Her mother told friends and neighbors her daughter was daft. The girl was “movie mad”, living only for the pleasures of the pictures and latest movie magazines. But young Patsy Sloots,who was blonde, petite, and uncommonly pretty, had thoughts of her own. At age seventeen, she was signed by the J. Arthur Rank Organization, stage-named ‘Susan Shaw’, and hustled off to the studio’s charm school to make a proper lady of her (“The rain in Spain…”).
Soon after, Patsy-now-Susan, was given her first screen assignments - uncredited and minor supporting parts in a series of sombre melodramas, most of them now part of the British film noir canon. These included The Upturned Glass (1947), the macabre tale of a doctor driven to avenge the death of his lover; Jassy (1947), an elegant period thriller in which murder and the sins of the flesh richly thicken the plot; It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), a grim yet poetic depiction of backstreet life in post-war London; and To the Public Danger (1948), a cautionary psychodrama based on a stage play by Patrick Hamilton (Gaslight, Rope, Hangover Square).
Though the roles were small, Shaw brightened the screen corner-to-corner. It was clear there was more to her than just girlish good looks and a buoyant personality. Unselfconscious and matter-of-fact, Shaw was suited to play strong-willed and often wilful young women. Growing up in West Norwood, a working-class district of South London, she’d come by her candor and forthrightness honestly, deciding early on to be something more than an office clerk, the vocation waiting for most girls after school-leaving at age 16. Like the characters she’d play - be it daughter, sister, girlfriend, fiancée, wife, confidante, or companion - she would always resist expectations.
Shaw’s breezy impudence would next find her cast in a trio of light-hearted comedies charting the exploits of a working-class London family, the Huggetts. Starring Jack Warner and Kathleen Harrison as the clan’s good-hearted parents, and Jane Hylton, Petula Clark, and Shaw as their spirited young daughters, the movies charmed audiences and were a hit at the box office. They also showcased Shaw’s maturing talents; months later she’d be seen in Charles Crichton’s poignant portmanteau production, Train of Events (1949). The film recounted a railroad disaster as told through four short stories, one of them, ‘The Engine Driver’ again teaming up audience-favorite Jack Warner with Shaw as father and daughter. Though the movie met with only mixed success, it cemented her relationship with the general public and its sense that the actress was ‘one of us’ - ¬a well-brought up young woman (as opposed to the snobby ‘well-bred’) doing her best to get by.
Shaw looked to be on her way. She was given higher billing in Five Angles on Murder AKA A Woman in Question (1949), directed by Anthony Asquith and headlining Jean Kent and Dirk Bogarde. Shaw featured as Catherine, the self-centered younger sister of Kent’s character, Astra, who is mysteriously murdered. The police interview five of those closest to Astra, each of whom offers up a dramatically different view of the woman. Catherine recalls Astra as a cheap tramp, though she’s no angel herself. Catherine’s flinty insolence projected Shaw in yet another light on screen. As an actress, she’d become more unpredictable, more vivid, and much more interesting.
A Woman in Question was Susan Shaw’s full entrée into the dark world of film noir. It was a world which she’d soon make her home, as nearly all of the films in which she’d next feature would be unconditional film noir dramas and thrillers. One of the first and best was Basil Dearden’s ground-breaking Pool of London (1950). The film tells of a merchant seaman, Dan (Bonar Colleano) who gets in over-his-head in a smuggling racket. He recruits a black shipmate, Johnny (Earl Cameron) to help pull him out but fails to tell Johnny what’s really going on. Shaw gives an emotionally uncluttered and touching performance as an empathetic cinema cashier who becomes drawn to Johnny as she witnesses his wounding encounters with racial prejudice. She also begins to share his vagrant hopes.
It was on the set on Pool of London that Susan Shaw first met Bonar Colleano, a charismatic American actor who’d featured in the Hollywood productions Stairway to Heaven (1946) and Sleeping Car to Trieste (1948). Now working in the UK, Colleano had become a go-to actor for roles asking for a brash, voluble New Yorker. He’d star in films such as Good-Time Girl (1948), Christ in Concrete (1949), Escape by Night (1954), and Joe MacBeth (1955). Shaw was married at the time to German actor Albert Lieven but their marriage ended in 1953. She and Colleano wed in January, 1954.
