Sunday, June 06, 2010

Take Three: Thelma Ritter

Craig here with the next Take Three, where each Sunday I look at a different character/supporting actor's work through three of their most notable films.

Today: Thelma Ritter

For take three of Take Three we have a woman who, it's feasible to say, may well have been instrumental in the invention of the term Character Actor. Thelma Ritter's career was full of supporting roles par excellence. A noteworthy six Oscar nominations (tied with Deborah Kerr), but, alas, no wins. But who needs a win with a body of work this strong: A Letter to Three Wives, All About Eve, The Mating Season, With a Song in My Heart, Birdman of Alcatraz - and the three selected below (and countless more besides).

Ah, how I adore Thelma Ritter. And how good it is to know that many others do too. If I meet or talk to someone who loves her too it brings on a good feeling. She's one of the classiest character actors to have seared (warmly braised?) an individualistic groove across cinema screens in her time. Thelma had the cool, no question. When I hear about what was seen as good or thought to be cool about watching films and those who acted in them in the '50s or '60s Thelma emerges victorious. She could coolly wither many a co-star away with one line of dialogue - and how she delivered it! She played wives, mothers, maids, housekeepers, wise types, tough cookies - all notionally working class women. All solidly real women; and all take no lip and mince no words women.

Take One: "You are my inspiration... Al-ma!"

Ritter on top form left and right in Pillow Talk

As someone who likes a cheeky glass of red or seven, seeing Thelma downing the drink like a well-versed fish in the waters of late '50s Manhattan was a joy to behold. As Doris Day's housekeeper Alma in Pillow Talk (1959) Ritter was a permanently sozzled old bird. Alma capably dished out the one-liners and, despite being drunk 24-7, kept Day in check whilst keeping one saucy eye on Rock Hudson. One of her best scenes - and a much-loved one at that - is when she drinks him under the table. Hudson runs into her on the street, desperate to seek her counsel on how to woo Day back, and suggests they have a drink. Alma - smitten as she is with Hudson's Brad Allen - initially acts all coy ("oh no I don't usually, I... might have one just to be sociable"), but when he names 'a nice little bar right down the street' Alma, already dragging him away, responds resourcefully with: "I know a better one."

Alma mater: Ritter downs a glass of mother's ruin whilst Hudson does a spot of table talk in Pillow Talk

Ritter made Alma's boozy demeanor feel much more than a one-note trait and she let the great moments of comedy inherent in the role find their natural outlets. At the bar of her choosing Alma dishes out her drunken pearls of wisdom while a far-more-sloshed Hudson is face down on the gingham tablecloth. It's settled that Hudson will hire Day to decorate his apartment. "OK?" she says, "Happy?", lifting and letting drop his head on the table; he's clearly down for the count. She ends the scene with what feels like - and may very well have been - an ad lib that shows, in one simple throwaway line, her plucky resolve: "Would you care for a little snack of some kind?" She gets out an array of said snacks as the scene dissolves into the next. Alma's been here before: she's attuned to the etiquette of boozing.

Alma was the kind of role Ritter excelled in. A bottomless drink in hand and a cheeky, worldly glint in her eye, she plays it casual and light (the role is a breeze) but with a vivid, knowing gutsiness as if she had known people like Alma all her life. She delivers her lines in signature expert fashion: her assured and well-timed reading of them certainly went some way in helping the film win its one Oscar, for screenwriting. And who wouldn't want someone like Alma as their housekeeper? Raise a glass in her honour - and raise it high.

Take Two: Tell it like it is, Stella

Rear Window: Thelma has her eye on the courtyard psycho, while Stewart has his on Ritter's tit-ters

Rear Window (1954) needed a character to stand in for us, for how we might act when the ones we care about start getting themselves into hot water. But such is the allure of eavesdropping, being let in on a mystery, that even Ritter's housekeeper (another one) Stella involves herself in Jeffrery's (James Stewart) binocular games. She, too, is titillated by what bad deeds are going on across the courtyard, but keeps a level head about it. Ever the practical woman, she relates it all to her own worldview in her own particular way: "You haven't spent much time around cemeteries, have you? It's impossible that he could bury Mrs. Thorwald in a hole the size of one square foot. Unless he buried her standing on end, in which case he wouldn't need the knives and saws." We surely all know someone who, on the discovery of a possible neighbourhood killer, might brightly come up with this piece of "homespun philosophy".

