In the title of his autobiography Joseph Cotten said Vanity
Will Get You Somewhere.
Talent, and possibly vanity, took Cotten from his
birthplace in Petersburg, Virginia to Hollywood and into some of
the most prestigious films of all time. When he died on February
6 at age-88, his career had spanned over 40 years. Although he was
never a superstar, Cotten’s presence lent a degree of quality to
many films simply because he was in them.
Joseph Cotten stood apart in an era of rough and tumble
macho heroes, romantic leading men, aristocrats, and rogues. He
was sophisticated, urbane, suave and most of all, intelligent. If
need be, he could also be modest and low-key.
He began as a New York radio actor, and was part of
Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater Company. The two became lifelong
friends and made some of their most memorable films together.
Cotten’s first film role, as Jedidiah Leland, the
childhood friend of Welles’s Citizen Kane, was one of his best.
They followed it with appearances in The Magnificent Ambersons and Journey Into Fear. As the common man thrust into a world
of intrigue in Journey Into Fear, Cotten had one of his most
sympathetic and popular roles. He also collaborated with Welles
in writing the picture’s script, which was based on Eric Ambler’s
The two were reunited in 1949 in The Third Man.
A haunting zither score, a climactic chase through the sewers of
Vienna, a cynical script by Graham Greene, and Welles’s small but
powerful role as Harry Lime, the black market racketeer, made it
a classic. While Cotten contributed his usual solid performance,
he seemed too intelligent and sophisticated to be believable as
a writer of pulp westerns. The two were reunited in Welles’s Touch
of Evil when Cotten appeared in a brief, uncredited cameo.
Cotten could switch with ease from leading roles and
loyal friends to supporting parts and unsympathetic characters.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of A Doubt he was an unbalanced
uncle trying to kill his niece, Teresa Wright. A few years later
he was attempting to do in Marilyn Monroe in Niagara. Wright
and Cotten were reunited in The Steel Trap, in which he steals
several hundred thousand dollars from a bank vault but puts it back
before the loss is discovered.
As a criminal, Cotten was a formidable opponent, not
because of his tall, slim physical stature, but because of his intellect.
When Cotten plotted something, he was methodical, and somehow you
knew that there was a better than even chance that his plan would
His intellect and sophistication also served him well
in a host of other films. In Gaslight he was a Scotland Yard
detective whose curiosity foils Charles Boyer’s plot to drive Ingrid
Bergman insane. Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn cast him as a
moody husband, and Bottom of the Bottle found him as the
mean brother of alcoholic Van Johnson.
Sometimes Cotten was the only stable character in
a chaotic world. While Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones lusted after
each other in Duel In The Sun, Cotten had the thankless role
of the stable, but boring brother. As Bette Davis and Olivia de
Havilland chewed up the scenery and each other in Hush Hush Sweet
Charlotte, Cotten seemed above it all, and is one of the film’s
few seemingly sane people. In Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate,
the whole movie was a mess, and not even Cotten’s presence could
Cotten’s other credits include The Farmer’s Daughter, Two Flags West, September Affair, Peking Express, The Last Sunset, Tora! