They called Gloria Grahame, that most enigmatic and evocative of screen presences, a suicide blonde because "she dyed by her own hand." The compulsively watchable, Grahame -- Oscar winner for The Bad and the Beautiful but more widely known as the vamping Violet in It's a Wonderful Life and Ado Annie in Oklahoma! -- is the star du jour Thursday August 13 on Turner Classics Movies (TCM). The hard-to-see In a Lonely Place (1950), her best film (directed by her then-husband, Nick Ray) will show at 8 pm and Fritz Lang's white-hot The Big Heat (1953) at 9:45 pm. I can't imagine a better double-bill, one that eloquently captures sexual paranoia (Lonely Place, co-starring Humphrey Bogart as Grahame's hot-tempered lover) and social paranoia (Heat, with Glenn Ford as an honest cop rooting out mobsters and Grahame as a mob moll turned informant).
On screen Grahame, of whom a biographer claimed could trace her genealogy to Plantagenet royalty, specialized in the kind of dames no one curtsied to. She wasn't like anyone else, "the girl with the Novocaine lip," scribes wrote of her immobile upper lip that gave her a sexy overbite, this gal who gravitated to the role of the worldly, slightly naughty, woman ever looking to trade up. You know, the good-bad girl. The first time I was aware of her flirty, deadpan delivery was in Macao (1952) -- Joseph Von Sternberg's very entertaining noir comedy starring Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum -- where Grahame plays the wife of a casino owner. When Grahame sees that a gambler has used his wife's diamonds as collateral, her itchy fingers draw to the jewels. "Diamonds would only cheapen you," her husband scolds. "What a way to be cheap!" she exclaims in a line that might have been her motto.
She's warmer as Bogart's neighbor in Lonely Place, a onetime kept woman now keeping company with Bogart's unstable screenwriter. Quoting Bogart's introduced screenplay, she delivers one the best lines in film history: "I was born when he kissed me; I died when he left me; I lived a few weeks while he loved me." (While making the film, her marriage to Ray was on the rocks. Gossip was that she had become romantically involved with her stepson, Tony Ray, then 14, whom she subsequently married when he came of age.) She was warmest as Debby, former moll, in The Big Heat, coming to Ford's hotel room, looking around at the bad furniture and joking, "What do you call this style, Early Nothing?"
Grahame, like Melanie Griffith after her, brings unpredictability to her line readings and instability to a scene and is mesmerizing to watch. I very much like her in her films with Vincente Minnelli, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and The Cobweb (1955). In the latter, she's a psychiatrist's wife who deadpans to his client at the sanitarium, "The only way you can tell the doctors from the patients is that the patients get better."