By Gary Deane
"Likeable guy. And a very good actor. I'll miss him." John Sturges on John Ireland's passing.
John Ireland and Robert Mitchum were destined to be best buds. Both were done with school at sixteen, both made their way to Hollywood through the back door, and together they lived it up like tomorrow was already gone. Never that drawn to Tinseltown’s la-di-da, the two hell-raising hipsters were mostly happy just hanging out with the hired help. Yet Ireland too-often found himself in the gaze of the public eye. Among his many fans were freshly-hatched starlets drawn to his rangy good looks and casual attentiveness. Natalie Wood, Sue Lyon, Barbara Payton, and wild child Tuesday Weld, who was sixteen when the 45-year-old actor began dating her, were some of his steadies. When pressed about the relationship with Weld, Ireland said, “If there wasn’t such a difference in our ages, I’d ask her to marry me. That and her mother are the only things that stop me.” Given Ireland’s watchful eyes and vulpine smile, it would be easy to think him dangerous—though he was known to be considerate of his friends, as well as those fans and admirers requesting autographs and photos.
However, Ireland’s indulgences would take their toll, personally and professionally. His first marriages were train wrecks—especially that to actress Joanne Dru, whom he met on the set of the western, Red River (’48). It didn’t take long for the lanky cowboy Romeo to rope Dru in. Meanwhile, director Howard Hawks was busy taking a hatchet to Ireland’s parts in the movie. Hawks said later, “I got tired of Ireland getting drunk every night, losing his gun, losing his hat, smoking marijuana…I just cut the hell out of his scenes and gave them to someone else.” Dru knew the score with Ireland, but married him anyway, only for the pair to later end up in separate hospital wards after what started as an argument ended as a brawl. Following their divorce, Dru—her bruises now faded—told reporters that she’d never marry another actor. Perhaps she just shouldn’t have married John Ireland.
Born in Vancouver, Canada, Ireland grew up in New York City and began his show business career as a professional swimmer. He discovered acting by chance, fell in love with it, and learned and developed his craft on stage from William Shakespeare. Which is likely why he sounds educated even when playing cheap crooks and guys up from the streets. In fact, just his voice is heard in three classic-period film noirs: Somewhere in the Night (1946), Repeat Performance (1947), and The Undercover Man (1949), movies in which he delivered uncredited voice-overs.
Ireland actually made his debut as a screen actor in Lewis Milestone’s dispassionate but moving A Walk in the Sun (1945) as a thoughtful, letter-writing G.I. With his Everyman’s looks and hard-boiled detachment, he’d play a wide range of soldiers, adventurers, and cowboys in over 200 movie and television appearances. Often brooding and inward-looking in performance, Ireland would be cast as characters good or bad—though he was just as well-equipped to play ones both good and bad. Whether a tormented villain or a hard-pressed hero, he was an actor purpose-built for film noir, in which he’d mostly end up being used as a threat, despite the flawed hero being well within his reach.
Roles in classic noir came early on, beginning with Behind Green Lights (1946), a fast-paced procedural starring William Gargan and Carole Landis. Next came Railroaded! (1947), the much-favored hard-boiled B title directed by Anthony Mann, with cinematography by John Alton. In what would become a signature role for him, Ireland stars as Duke Martin, a sadistic thug who spends time buffing his ammo with eau de cologne---that is when he’s not slapping around his girlfriend played by Jane Randolph in the grand tradition of boozy broads such as Claire Trevor’s Gaye Dawn (Key Largo,1948) or Gloria Grahame’s Debbie Marsh (The Big Heat, 1953).
Soon after Railroaded! came The Gangster (1947), a feverish noir psychodrama starring Barry Sullivan as ‘Shubunka’, a washed-up mobster whose crime empire is crumbling around him due to his arrogance and apathy. However, his henchmen, including his gambling-addicted bookkeeper (Ireland), manage to hasten their boss’s fate—along with their own.
By this time, Ireland’s career as a featured lead character player looked to be on track: a solid supporting role in the Roy Huggins-written I Love Trouble (1948), a hard-hitting Raymond Chandler knock-off starring Franchot Tone and Janet Blair; a lead in Open Secret (1948), a gripping, poor-man’s version of Crossfire; and a key supporting part in Raw Deal (1948), another emphatic Anthony Mann/ John Alton collaboration, starring Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, and Marsha Hunt. One of the era’s most violent noirs, Ireland features as ‘Fantail’, one of its most ruthless villains.
