November 13, 2022

Film Noir's Most Wanted: Raymond Burr

Years before Raymond Burr became a good guy defending the innocent as Perry Mason and fighting crime as Ironside, he gave new meaning to the word heavy in a string of crime pictures and film noirs from the late ‘40s through the mid-’50s.

Canadian by birth, Burr was born in 1917 in New Westminster, British Columbia. When still a young boy, his mother moved the family to Vallejo, California. Raymond was sent to military school, where he was mercilessly teased because of his weight. At 17 he quit school to join Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which gave him the opportunity to work a variety of jobs.

Burr soon gravitated to acting, working summer stock in Toronto, traveling to Europe for a stint at a UK repertory company and a singing gig at a Paris nightclub (!?), then heading back to California for more acting work at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Raymond Burr, one of film noir's leading villains

With that experience under his belt, Burr decided to try his luck on Broadway. By 1943, good reviews for his performance in the play The Duke in Darkness attracted the attention of Hollywood, and he soon had a contract with RKO.

After the war, Burr’s film debut was in an RKO comedy, Without Reservations (1946). But the physically imposing, intense-looking actor was quickly destined for villain roles, appearing as the bad guy in three 1947 films: San Quentin (as an escaped convict), Code of the West (as a typical western black hat), and Desperate (as a revenge-seeking mobster). A new (dark) star was born.

The star of Desperate, Steve Brodie, took credit for starting Burr down the villainous path:

“Ray was… testing for a biblical part, so I suggested his name to the producer, Michael Kraike, for our picture.” … Kraike liked the idea, and for the next decade villain roles were about the only parts Raymond Burr played.” [Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, “Raymond Burr,” in Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, McFarland, 2003, pp. 70-1.]

Those who only know Raymond Burr as the unflappable defense lawyer Perry Mason might be surprised at how flappable and violent he could be in these early roles. If anything, Burr was heftier than in his later Perry Mason days, an intimidating brick wall of a man in a bulky suit and fedora and wearing a permanent scowl for good measure -- the perfect noir antagonist.

Anyone doing villain roles in Hollywood during this period would have been hard pressed to avoid the kinds of crime pictures that came to be known as film noir. In her book Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, Karen Burroughs Hannsberry counts nine noirs on Burr’s resume. IMDb lists 21 noirs and near-noirs to his credit.

Without further ado, here’s a “rap sheet” of some of Burr’s more notable film noir appearances:

Poster - Desperate (1947)
As Walt Radak in Desperate (1947)

Wanted for:
Grand larceny
Transportation of stolen goods
Attempted murder

Case file summary: Steven Randall (Steve Brodie), a hard-up truck driver, needs work fast because his wife is expecting a baby. He signs up for a driving gig with an old childhood acquaintance, Walt Radak, but soon learns that he’ll be transporting stolen goods. Randall is coerced into going through with the job, but at the staging area, he manages to get the attention of a nearby policeman.

In the resulting shoot-out, the policeman is killed, and Walt’s kid brother Al (Larry Nunn) is charged with murder. Al is sentenced to death, and Randall flees town with his pregnant wife to avoid Radak’s wrath. The gang leader relentlessly tracks down the frightened couple, determined to kill Randall at the same time that his brother is executed in prison.

Walt Radak [to Randall]: “In fifteen minutes they're going to throw the switch on Al, and you're going with him... both of you at the same time. It's not very much to do for my own brother, but it's something. It's all I can do now, I guess. Guess Al's already had his last dinner. You might as well have yours too.” [IMDb

Raymond Burr as Walt Radak in Desperate (1947)

Poster - Raw Deal (1948)
As Rick Coyle in Raw Deal (1948)

Wanted for:
Aiding and abetting
Aggravated assault

Case file summary: Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe), is serving time in prison for a botched robbery masterminded by his boss, Rick Coyle (Burr). Coyle, fearing Sullivan will rat him out, arranges for Joe to escape, but sets him up to be shot during the attempt.

Against the odds, Sullivan makes good on the escape with his girl Pat (Claire Trevor) and his lawyer’s assistant Ann (Marsha Hunt), in tow. Learning of his boss’ attempted double cross, Sullivan decides to go after Coyle for the $50,000 he’s owed.

Coyle: “He [Sullivan] was screaming he wanted out. When a man screams, I don’t like it. He might scream loud enough for the D.A. to hear. I don’t want to hurt the D.A.’s ears. He’s sensitive.” [Hannsberry, p. 72]

Raymond Burr in Raw Deal (1948)

Poster - Pitfall (1948)
As J.B. MacDonald in Pitfall (1948)

Wanted for:
Conspiracy to commit murder

Case file summary: The humdrum middle-class life of married insurance investigator John Forbes (Dick Powell) takes a sharp turn into danger when he meets beautiful and alluring Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), girlfriend of convicted embezzler Bill Smiley (Byron Barr). Originally intending to retrieve stolen items from Mona for his company, he falls hard for her instead.

Complications ensue when J.B. MacDonald (Burr), an unbalanced private eye working for the insurance company, becomes obsessed with Mona and wants her for himself. He stalks Mona, and plans to set up Smiley, who is soon to be released from prison, to eliminate his competition for Mona’s affections.

