After watching a good Dan Duryea performance, I’m always reminded of Dashiell Hammett’s description of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon: “He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.” Duryea’s charisma was a giddy superficiality masking an inner demon. This guy would slap around his own mother if it’d make him a buck. Like Kirk Douglas, he excelled at playing sons of bitches. He never became a leading man the way Douglas did, but he redeemed a lot of movies in the course of his career.
Case in proof is Lewis Foster’s 1949 Manhandled. The film begins with a writer played by Alan Napier who has been having recurring dreams about murdering his wife and making off with her jewelry. He goes to see a sham psychiatrist whose morally ambiguous secretary Merl (Dorothy Lamour) tells her downstairs neighbor about the dreams and the jewelry. Unfortunately, her neighbor happens to be a sleazy con man named Karl Benson (Duryea). Soon, the wife is found murdered, her jewelry missing. A smart cop (Art Smith) and a smartass insurance investigator (Sterling Hayden) look into the case, and before long their investigation starts pointing them to the secretary.
Manhandled is fun, but the plot is all over the place. Our sympathy is supposed to lie with Merl, but after setting up her character with a shady past, the film never really resolves that shadiness. Lamour was well known for her comedies with Hope and Crosby, but here she’s out of her element and turns in a bland performance. Sterling Hayden, on the other hand, looks like he’s having a good time as the insurance investigator, though for some reason his first two scenes inexplicably have him getting dressed in public, even while questioning suspects. Art Smith is as likable as always as the smart cop, but while the script gives these investigators a lot of banter, it doesn’t give them much to do.
Director Lewis Foster had the kind of journeyman career that was only possible in the old days of Hollywood, back when a person could be a jack of all trades. He started out as a comedy specialist in the twenties and thirties, directing shorts with Laurel and Hardy. Throughout the forties he worked primarily as a screenwriter, contributing to a variety of projects, including musicals. Then from the fifties to the end of his career, he switched back to directing, mostly Westerns. His few excursions into noir territory aren’t bad, but they don’t exactly demonstrate an instinctive feel for the material. He’s not helped by Manhandled’s goofy script (the psychiatrist has a secretary sit in on sessions? the cops have a car without working brakes?), though he is aided considerably by Ernest Laszlo’s cinematography.
At the end the day, however, the movie is saved by Duryea. His presence here is a blessing for a couple of reasons. First, since Duryea is the only one who knows what’s going on through most of the movie he becomes the de facto main character. Our identification with him makes the film more fun and also makes it more of a noir. It’s a hoot to watch this two-bit shyster working three or four different angles at once. And secondly, Duryea simply gives the best performance in the movie. He’s playing the same charming sleazeball he usually does—lying his face off, terrorizing women, talking fast and hatching schemes. He did this kind of thing better than anyone else, and the effect of it is only enhanced the more you’ve seen it before. Manhandled would be a fine introduction to the actor, but it will play even better if you’ve already seen Scarlett Street and Too Late for Tears.
It is a particular challenge to explain to the uninitiated just how Duryea’s charm works. Historian Eddie Muller has reported that in the forties the more Duryea slapped around women onscreen, the more fan mail he received. There’s nothing charming about misogyny, so why was Duryea a sex symbol? Part of it, I think, is that Duryea’s nastiness had a distinct shallowness to it. When Kirk Douglas was a son of a bitch onscreen, you believed it. You felt the disturbing pull of real anger there, and there usually comes a moment in a Douglas performance where he drops the charm and explodes with rage. Duryea is different. He never drops the charm for very long because charm is the chief weapon in his arsenal. He’s a coldblooded son of a bitch, but he’s always on the make.
Like a blond Satan.
Here's a fun piece on Duryea.