jack Elam or Neville Brand; Marie Windsor is the exception.

Windsor was quite a formidable presence in the 1949 Trucolor western from Republic Pictures, entitled HELLFIRE, in which she plays the notorious Doll Brown, whose outlaw ways gunman-turned-religious convert William Elliott tries to tame. Here’s what I wrote in my IMDB review of the film, which was directed by R.G. Springsteen:

William (Wild Bill) Elliott stars as Zeb Smith, a dishonest gambler who takes the high road after an old preacher takes a bullet for him. Femme fatale extraordinaire Marie Windsor plays Doll Brown, a bitter, unrepentant female outlaw in men’s clothes who hooks up with Zeb as she tries to outrun Marshal Bucky McLean (Forrest Tucker) and the vengeful Stoner brothers, a motley trio that includes western regulars Jim Davis and Paul Fix. The plot follows the efforts of Zeb to get Doll to change her ways as he joins her on her mission to locate her long-lost sister. He even admits to her that his initial goal was to turn her in for the reward so he can fulfill the late preacher’s dream of building a church. He puts himself in a difficult position in trying to gain her trust, but also risks becoming a wanted man himself as he aids Doll in her flight from justice.

Elliott was pretty wooden as an actor, although he looks and sounds the part just perfectly, but his low-key performance plays well off the standard Republic western histrionics of the rest of the cast (Tucker, Davis, Fix, Grant Withers, Denver Pyle, etc.). But as an acting showcase, it’s clearly Marie Windsor’s show all the way as she propels the action and provides the emotional core (and heart-wrenching finale).

Windsor later played famous outlaw Belle Starr in the premiere episode of “Stories of the Century” (1954-56), a western series produced by Republic Pictures and directed by William Witney, which featured railroad detectives Matt Clark (Jim Davis) and Frankie Adams (Mary Castle) as they roamed the west pursuing the most wanted outlaws.

As Belle, Windsor cuts quite a striking figure in the episode, dressed in buckskin, leather pants, a feathered hat and dual holsters for matching six-guns. She has a lazy, good-for-nothing husband, Sam Starr (Ric Roman), and berates him constantly. In her first scene, she strides into a saloon and disrupts a game in which Sam has just lost $1500.

Frankie, masquerading as a dressmaker, boldly tries to take Belle in on her own, but Belle overpowers her and escapes, eluding the law until Matt and a posse eventually catch up to her to press charges of horse-stealing. (Frankie to Matt: “Please don’t tell the boss about this.”)

In Richard Fleischer’s THE NARROW MARGIN (1952), Windsor plays a gangster’s widow being protected by cops as she heads to Los Angeles with great reluctance to testify about mob activities. Turns out she’s not quite who she seems to be. I’d rather not divulge further details, since I urge readers to see the film. But just look at her defiant stance in this shot with Charles McGraw and his men as they take on the job of guarding her and wondering if it’s even worth it.

Windsor’s finest moment came in Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING (1956), a lean, mean caper thriller about a group of ordinary, working-class joes who are recruited by an experienced heist man to play crucial roles in the robbery of a racetrack at which two of the men work.

Elisha Cook plays a cashier at the track who is persuaded to join the caper at the behest of his grasping wife, played by Windsor, who plots on the side with her tough guy boyfriend (Vince Edwards) to hijack the robbery proceeds at the meeting place where the money will be divided up. Here’s what I wrote in a piece I did three years ago about the best films of 1956:

What makes the film more than just a clever genre exercise is the inclusion of two characters, the cuckolded spouse and his faithless wife, who provide the bulk of the film’s emotional core. George Peatty (Elisha Cook), a clerk at the betting window, is genuinely in love with his wife, Sherry (Marie Windsor), and agrees to participate in the caper in order to satisfy her monetary demands despite her constant belittling of him and complaints about her lot in life. With her honeyed voice and manipulative taunts, she plays him for a fool and he knows it, but he accepts it because he wants to believe she will love him if he finally delivers on his empty promises. The actors play [Jim] Thompson’s tart dialogue so convincingly that one is thoroughly drawn into their marital charade, knowing it will end badly.  These scenes contain the most heartfelt and honest expressions of human emotion in, perhaps, all of Kubrick’s work. They make a routine caper film a work of art.

“It isn’t fair. I never had anybody but you. Not a real husband. Not even a man. Just a bad joke without a punch line.”

“The Case of the Madcap Modiste” (Season 3 / #22, April 30, 1960) was the second of four episodes of “Perry Mason” to feature Windsor, seen here with Leslie Parrish in a publicity shot for the episode:

In it, Windsor plays a celebrated fashion designer who is featured in the first scene being interviewed live on CBS TV via cross-country hook-up by TV personality Truman Bradley, evidently channeling Edward R. Murrow’s show, “Person to Person,” which was also a CBS production. (Bradley had earlier hosted a program called “Science Fiction Theatre” in 1955, in which Windsor had appeared, so I was quite startled to see him here. For a moment I thought I’d put the wrong DVD in.)

In the middle of the live TV appearance, Windsor, as Flavia Pearce, invites her husband and business partner Charles (John Conte) into the shot and he then makes a sudden announcement of their design firm’s expansion which Flavia quickly contradicts, causing him great public embarrassment, especially since he’d already signed a contract.

When the two share a glass of champagne on the night of her big preview, Flavia falls to the floor and her last words are “Charles poisoned me.” Perry Mason then has to defend Charles in court and flush out the real murderer.

Windsor had appeared in the second episode of Science Fiction Theatre (1955-57), an early TV series filmed in color. It was called “Time Is Just a Place” (April 15, 1955) and was directed by Jack Arnold (THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN) from a story by Jack Finney (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). In it, Windsor and Don DeFore play a suburban couple who suspect that their neighbor (Warren Stevens), who shows them several new inventions, is a visitor from the future.

Here’s what I wrote about Windsor’s performance when I first saw this:

“I was startled to see the great femme fatale Marie Windsor playing a middle-class housewife in this, but she is such a great actress she’s totally convincing.”

And a shot of Truman Bradley from the show:

There are tons more movies and TV shows with Windsor that I’ve yet to see. Amazon Prime is currently offering this one:

Here are posters from others that look promising, to varying degrees:

In the Japanese poster for the latter, Windsor is even more prominently featured:

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