Audrey Long: Screen star who became known for leading roles in several film noirs

Among her better B-movies were Air Hostess, in which she raised laughs as a man-chasing stewardess, and Post Office Investigator

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The Independent Online

Tall and blonde, with a patrician air, Audrey Long was a prolific B-movie actress, appearing in over 30 films in the decade commencing in 1942.

She played leading lady to John Wayne in the Western Tall in the Saddle, but she will be best remembered for her roles in two highly regarded film noirs of 1947, Anthony Mann’s Desperate and Robert Wise’s Born to Kill. After her acting career ended, she married Leslie Charteris, the writer who created the sleuth Simon Templar, “The Saint”.

The daughter of an Episcopalian minister, Long was born in Florida in 1922, and on graduation from high school won a scholarship to attend Max Reinhardt’s drama school in Hollywood. She made her screen debut in 1942 with unbilled roles as a student in The Male Animal and a receptionist in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Moving to New York, she became a model prior to making her Broadway debut in Reinhardt’s production of Irwin Shaw’s play Sons and Soldiers (1943). It starred Gregory Peck (just prior to Hollywood fame) and Geraldine Fitzgerald, but lasted for only 22 performances. Long then joined a touring company for the play Dark Eyes, in which she was seen by an RKO Pictures talent scout and given a contract.

In her first RKO film, A Night of Adventure (1944), she was a fashion designer who asks her estranged lawyer husband (Tom Conway) to defend a boyfriend who is accused of murder. Variety described her as “not only attractive, but hinting promise”. She then played a ranch owner battling the misogyny of cowboy John Wayne (who refuses to work for a woman) in Tall in the Saddle, directed by Edwin L Marin after Wayne unsuccessfully tried to persuade John Ford to direct the film.

In 1945 Long was given leading roles in a musical, Pan-Americana, and a Western, Wanderer of the Wasteland, then starred with John Loder in A Game of Death, a budget remake of the classic thriller The Most Dangerous Game. Directed by Robert Wise, its tale of a madman who hunts human prey with his hungry hounds, was effectively chilling – though Fay Wray’s screams from the 1932 version were said to have been dubbed over Long’s. During the film’s shooting, Long married its dialogue director, Eddie Rubin.

Wise directed her again in the minor classic Born to Kill (1947), in which she marries a vicious killer (Lawrence Tierney) who is desired by her sister (Claire Trevor). The great character actors Elisha Cook Jr and Esther Howard are among the reasons the film, considered by many in its day to be excessively brutal, is now esteemed. Wise later commented: “It got pretty badly attacked at the time, but by today’s standards, it is very mild... in terms of the dynamism of the story, it holds up very well.”

Desperate (1947), in which a truck-driver (Steve Brodie) and his pregnant wife (Long) have to go on the run to escape killers (led by a menacing Raymond Burr), gave Long a less glamorous role than usual, and brought her critical praise for her portrayal. The fim’s taut pace and the director’s imaginative use of light and shadow quickly established Desperate as an above-average B-movie.

In 1948, after moving to the less prestigious Monogram studio, Long played a secretary who reforms a crook in Perilous Waters; the princess who sponsors the composer Tchaikovsky in the ambitious Song of my Heart (José Iturbi played the piano on the soundtrack, but the film was not a success); and a small-town girl who goes to New York to find out who killed her actress sister in Stage Struck.

She was filmed in colour (albeit the inferior Cinecolor system) for her next two films, Adventures of Gallant Bess and Miraculous Journey, then received top billing for the first time in Homicide for Three (all also 1948), a breezy comedy-thriller in which newlyweds track down a killer. Warren Douglas, who played her husband, later stated: “Audrey was one of those wonderful little performers of the Forties who loved her profession and respected it by giving all she could to it.”

Among her better B-movies were Air Hostess, in which she raised laughs as a man-chasing stewardess, and Post Office Investigator (both 1949), which gave her a rare villainous role, one of her personal favourite parts. She was a foreign agent in David Harding, Counterspy (1950), and was effective as a snooty society lady in the musical The Petty Girl (1950). Her performance in Cavalry Scout (1951) prompted the Hollywood Reporter to assert that “Long shows further proof that she is an unusually good actress whose career is fast on the march upward.” But roles such as Frankie Laine’s girlfriend in Sunny Side of the Street (1951) and a schoolteacher out West in Indian Uprising (1952) hardly supported the journal’s optimism.

In 1951 Long divorced Rubin, charging desertion, and the following year she married the author Leslie Charteris, who had worked in Hollywood writing dialogue for Tarzan movies and the story for the Deanna Durbin vehicle Lady on a Train. He was best known, though, for creating the character of the debonair thief-turned-sleuth Simon Templar, known as the Saint, the hero of many stories, films and a television series in which he was played by Roger Moore.

Long was Charteris’s fourth wife, but the couple settled in London and their union lasted for 41 years until Charteris’s death in 1993. 

Audrey Long, actress: born Orlando, Florida 12 April 1922; married 1945 Edward Rubin (divorced 1951), 1952 Leslie Charteris (died 1993); died London 19 September 2014.

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