This post is another contribution to the "For the Love of Film (Noir)" Blogathon hosted by the Self Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films, who will explain it all and steer you to other, and far more sterling, contributions. To make a donation to the cause, hit the nifty "donate here" icon below.
"Tommy Noonan" is not a name one regularly, or perhaps I ought to say "normally," associates with film noir. Indeed, the name "Tommy Noonan" to which I am specifically referring is one that is not much regularly associated with anything these days; drop it and even someone who considers him or herself a cinephile or cinecrophile may well say, "You mean that creepy-looking, freakishly tall actor I see around the East Village all the time?"
And, no. The Noonan to whom I refer achieved his greatest mainstream fame as the bespectacled milquetoast heir-to-a-fortune Gus, Jr., betrothed to Marilyn Monroe's Miss Lorelei Lee in Howard Hawks' 1953 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. A year later he took a slight detour from schlubville to portray a wisecracking showbiz sidekick of Judy Garland's in Cukor's A Star Is Born, but it would be around slightly more graphic variants of the nerd/bombshell contrast that he would craft, such as it were, the finale of his acting career, before dying of a brain tumor in 1968.
As it happened, the bland vacancy of Noonan's facial features in Blondes was a product of both prop placement (the glasses) and deft acting. The half-brother of John Ireland, Noonan wasn't a bad-looking guy, and among his first Hollywood acting roles were film noir turns as knowing slicksters. In 1947's Born To Kill, for instance, he appears uncredited as a bellboy who whiles away his idle hours playing cards and getting plastered with too-old-to-be-slatternly hotel resident Audrey Long.
While not exactly an out-and-out sleazeball here, he definitely strikes the viewer as something of a service-economy opportunist. And Kill director Robert Wise, or somebody at studio RKO, must have liked Noonan and/or saw some heavy potential in him, because he showed up a couple of years later in Wise's RKO classic The Set-Up, sporting a particularly ridiculous suit and laying out a line of icky patter to poor Audrey Totter, who's wandering around town wondering what she's gonna do about seemingly doomed boxer husband Robert Ryan.
Now there's a character who sure doesn't look like he'd let himself be taken advantage of even by the likes of Miss Lee. Noonan also played the real-life Western character Charles Ford, brother of Jesse James killer Robert, in two films, Sam Fuller's I Shot Jesse James (and here Noonan's real-life half-brother Ireland played Robert) and The Return of Jesse James (in which Ireland also appears, but not as Ford, but rather as a Jesse James lookalike; how confusing).
But Noonan's work opposite Monroe in Blondes was such that it created something of an archetype, and in 1955, in Richard Fleischer's atypical but thoroughly exceptional noir Violent Saturday, he melded milquetoast and sleaze to extremely memorable effect.
What makes Saturday an atypical noir has in part to do with the fact that it's in Cinemascope, and very vivid De Luxe color, and that it's set not in a big city but a mid-size Western mining town, Bradenville. Some bad fellows, including Lee Marvin and J. Carrol Naish, are out to rob the local bank. In a sense, the film melds the heist picture with the sick-secrets-of-suburbia melodrama, and from that hybrid, in fact, the film derives its sense of noir. Noonan is Harry Reeves, the seemingly upstanding bank manager; sure, likes a drink eery now and again, but a thoroughly okay guy; and midway through the picture (whose ninety or so minutes are pretty jam-packed with plot, even by the efficient standards of the day and genre) we find out how he really gets his kicks; out "walking" the "dog" (okay, he actually does have a dog), he "lets" himself be led to the back of the local hotel...
...where the new nurse in town (Virginia Leith, six years away from her, um, defining role as The Brain That Wouldn't Die) is staying. The sight of her changing out of her work clothes is just, well, mesmerizing...
Having thus wed nerdy to dirty, Noonan hit upon a potentially perfect persona in which to embody the square who squirmed for sexual satisfaction and/or liberation. Of course a little more simulated Scotch-drinking was going to help with that. In 1963 Noonan joined one-time 20th Century Fox stablemate Jayne Mansfield (yet another kinda-sorta "next Marilyn Monroe" for that studio, which had also produced Violent Saturday) and he husband, proto-Schwarzenegger bodybuilder turned film performer Mickey Hargitay, for the aspiring-to-smuttiness cheapo sex farce Promises, Promises, notorious for featuring some completely non-diegetic shots of a half-naked Mansfield gyrating on a bed.
Here Noonan, more anti-cool than ever in oversized horn-rims, sousedly ruminates on Hargitay's prodigious pressing...
...and, suffering even more indignity than he did in the hands of Monroe, accepts chastisement from Mansfield.
In 1964, in his first and last directorial effort, Three Nuts In Search of a Bolt, Noonan played a version of himself, an out-of-work actor who agrees to pose as a psychoanalyst. One of his charges was played by Mamie van Doren, another "next Marilyn" who had never signed with Fox, but had been discovered by Howard Hughes, thank you very much.