Their union grabbed the attention of the daily press and it wasn’t long before Shaw and Colleano had been anointed as British filmdom’s Golden Couple. Their celebrity was transcendent and strikingly modern. She was coveted by both British movie and women’s magazines as interest in her began to eclipse that of more established and critically-appointed actresses like Deborah Kerr, Valerie Hobson, Kathleen Byron, and Ann Todd. Shaw’s attraction appeared to be unbound by class or generational divides. Among her fans were older movie goers who had watched her come of age on screen, as well as younger women and teenage girls infatuated by her persona on and off-screen. Her trademark blondeness was embraced as fashionable and glamorous – unlike that of brassier sexpots Diana Dors, Greta Gynt, or Christine Norden who were generally viewed as ‘common’.
The couple’s storybook life came to a devastating end in 1958 when Colleano, returning to London from Liverpool after a stage performance of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, smashed up his sports car and was killed. Shaw was left distraught ̶ and destitute. Colleano was a reckless spender who owed thousands in back taxes. Friends, including James Mason and Stanley Baker, volunteered to sponsor a charity football match to cover funeral expenses and raise funds towards the support of the couple’s three-year-old son, Mark, who would be taken in and raised by Colleano’s mother, a former circus performer (Mark would go on to become an actor). Shaw struggled to keep working. She began drinking heavily and her acting career was done with by 1962. She survived on menial office jobs and serving in bars but fell deeper into alcoholism and depression. Eventually, she was banned even from London’s seediest clubs and in 1978 at 49 years old, passed away from cirrhosis of the liver. She died penniless and burial costs were covered by the Rank Organization. No former co-stars or colleagues came to her funeral, though Jack Warner and Kathleen Harrison, then respectively 83- and 86-years old and in ill-health, sent flowers.
Celebrity deaths are often attended by infamy. Examples are sadly familiar, such as that of Barbara Payton who lived out her days addicted and selling herself on Sunset Strip; or Gail Russell, who medicated herself to death with alcohol, initially in an attempt to overcome crippling stage fright. Susan Shaw’s premature passing, like Russell’s was rendered even more tragic because of the once-shining promise of her life and career. Fortunately, Shaw left behind an array of memorable, full-of-life performances, a testament to a lovely and vibrant actress who featured and starred in more classic-period British film noirs than any other. Following are ten of ‘best of the rest’ of Susan Shaw, the uncontested Sweetheart of British Noir.
1. Waterfront AKA Waterfront Women (1950) Dir: Michael Anderson, w/ Robert Newton, Kathleen Harrison, Richard Burton, Kenneth Griffith, Avis Scott
A bleak post-war noir about a family long-abandoned by the father (Newton) who went to sea years ago. Newton suddenly returns home and ends up in jail for murder while the youngest daughter (Shaw) is being pursued by a wealthy scoundrel (Griffith) who wants only to get her into bed. She resists, holding out for more and determined to get it. The film was Shaw’s first casting in an adult part. Just 19 years old, she seems years beyond her age as the hardened little social climber.
2. There is Another Sun AKA Wall of Death (1951) Dir: Lewis Gilbert, w/ Laurence Harvey, Maxwell Reed
Reed, a motorcycle stunt rider and low-life, convinces his boxing buddy (Harvey) to help him rob the carnival office. Reed is lusting for a new bike so he can rejoin the racing circuit after recklessly killing a fellow racer. Shaw, once Reed’s girlfriend and now Harvey’s, begs him not to get involved with the thick-eared Reed but is left only to pick up the pieces when everything goes ‘pear-shaped’. Shaw’s performance in Wall of Death is one of her most sympathetic and affecting.
3. Wide Boy (1952) Dir: Ken Hughes, w/ Syd Tafler, Ronald Howard
Tafler is a street hustler with big ambitions and no prospects. His girlfriend (Shaw) despairs of him but enjoys his patter and his favors. One evening, he dips into a woman’s purse and comes up with a letter that shows she’s having an affair with well-to-do married gent (Howard). Tafler tries blackmail but ends up on the run for murder. Wide Boy was Shaw’s coming-out in her transformation from a pretty young slip-of-a-thing to a self-assured beauty.