 MacDonald: “She probably doesn't appeal to you but for me, she's just what I told the doctor to order.” [IMDB]

Publicity Still - Lizabeth Scott and Raymond Burr in Pitfall (1948)

Poster - His Kind of Woman (1951)
As Nick Ferraro in His Kind of Woman (1951)

Wanted for:
Conspiracy to commit murder
Assault with a deadly weapon

Case file summary: Crime boss Nick Ferraro (Burr) has been deported to his native Italy, but plots to return to the States. Ferraro has his henchmen offer down-on-his-luck gambler Dan Milner (Robert Mitchum) $50K to stay at a toney Mexican resort, where he plans to kill Milner and assume his identity.

En route to Mexico, Milner meets wealthy heiress Lenore Brent (Rosalind Russell), who wows him with her beauty and vivaciousness. At the resort, the initially clueless Milner encounters a cast of eccentric characters, including has-been actor Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price), any one of whom may or may not be in on the dastardly plot.

Ferraro: “I want him [Milner] to be fully conscious. I don't like to shoot a corpse. I want to see the expression on his face when he knows it's coming.” [IMDb]

Still - Robert Mitchum and Raymond Burr in His Kind of Woman (1951)

Poster - The Blue Gardenia (1953)
As Harry Prebble in The Blue Gardenia (1953)

Wanted for:

Case file summary: When Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter) learns that her fiancé stationed overseas has fallen in love with someone else, she goes on a blind rebound date at the Blue Gardenia nightclub with Harry Prebble (Burr), a cheesecake photographer and professional lounge lizard. Harry gets Norah drunk on multiple cocktails, and takes her back to his apartment with less than honorable intentions.

Norah fends Harry off with a fireplace poker and flees back to her apartment. Waking up the next morning with no clear memory of the previous night’s events, she is shocked to discover that Harry is dead, and the police are looking for a mystery woman who just happens to be her. Norah realizes her only hope is to enlist the aid of a newspaper columnist, Casey Mayo (Richard Conte), who has dubbed the mystery suspect “The Blue Gardenia murderess.”

Harry Prebble: “These aren't really drinks. They're trade-winds across cool lagoons. They're the Southern Cross above coral reefs. They're a lovely maiden bathing at the foot of a waterfall.” [IMDb]

Still - Anne Baxter and Raymond Burr in The Blue Gardenia (1953)

Bonus Burr: Two Gorilla-noirs

Poster - Bride of the Gorilla (1951)
Bride of the Gorilla (1951)

Written and directed by Curt Siodmak, creator of The Wolf Man, this entertainingly cheesy B features Burr as Barney Chavez, the manager of a remote South American plantation. Barney is in lust with beautiful Dina Van Gelder (Barbara Payton), wife of the plantation’s owner. Barney kills his boss to get to his wife, but his crime is witnessed by a local witch-woman (Gisela Werbisek), who puts the curse of the “Sukara” on him, whereby he turns into a rampaging gorilla by night. Is Barney truly a were-gorilla, or is it all in his head? The local police commissioner (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and doctor (Tom Conway) are on the case.

 Police Commissioner Taro (narrating): “This is Jungle - lush, green, alive with incredible growth - as young as day, as old as time. … Isn't it beautiful? But I have also learned that beauty can be venomous, deadly, something terrifying, something of prehistoric ages when monstrous superstitions ruled the minds of men … something that has haunted the world for millions of years rose out of that verdant labyrinth.” [IMDb]

Stills - Barbara Payton and Raymond Burr in Bride of the Gorilla (1951)

Poster - Gorilla at Large (1954)
Gorilla at Large (1954)

This simian pot-boiler, filmed in 3-D, features Burr as Cy Miller, owner of a carnival called “The Garden of Evil.” The main act features a beautiful trapeze artist, Laverne Miller (Anne Bancroft), who teases Goliath, a killer gorilla, as she swings dangerously close above his head. Cy comes up with the idea of having carnival barker Joey Matthews (Cameron Mitchell) dress up in a gorilla suit and catch Laverne each night as she falls from the trapeze. Soon, various carnies are turning up dead -- could it be Goliath, or someone dressed in the gorilla suit? Detective Sgt. Garrison (Lee J. Cobb) has to sort out the mystery amidst a love quadrangle consisting of Cy, Laverne, Joey and Joey’s fiancée Audrey (Charlotte Austin).

Sgt. Garrison: “You've always been this alert, Shaughnessy?”
Shaughnessy: “Always on my toes!”
Sgt. Garrison: “Well, get off 'em. You're a cop, not a ballet dancer.” [IMDb

Lobby card - Gorilla at Large (1954)


  1. Brian, this is a perfect tribute to Raymond Burr! He was one of the best villains in Film Noir. I recently saw him in a very good film called A Cry in the Night (1956). He plays a deranged man, dominated by his mother, who stalks and eventually kidnaps young Natalie Wood and carries her off to an abandoned warehouse. Burr's character is at times dangerous and at other times pathetic. Very good scenes between the two actors who became close friends in real life. I need to see Bride of the Gorilla!

    1. Hi Mike! Burr is fascinating because I can't think of any other actor who made such a clean break from villain roles to good guys mid-career. I haven't seen A Cry in the Night, but I did run across it in preparing the post -- it sounds like a fascinating performance! And yes, you need to see Bride of the Gorilla, a one-of-a-kind cheesy B! :-)