Dan Duryea was one of the most memorable character actors in film history, yet today his name is barely known. A cryin’ shame because he played a sniveling, cowardly, yet somehow likable creep better than anyone except maybe Richard Widmark. Anyone who has seen his performance as Johnny, Joan Bennett’s pimp in Fritz Lang’s classic Scarlet Street (1945) (clip above) can attest to his skill at portraying sleazebags. Scarlet Street was the second time Lang cast Duryea as Bennett’s pimp, the first being Woman In The Window (1944)(Bennett, one of the first actresses to start her own production company hired Lang to direct her in four film noir’s between 1941-48. The other two were Man Hunt (1941) and Secret Beyond The Door (1948)) Enough parenthesis for you?
To get the boring background stuff out of the way is what second paragraphs are all about, no? Dan Duryea was born in White Plains, N.Y. in 1907, attended Cornell (where he succeeded sex deviant Franchot Tone as the president of the Drama Society). Upon graduation he entered the advertising biz, retiring after a brief heart attack. His acting career got off to an excellent start when he landed the starring role in Dead End on Broadway, followed by another stint on the Great White Way in Little Foxes as the snivelling weakling Leo, a role he reprised in the William Wyler film, his Hollywood debut. For his next two movies he played Gary Cooper’s nemesis, first in Howard Hawks‘ Ball Of Fire (1941) (written by Billy Wilder) where his character bore the brilliant moniker Duke Pastrami, and then landing the role as cynical reporter Hank Hannerman in baseball tearjerker Pride Of The Yankees (1942). He would go on to work steadily until his death in 1968 with 110 screen credits.
Like Widmark, he was a highly respected professional whose off screen life couldn’t have been more different from his onscreen persona. He was well liked, married to the same woman for 31 years (his son Peter worked as TV actor from 1964-1976), he rarely seen in the gossip columns.
Most of Duryea’s roles fall in to two categories, either as the heavy/pimp/criminal/con man in film noir’s including Fritz Lang’s Ministry Of Fear (1944), and Woman In The Window (1944) Anthony Mann’s The Great Flamarian (1945) (opposite Eric Von Strohiem!), Main Street After Dark (1945), Lady On A Train(1945), Black Angel (1946), Larceny (1948), Manhandled (1948), Criss Cross (1948), Too Late For Tears (1949), Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949), One Way Street (1950), The Underworld Story (1950) Anthony Mann’s vastly underrated Thunder Bay (1953), World For Ransom (1954) Storm Fear (1955), The Burgler (1957), Slaughter On 10th Avenue (1957) and his last crime picture Walk A Tightrope (1965).
Dan’s sneering onscreen persona translated equally well to westerns. In Along Came Jones (1945) he was yet again Gary Cooper’s nemesis, he starred in B westerns Black Bart (1948) (opposite Yvonne DeCarlo) and Al Jennings Of Oklahoma (1951), put in a memorable appearance in Anthony Mann’s amazing Winchester 73 (1953), and puts in excellent performances in Rails Into Laramie, Ride Clear Of Diablo, and Silver Lode (all 1954), Foxfire (1955). He would again get top billing in The Marauders (1955), He Rides Tall (1964), Taggart (1964), and The Bounty Killer (1965), all worth looking for on the Western channel.
As his film offers became more low budget (by 1960 he’d been reduced to Platinum High School where he was billed between Mickey Rooney and Conway Twitty) and film noir pretty much died out, Duryea found plenty of work in TV. He was seen on the small screen steadily throughout the fifties and sixties, working right up to his death in ’68. He portrayed a gunslinger in the very first episode of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, was a regular on the prime time soap Peyton Place, as well as appearing in such classic shows as Bonanza, Burke’s Law, Wagon Train, Naked City, Route 66, and Combat. He died of cancer at age 61 and his grave can be found at the amazing Forest Lawn Cemetery.