4. A Killer Walks (1952) Dir: Ronald Drake, w/ Laurence Harvey, Trader Faulkner
Lawrence Harvey plays a farm worker, existing on subsistence wages paid to him by his grandmother who owns the farm. Shaw is his glammed-up girlfriend who’s looking for money in a marriage. Both know where they can get it but granny has to die first. Shaw’s made it plain that she’s just a city girl who wants to open a beauty parlour. Bible-thumping granny makes it plain she thinks Shaw’s just a floozy. She is, and a thumping good one at that.
5. The Intruder (1953) Dir: Guy Hamilton, w/ Jack Hawkins, Michael Medwin, Dennis Price
Jack Hawkins returns home to find a burglar (Medwin), a former member of his wartime regiment. Medwin makes a dash for it and Hawkins, hoping to help him, goes on a country wide-search. Shaw is Medwin’s girlfriend from before the war who’d promised to marry him but now has other plans. Shaw’s natural believability was a large part of her appeal. In The Intruder, that truthfulness of character is heart-rending.
6. Small Town Story (1953) Dir: Montgomery Tully, w/ Ken Walton, Donald Houston, Alan Wheatley
A Canadian ex-serviceman (Walton) returns to the English town where he’d been posted during the war, hoping to find the girl (Shaw) with whom he’d fallen in love. Walton, a promising footballer, hears that the local club stands to inherit £25,000 from recently a deceased supporter if it places high in the league. The supporter’s nephew (Wheatley) wants the money and enlists Shaw’s help to make sure that Bob never plays. This was one of Shaw’s few parts as an all-out bad-girl. Would that there had been more…
7. The Good Die Young (1954) Dir: Lewis Gilbert, w/ Laurence Harvey, Stanley Baker, Richard Basehart, John Ireland, Joan Collins, Gloria Grahame
Three good men are desperate to redeem themselves: a broken boxer (Baker); a US veteran (Basehart) attempting to win back his wife (Collins); and an air force sergeant (Ireland) married to a faithless actress (Grahame). The trio are persuaded by an amoral layabout (Harvey) to hi-jack a postal van. Shaw has a small part but owns the moment. As Ireland tries to chat her up in a pub, she asks, “Are you married?”. When he asks her why she cares, she says, “Oh, I just like to know what the weather’s like before I put out to sea”. The last word often went to Shaw who was always ready to deliver it.
8. Blonde Blackmailer (1955) Dir: Charles Deane, w/ Richard Arlen, Constance Leigh
After serving seven years for a murder he didn’t commit, Arlen is determined to clear his name. Evidence at the trial showed the murdered girl to be a known blackmailer. Arlen and his fiancée Leigh track down Shaw, a model who had been a close friend of the murdered girl. However, she turns out to be something worse. Shaw relished the part and made a full-course meal of it, the film’s tag line being, “Man Bait! By Day, the Fashion Model! By Night, the Racket Girl!”
9. The Diplomatic Corpse (1958) Dir: Montgomery Tully, w/Robin Bailey, Liam Redmond
Reporter Bailey is investigating the murder of an employee of a Middle-Eastern embassy. Clues leads to the ambassador himself and Bailey’s fiancée and gossip columnist, Shaw, finds her way into the embassy as a fill-in receptionist. It’s a risky play. Her predecessor had been killed in an untimely ‘accident’. Despite the serious subject matter (drug smuggling under diplomatic cover, for a start), things are agreeably lighthearted at times, thanks to the playful script which allows Shaw free reign.
10. Chain of Events (1958) Dir: Gerald Thomas, w/ Kenneth Griffith, Dermot Walsh
A taut noir melodrama, Chain of Events features Griffith as a bank clerk who boards a bus and deliberately neglects to pay his fare. Caught by an inspector, Griffith foolishly gives the name and address of one of the bank's clients, setting in motion un ugly chain of events involving blackmail, robbery, and murder. Walsh plays a reporter following the story. Shaw glows as the newspaper owner’s secretary, who also happens to be Walsh’s girlfriend and partner in crime-busting. The show is there for the stealing and Shaw walks away without anyone laying a hand on her -- as she usually did.
Written by Gary Deane
(A version of this article appeared in NOIR CITY magazine #22, 2017)