Earthy, sexy and wry, Marie Windsor was born to play fatales

Let’s be fair. Marie Windsor as femme fatale Sherry Peatty in “The Killing” by Stanley Kubrick may seem venal, treacherous and manipulative. And yes she hatches a scheme to feather her nest that’s a bit dangerous. But is it right that she’s punished for being as smart, decisive and daring as the men?

Sherry is married, need I say unhappily, to George (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a nervous, Milquetoast cashier at a racetrack. Through George, she gets wind of a heist taking place at the track by Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) and his gang. Sherry tips off her lover Val (Vince Edwards) and comes up with this idea: let George and his friends do the heavy lifting, then she and Val can take off with the stolen cash, about $2 million.

In "The Killing," Marie Windsor as Sherry Peatty is so over her dreary husband George (Elisha Cook, Jr.).

Of course, you could argue that the deeply flawed Sherry is downright immoral. And so are the men. But Sherry only gets as far as she does because of George’s colossal ego. Or perhaps it’s his tremendous capacity for denial. Clearly, she’s been after money all along and she’s tired of George not coming through with it. C’mon, George, did you really think she was into your swagger? (Offscreen, Windsor and Cook were chums. She said of him in a 1992 interview, “Elisha Cook was a darling and full of the devil.”)

Earthy, sexy and wry, Windsor was an actress born to play femmes fatales – with her huge, restless eyes, slightly cynical smile and lean but curvy body. Regardless of how many lines or how many scenes Windsor was in, she had a quality both luminous and tawdry, an expressiveness bordering on vulgarity that meshed perfectly with noir sensibility.

Windsor won an award from Look magazine for her role in "The Killing."

Born and raised in Utah, Windsor was especially popular with directors of Westerns and of noirs (in particular, “Force of Evil,” 1948, by Abraham Polonsky; “The Narrow Margin,” 1952, by Richard Fleischer; and “The Sniper,” 1952, by Edward Dmytryk). Once Windsor had been cast, the director had one less thing to worry about, knowing that she’d nail the character.

Kubrick so wanted Windsor for “The Killing” that he delayed filming until she had wrapped up 1955’s “Swamp Women” by Roger Corman. She was worth the wait; for playing Sherry in “The Killing,” Windsor was rewarded with a 1956 Best Supporting Actress award from Look magazine, a prestigious honor at the time.

Windsor worked steadily in movies and TV through the early 1990s. She was married to Jack Hupp for 46 years, from 1954 until her death in 2000.

Despite Sherry’s, um, blemished character, I prefer her gumption to Johnny’s girlfriend, the desperately needy Fay (Coleen Gray). As Fay tells Johnny: “I’m not very pretty and I’m not smart so please don’t leave me alone any more. I’ll go along with anything you say, Johnny. I always will.”

Ever heard of a spine, lady? Well, Sherry has.

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On the radar: TCM Classic Film Festival starts next Thursday in Hollywood; big cats on the big screen; crime does play

One week from tonight is the TCM Classic Film Festival, which runs from April 28 to May 1 in Hollywood. There will be more than 70 screenings, as well as special introductions, guest appearances, panel discussions and other events. The red-carpet gala screening on Thursday is “An American in Paris.”

Marlene Dietrich

But naturally I’m more excited to see the 10:15 p.m. screening of Josef von Sternberg’s “The Devil is a Woman” from 1935 with Marlene Dietrich. Katie Trainor, film collection manager for the Museum of Modern Art, will introduce the film.

TCM host and film historian Robert Osborne is the official host of the festival. Peter O’Toole, Kirk Douglas, Leslie Caron, Mickey Rooney, Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell, Warren Beatty, Alec Baldwin, Angela Lansbury, Hayley Mills, Richard Roundtree and Roger Corman are just a few of the notables slated to appear. Can’t wait!

Big cats: The nature doc “African Cats” opens Friday (Earth Day). For the first week, a portion of every ticket sold will go to the African Wildlife Foundation. Disney and Jordin Sparks, who did the movie’s end-title song “The World I Knew,” are also donating to the foundation.

Score hard: The “L.A. Noire” video game, featuring “Mad Men” star Aaron Staton’s voice and vibe, launches May 17. “L.A. Noire” will screen Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival, the first video game to snag that honor. Brendan McNamara is the writer/director.

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