“They were grooming me to be the next Vera Miles. I was supposed to replace somebody the audience didn’t even know was missing” - Jane Fonda in The Morning After (1986).
Though she’d been both a Miss America runner-up and professional model, Vera Miles was more than just another glamour girl with big aspirations when she pulled into Tinseltown. Yes, she was a looker but also a natural actress with her own ideas on things and it took time for Hollywood to find a place at the table-read for her. However, the intelligence and emotional honesty she showed on the screen eventually brought her the roles she deserved, like that of the warmly earnest and practical heroine of Jacques Tourneur’s stylish Wichita (1955).
Among her admirers was Alfred Hitchcock who was so taken with Miles’ performance in an episode of the much-watched Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series that he put her under permanent contract. He then starred her with Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man (1957) in which she perhaps gave her most affecting performance. Unfortunately, Miles would never be used that searchingly again.
Hitchcock had seen Miles as one more in the line of blonde, ethereal successors to his indefectible ideal, Grace Kelly. Although it hadn’t been an ambition of Miles to fulfill that role, there was no denying she could conjure Kelly’s cool and composed allure with ease.
Hitchcock followed on by casting Miles in the coveted lead role in Vertigo (1958). Unfortunately for the director, and arguably for the actress, the part went to Kim Novak after Miles told an angry and aggrieved Hitchcock that she was pregnant. The rest is history – at least as far as the film is concerned. Sight and Sound magazine in April 2016 acclaimed Vertigo to be “The Best Film in History”.
As it turned out, Vera Miles never was to become the biggest of stars; however, she did have a career overall that belied the notion she’d not lived up to her potential as an actress. She was achingly memorable in The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and gave enduring performances in movies with directors as diverse in temperament and style as Don Siegel, Henry Hathaway, and Robert Aldrich. Miles was well suited to anchor films in which she was required to be as strong as or stronger than the males around her – alpha leads like Van Johnson (23 Paces to Baker Street, 1956) and James Stewart (The FBI Story, 1959). She was fearless in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), though the director could hardly have rendered her more drab.
Then a year later came The Lawbreakers (1961), a riveting post-noir which featured a powerhouse all-male cast that included the irascible Jack Warden. Miles stars as Angela Walsh, who serves as both secretary and companion to Allen Bardeman (Robert Douglas) a crooked lawyer and collections broker for ‘the Organization’. The syndicate’s payoff scheme is complicated, involving a network of operators and go-betweens, each unknown to the others. If there’s a breakdown, there’ll be no question as to who’s responsible. But when Bardeman gets in over his head by throwing too much money around and paying too little tax, Angela convinces him there’s a way to hijack the mob’s weekly take and not be fingered for it. It’s a high-risk proposition but Bardeman is desperate and Angela is just as ruthless.
Meanwhile, Detective Matt Gower, played by Warden, is working hard to break the gang but with only reluctant support from local civic leaders and police officials. Then, when innocents are killed during the heist, Gower’s boss gets shown the door and Gower is promoted to Acting Police Commissioner. Little by little, he begins to piece together a picture of what’s going on.
But by this time, Bardeman and his ex-cronies are at each others throats. Angela, realizing that the wheels are to about to fall off, decides it’s time to pull the trigger on the rest of her plan – the part Bardeman knows nothing about.
To say more would be giving too much away. Much of the pleasure to be had from this fast-knotted thriller is in just trying to hang on – which isn’t that easy, even though it clocks in at a brisk 76 minutes. Few film noirs have ever had so much of a story to tell and so little time in which to get it right. Out of necessity, Joseph M. Newman gives The Lawbreakers a straightforward and assertive direction – just as he'd done with Abandoned (1949); 711 Ocean Drive (1950); Lucky Nick Cain (1951); Dangerous Crossing (1953); Flight to Hong Kong (1956); and Death in Small Doses (1957).
Also in on the film were two of Hollywood’s most prolific and proficient screenwriters, W. R. Burnett and Paul Monash. Burnett, author of over fifty novels and screenplays, provided the original story, which he and Monash then fashioned into a teleplay titled The Lady and the Lawyer, intended as one of thirteen episodes for a TV crime series, The Asphalt Jungle (Burnett, of course, had written the best-selling novel and also contributed the screenplay for the iconic 1950 film version).
Unfortunately, during its run in early 1961, the TV series garnered only so-so ratings. Anticipating that the network would dump the show, the producing studio, MGM, decided to extend the Lady and the Lawyer episode to feature length (at least by B standards) by filming an additional 30-plus minutes with the same cast and crew. These included favored character actors Arch Johnson, Ken Lynch, Robert Bailey, James Seay, David White and Jay Adler at his sleaziest. Behind the camera was cinematographer Nickolas Musuraca, one of classic film noir’s genuine visual virtuosos, responsible for shooting classics such as The Spiral Staircase (1945), Deadline at Dawn (1946), The Locket (1946), Out of the Past (1947), Where Danger Lives (1950), Roadblock (1951), Clash by Night (1952), The Blue Gardenia (1953), and Split Second (1953).
That any start-up television project could have marshalled such an extraordinary line-up of talent (including award-winning composer/arranger Johnny Mandel along with Duke Ellington and his orchestra) says a lot about the creative acumen of series producer Jaime Del Valle, who’d earlier led out on The Lineup, both the original television series and the chilling 1958 film release directed by Don Siegel. Unfortunately, Del Valle largely disappeared from sight afterwards, as did The Lawbreakers. It ended up receiving only limited release in Europe, being deemed too risqué and uncomfortably violent to bother with distribution at home. The movie then went unseen for over four decades until TCM dusted it off some years ago to expose a minor B-noir gem that shines from nearly every angle, especially that of the performance of Vera Miles. Though her character, Angela Walsh, doesn’t get that much screen time, her impact is equally outright and climactic.
Following The Lawbreakers, Miles was cast as a vengeful alcoholic wife in Back Street (1961) starring Susan Hayward and John Gavin. Though praised for her showing, the role was a thankless one and a turning point for the actress, who decided it was time to look out for herself. She featured in a string of lighter-hearted Disney films from the mid-1960’s into the 1970’s, as well as a frequently guest-starring in popular television series, such as I Spy and Owen Marshall. She continued to work in TV and film throughout the 1980’s and early ‘90’s, including a return to the Lila Crane role in Psycho II (1983), an unexpectedly well-developed sequel to the original classic.
And as for Vertigo, the movie actually did poorly when first released and subsequently received little exposure or critical attention for nearly thirty years. Even had Miles starred, it’s doubtful that the film would have impacted her career in any material way during the years which professionally mattered the most. Vera Miles lives in Los Angeles.
(A version of this article appeared in the Fall 2016 edition of Noir City magazine)