Later that year, Red River was released. Despite his part having been downsized, Ireland is memorable in several of the A feature’s most important sequences, including the confrontation between his character, Cherry Valance, and rival Matt Garth, played by Montgomery Clift. In a scene ripe with homoerotic innuendo, Cherry says, “That's a good-looking gun you were about to use back there. Can I see it? And you'd like to see mine. Nice, awful nice. You know, there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun. A Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever have a good Swiss watch?”
Other ‘adult’ Westerns would follow, including the noir-stained I Shot Jesse James (1949), a testament to its director Sam Fuller’s unbending conviction that the best movies are battlegrounds of love, hate, action, violence, and death. Ireland’s conflicted outlaw hero, Robert Ford is forced to choose between his feelings for Jesse James or those for a woman. Choosing wrongly, he ends up condemned to both the anguish of misplaced love and the infamy as James’ assassin. Ireland’s performance confirmed him as an actor to be reckoned with.
Unfortunately, his next film that year, an aggravating mix of film noir and family comedy called Mr. Soft Touch (1949) starring Glenn Ford and Evelyn Keyes, relegated Ireland to a thankless part as a crusading reporter. However, a role in the great All the King’s Men (1949) soon would make up for it. Ireland shared top billing, this time as a more cynical scribe who goes from cautious admirer to fervent denouncer of a corrupt politico (Broderick Crawford) as he attempts to mount the steps of the Governor’s Mansion. But, while Ireland received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, the acknowledgment failed to lead to better things.
The 1950’s began with the adventure drama Cargo to Capetown (1950), a strained attempt to cash in on the popularity of All the King’s Men, with Ireland and Crawford trading blows over the affections of a tramp steamer’s only female passenger (Ellen Drew). This was followed by a line-up of smaller B noirs, each better for Ireland’s being in them: The Scarf (1951), The Basketball Fix (1951), Hurricane Smith (1952), Security Risk (1954), The Steel Cage (1954), his self-directed The Fast and the Furious (1955), No Place to Land (1958), No Time to Kill (1959), and Faces in the Dark (1960). Then at least came a couple of solid supporting parts in Queen Bee (1955) with Joan Crawford, and Party Girl (1958) starring Cyd Charisse. His on-set liaison with Crawford at the time became front-page news, mainly because Crawford appeared so ready to talk about it.
An ardent Anglophile, Ireland also went back and forth to England during these years, headlining as the ordained American in a quartet of worthier British noirs: The Good Die Young (1954), The Glass Tomb (1955), Black Tide (’58), and Return of a Stranger (1961); also, The Cheaters (1960-62), a realistic TV series about insurance fraud.
During the 1970’s and early ‘80’s, Ireland, like many Hollywood actors of the era (e.g. Charles Bronson, Jack Palance, Telly Savalas, Farley Granger, Joseph Cotton), was kept busy in Italy and Mexico, starring mostly in westerns and thrillers. Back in the States, there was some television work and the occasional meatier movie role still available to him. One standout was as an intractable cop, Nulty, in the remake of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely (1975), which starred his buddy, Robert Mitchum. But by the late 1980’s, Ireland was desperate for what he called ‘real’ jobs. He took out a two-page ad in the Hollywood Reporter, saying only, “I’m an actor. Please…let me act. John Ireland.” The call-out paid off and he was able to find work for a few more years until health issues forced him to retire. He joined Mitchum and other movie colony friends in Montecito, an enclave near Santa Barbara, where for a time he owned a restaurant called ‘Ireland's'. In 1992, he died at the age of 78.
In the end, John Ireland, simply put, was who he was. Though he was serious about his craft and acting appeared to nourish his soul, he could sometimes be his own worst enemy and his career ended in frustration. But then as award-winning novelist and essayist Joan Didion once said of her own fallibilities, “Writing never made me a better person.” All that really matters though is that Ireland, by the fact of his charged inscrutability and unpredictability on screen, can easily be seen today as one of the most modern of film actors of his generation.