Ritter feasts her eyes on a mystery across the way in Rear Window

Ritter nails it spot on and with the right amount of wry humour. She again acts as comedy relief, and the film needs her to wax lyrical about the practicalities of these matters. There's work to be done, and this daft murder business won't get in the way of a good breakfast, a spot of rest and a clean house. "Come on, that's what were all thinkin'. He killed her in there, now he has to clean up those stains before he leaves." Every budding Peeping Tom needs a stellar Stella to bring it all back down to earth.

Take Three: Moe money, Moe problems

Ritter with Widmark (left) and Murvyn Vye (right) in Pickup on South Street

With roughly one-quarter-of-an-hour's screentime in Pickup on South Street (1953) Thelma Ritter, as New York lady hustler-dealer extraordinaire Moe Williams, showed us how it's done. Every minute is an exercise in crucial, affective, scalpel-sharp acting. Moe is something else; a character like no other. Brilliantly and truthfully written by Pickup's director Samuel Fuller, she's a take-no-flack-but-dish-it-back woman of the world. A Manhattan stool pigeon trying to beat the streets, positioned somewhere between the cops and the crooks, selling whatever enters her world-worn sphere - secrets, information, knowledge, cheap ties. She's a character Tom Waits should've or could've written a song about (Lay Down Moe? Moe on the Down Low?). She needed someone to sing her praises.

Moe is her own person. She's the go-to gal for information; she has the answers. Not merely a stoolie, but a woman who's seen everything - and seen everything turn bad - and has been around, doing her thing for too long. Her precious time is devoted to herself and her dealings, but with some left over for friend Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), a petty thief embroiled in a mystery involving a secret microfilm he pick-pocketed from Candy (Jean Peters), and which Communist agent Joey (Richard Kiley), among others, wants to get his hands on. Moe has also devoted her life to saving for a funeral plot - a life dedicated to the preservation of death. She can live poor but she won't die poor. Fuller has, with each frame of each of her scenes in his film, fittingly preserved on celluloid Moe's life and her death.

That Ritter makes her unbeatable - despite being, sadly, ultimately beat down - is the crux of the performance. In her famous final scene in Pickup, and indeed in all the preceding scenes besides, you can unmistakably see how the actress's thoughts inform the character's actions. This is why, I believe, her performance is often regarded as exemplary in '50s screen acting. Ritter wearily compiles Moe's façade of utter composure in the face of immanent extermination (yet, pertinently, her front visibly begins to break down before our eyes); and underneath that knowledge of her inescapable murder is a resignation, an acceptance of her horrible fate, that she can only combat with sharp words of defiance. And not selling a friend out, not even for a moment backing down.

It's one of the best examples of an actor showing one thing facially, but through dialogue expressing something else entirely. And I think this is one of the chief reasons why - well, alongside her 4th Oscar nomination she received for the role - Ritter is so compellingly good here (and in everything she was in). In the scene (linked here so y'all can actually also see why she rocks South Street - as if anyone needs reminding) Joey pays Moe a visit - to either retrieve the information he needs or to kill her. Or both. Moe regretfully makes sure it's one thing over the other.

She's lying on her bed, listening to a record play, and doing her numbers in the little notebook she keeps with her. Joey hitches his feet up onto the bed:

"What are ya buying mister? - Joey tries to 'buy' Moe off - "You threatening to blow my head off?" Joey says nothing. "Ask a silly question, ya get a dopey look," she mockingly adds herself.

It's clear Moe knows her fate:

"Listen mister - when ya come in here tonight, ya seen an old clock running down. I'm tired. I'm through. Happens to everybody sometime. It'll happen to you too someday."

She isn't going without voicing her lot in life:

"With me it's... a little bit of everything. Backaches... and headaches. I can't sleep nights. It's so hard to get up in the morning and get dressed and walk the streets... climb the stairs. I go right on doin' it. Well, what am I gonna do, knock it?"

Fuller's camera slowly begins to zoom in tighter on Moe's fraught face.

"I have to go on makin' a livin' so I can die. But even a fancy funeral 'ain't worth waiting for if I gotta do business with crumbs like you. And I know what you're after... I know you Commies are looking for some film that don't belong to ya."

