Dark Cinema: The Lure of Luther Adler

Film noir is practically overflowing with famous actors who made the era's anti-heroes come to life. Who can forget Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet (1944)? Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946)? Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past (1947)?

But these big name performers are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the talent pool represented by the films of the noir era. Sadly, many of the lesser-known actors are seldom mentioned today -- even by classic film aficionados -- and some are all but forgotten.

I am on a mission to bring these first-rate performers back into the conversation where they belong -- and I'm starting with today's post on Luther Adler, who was primarily known during his lengthy career as a stage actor. But when he wasn't treading the boards, Adler could be seen on the big screen alongside such luminaries as Alan Ladd, John Wayne, and Rita Hayworth, and he was a featured performer in no fewer than five examples of the film noir era.

Luther Adler was practically born to be an actor. His father was Jacob Adler, a famous Yiddish theater pioneer, and his mother, Sarah, was also a performer, as were most of his siblings, including Stella and Jay (who once called Luther 'the golden boy of the family'). Adler made his stage debut at the tender age of five, in a Yiddish drama starring his father, and when he was still in his teens, he toured with his father's acting company to London, Vienna, and South Africa.

At the age of 20, Adler made his Broadway debut in Humoresque, co-starring Laurette Taylor. He later joined the famed Group Theatre, and in 1937 earned rave reviews for his performance in Golden Boy, where he played opposite Frances Farmer as violinist-turned-boxer Joe Bonaparte. (Famed critic Brooks Atkinson wrote that Adler performed the part 'with the speed and energy of an open-field runner.')

Also during this time, Adler attracted the attention of 20th Century-Fox studios and was cast in his debut film, Lancer Spy (1937), starring Dolores Del Rio and George Sanders. (A year after his arrival in Hollywood, Adler married actress Sylvia Sidney; the couple had a son, but the union ended in divorce in 1947. Adler later remarried, this time to Julie Roche, to whom he remained married until his death. Shortly after Adler's passing in the mid-1980s, his son would die of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease.)

After his screen debut, Adler returned to the stage, and another six years passed before he appeared in front of the camera again. The actor explained his absence by telling reporters that 'an actor goes where he has to work. It's as simple as that.' Adler's first film upon his big-screen return in 1945 was also his first film noir -- Cornered.

This manhunt drama focused on the efforts of a Canadian airman (Dick Powell) to track down the Nazi collaborators who murdered his wife. Adler played the small, but key, role of the object of Powell's search. ('It wasn't a big role in the Hollywood interpretation of 'big role,'' Adler said later, '[but] you heard all about me from the other characters.') Despite the brevity of his appearance on screen, his performance was pointed out by several critics, including Jim Henaghan of the Los Angeles Examiner, who wrote that Adler 'will thrill you with his splendid reading of a great, meaning speech.'

Following roles in Wake of the Red Witch and The Loves of Carmen, both in 1948, Adler was featured in his second noir, House of Strangers (1949), starring Edward G. Robinson and Susan Hayward. This well-done feature tells the story of Italian-American banker Gino Monetti and his four sons; Adler played the eldest of the siblings -- the petulant but thoroughly ruthless Joe. Among a cast of fine performances, Adler's was a standout.

Adler's four films in 1950 included two noirs, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye and D.O.A. In the first, Adler plays a crooked lawyer who teams up with an escaped convict (played by James Cagey) to blackmail a couple of crooked cops. And the fast-paced D.O.A. tells the story of accountant Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien), who learns he has been poisoned and has only days to find the person (or persons) responsible for his demise.

Among the individuals Bigelow tracks down is Majak (Adler), a refined and soft-spoken racketeer who actually apologizes before telling Bigelow he will have to kill him: 'You know I can go to jail for 10 years for this little business? At my age, that's my life . . . With my life, I do not take chances. I am sorry, believe me.' Adler earned praise for his performance in both of these features; after the release of D.O.A., the critic for the Los Angeles Examiner raved: 'As chief menace, Luther Adler is superlative, but when isn't he?'

The following year, the actor was seen in his final film noir, M (1951), a remake of the grim 1931 Fritz Lang feature centering on a citywide hunt for a serial murderer of young girls. Adler played an alcoholic ex-lawyer and earned accolades from one reviewer who said he was 'theatrically triumphant as the drink-sodden attorney.'

Throughout the next several decades, Adler stayed busy in such feature films as The Last Angry Man (1959), a top-notch drama marking Paul Muni's return to the screen after a 13-year absence; stage productions including Fiddler on the Roof, in which he replaced Zero Mostel, and The Passion of Josef D, where he played Lenin opposite Peter Falk as Stalin; and numerous television series, from Route 66 to The Twilight Zone. He also directed several plays, including A View From the Bridge. Adler's last film appearance was in the box-office hit Absence of Malice (1981), in which he played the mobster uncle of Paul Newman.

After a prolonged illness, Adler died at his home in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. He was 81 years old. After his death, a letter appeared in the New York Times, praising Adler's accomplishments in film and on the stage. It was signed by several stars, including Marlon Brando and Paul Newman.

'The American public knew him for what he was -- not an idol for the moment, but an actor of enduring value,' the letter read. 'He has done his work. He has had his time. He will never be forgotten as long as there are actors to honor his memory.'

Do yourself a favor and find out what the fuss is all about -- check out a Luther Adler movie today!

Karen Burroughs Hannsberry writes about all things pre-Code and film noir at Shadows and Satin. She is also the author of two books on film noir, Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, and edits a bi-monthly newsletter on film noir called The Dark Pages.