William Talman by Jake HInkson
Courtesy of The Criminal Element
We've recently featured a post on the noir career of Raymond Burr. Although he’s best remembered today as the stalwart defense attorney Perry Mason, Burr spent much of the 40s and 50s playing demented psychos and cold-eyed masterminds in film noir. It’s interesting to note, then, that William Talman—who played Perry Mason’s loyal opposition, district attorney Hamilton Burger—was himself one of noir’s premier goons. Not just that, Talman specialized in playing full-tilt nutjobs.
He was born in Detroit in 1915, the eldest son of a successful industrial electronics executive, and as a young man he thrived in sports—especially boxing. He went to college at Dartmouth but left after one year when he was involved in a joyride that ended in the death of a friend. He tried his hand at acting, but then the war stopped everything. Talman was drafted into the Army and served in the US Signal Corps, eventually rising to the rank of Major.
After the war, he began working in movies and from the start he was typecast as thugs with a demented streak. Talman had a strange face with weathered features (even as a young man), a severe mouth and off center eyes. His gravelly voice added to a demeanor that made him perfect for characters with bad intentions.
After his time in noir, Talman moved into television, landed the plum role of Perry Mason’s hapless antagonist in 1957 and promptly began losing cases on a weekly basis. Although DA Burger managed to hold on to his job despite losing virtually every case he ever argued, Talman himself came very close to losing his place on the show when he was caught up in a scandal in 1960. Police raided a home in Hollywood on March 13th and found Talman and seven other people “nude or partly nude” and “high on marijuana.” Papers reported Talman as saying that he had just stopped by for a drink. “There must be some kind of mistake,” he told reporters. “This could ruin me.”
It nearly did ruin him. Producers kicked him off the show for a while, but the rest of the cast and crew (including his loyal friend Burr) fought for him, and once the tabloid headlines died down, the public asked for him to be reinstated. DA Burger returned and picked up where he’d left off—getting his ass kicked every week by Perry Mason.
Talman died of lung cancer (after filming an anti-smoking ad for the American Cancer Society) in 1969 at the age of 53. Though his place is secure in the history of television, he should be bettered remembered for his excellent work in the crime films of the 40s and 50s. His is a name you’re always happy to see in the credits, and he was an absolutely indispensable member of the noir goon squad.
Essential Talman Noir
1. The Woman On Pier 13 (AKA I Married a Communist) (1949) — This is redbaiter propaganda at it’s best, with evil Commie agents out to destroy America just for the sheer fun of it. Talman has a small role as a twitchy thug who takes guys out to the pier…and the guys don’t come back. A ridiculous movie, yes, but fun.
2. Armored Car Robbery (1950) — Only one year into the business and Talman was already playing a mastermind. In this film, he’s the brains behind—what else?—an armored car robbery. He pairs off against cop Charles McGraw and the results (orchestrated by the great noir director Richard Fleischer) are riveting. Talman proves that he can play smart as well as mean.
3. The Racket (1951) — One of noir’s most famous disasters. The film is a would-be crime epic starring three of the genre’s greatest actors—Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, and Lizabeth Scott—but it was destroyed by RKO studio chief Howard Hughes (already losing his hold on reality) who ordered it rewritten/reshot/reedited so many times it seems to have been created inside a hurricane. It’s notable, though, because Talman gets to play a good guy for a change—an honest cop helping to bring down a crime lord.
4. The Hitch-Hiker (1953) — Talman’s biggest and best role came as the title character in this Ida Lupino classic. Two fishing buddies played by Frank Lovejoy and Edmond O’Brien stop to pick up you-know-who and everything just goes to hell. This is one of the harshest noirs made during the classic period—it’s stripped down, desperate, and raw. The word existential gets thrown around a lot in discussions of film noir, but this film is truly a hardcore existential crime drama. In an excellent cast, Talman steals the show as the psychopathic Emmett Myers, a raging nihilist brutalized by life. “My folks were tough,” he says at one point. “When I was born, they took one look at this puss of mine and told me to get lost.”
5. City That Never Sleeps (1953) Talman was bumped back down to supporting psycho for this Chicago crime flick, but he’s as good as ever in a superior production that’s notable for the gorgeous location cinematography of John Russell.
6. Crashout (1955) — Lewis R. Foster’s underrated prison break drama is as hard-edged as this stuff gets. Talman has one of his best roles asa knife-throwing Jesus freak named Luther Remsen AKA “Reverend Remington” who is in jail for the “celebrated soul-saving murder” of a church organist. In one of the strangest scenes in film noir, Talman baptizes a wounded man in a muddy drainage pool, trying to drown the guy in the process.