"You just talked yourself into an early grave - what else do ya know?" Joey retorts. Ever the savvy no-nonsense talker, Moe goads Joey further:

"What do I know about Commies? Nothin'. I know one thing. I just don't like them." Joey cocks his gun; Moe sits up in bed, clasping her chest. "So I don't get to have the fancy funeral after all. Anyway, I tried... Look mister... I'm so tired. You'd be doin' me a big favor if you'd blow my head off."

Fuller's camera pans left to the now-ending song on the record player, and a shot is fired. Earlier in the film Moe says to Capt. Dan Tiger: "Look Tiger, if I was to be buried in Potter's Field, it would just about kill me." But thanks to Skip's last minute intervention, Moe didn't end up joining the other nameless dead out there.

And in a roundabout way Tom Waits did write a song about her - or, at least, the song could've been sung from Moe's perspective. Her memory resonates in the lines of his jazzy, noir-infused song called, fittingly, Potter's Field: 'and you'll learn why liquor makes a stool pigeon rat on every face.' A fitting lament for Moe.

Ritter herself deserves her praises sung and more: now it's your turn.


costa said...

You talk about Cary Grant in Pillow Talk? I think you mean Rock Hudson.

Though I can totally see the connection. Both well tanned men with shoeblack hair who rock a suit with an effortless ability for comedy. Plus the gay thing.

costa said...

and its wonderful seeing Thelma Ritter getting this love. She is absolutely brilliant and a joy when she walks in on the movie your watching!

Craig Bloomfield said...

Costa - you're completely right. Thanks for spotting my gaffe there. My head is clearly elsewhere today. Cheers.

costa said...

No worries buddy. Now I've got both Cary Grant and Rock Hudson on the brain, which is good. It's good.

Andrew R. said...

It's a shame she never won. She got used to it, apparently: for Nominations 4-6, she held a "Come Over And Watch Me Lose Again" Party.

Edward Copeland said...

She was so much more deserving of the Oscar or Pickup> than Donna Reed was for her virgin hooker in From Here to Eternity.

adelutza said...

It's funny, just the other day I watched A Letter To Three Wives and I was wandering why is it that the movie is not more talked about and why Thelma Ritter is not a better known actress. Such a joy to watch her in anything.

Mirko S. said...

this great supporting actress deserved an oscar for one of these remarkable perfs or at least for the one in ALL ABOUT EVE (it's quite strange that a marvelous women picture such as ALL ABOUT EVE won a lot of oscars but not for its can blame it votes spitting for this, but anyway...)

Keifer said...

cannot believe that her role in "Miracle on 34th Street" was not mentioned, where she played the mother that complimented Macy's for their Santa telling her to get her son's Christmas present at Gimbel's. When I think of Thelma Ritter, it is the 1st role that comes to mind.

Runs Like A Gay said...

Pickup is such a great movie, and one that I always recommend to friends just getting into stuff from the 50's. Not least for Thelma's superb performance.

It's great to see it get a mention here.

Christine said...

Thelma Ritter is such an underrated actress. It's hard to do broad comedic roles that seem to have deeply nuanced back stories behind them, and this it what I think Ritter excelled at.

In a somewhat related topic, I also feel like I owe her for helping me win Nathaniel's Oscar Party Pack as she was my vote for actor most deserving of an Oscar.
Downside of my win? Many months later, I'm STILL vacuuming random pieces of gold confetti out of my house--way too much overkill on the gold confetti TCM.

cal roth said...

Pickup is so great. Like one of the best movies of the 50's! And Ritter's performance is astonishing.

Branden said...

I am so glad that you are highlighting Thelma Ritter. J'adore her. I think she stole every scene that she was in. She was a great character actress.

Craig Bloomfield said...

Alexandra / Branden - cheers. Glad you liked the piece. She was a pure pleasure to write about - and to research (Got to watch some great Ritter films/clips!)

Kiefer - apologies there. I was so nearly going to mention 'Miracle' but it was getting rather long as it was...

Unknown said...

Absolutely love her in All About Eve and Rear Window. Thank you for featuring her fine work!

AnathTheGoddess said...

I've seen many a character/supporting actor, and Thelma is by far my favorite. Of all her movies, I'd say "The Mating Season" is the one I like best. Loved her line: "Go on, I've stepped on better things." Classic. Next on my list would be "A Letter to Three Wives." She pretty much stole that movie.

So thanks for the tribute as she definitely deserves it.