Noir’s Hard Luck Ladies: Martha Vickers
by JAKE HINSON FOR TH CRIMINAL ELEMNT
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.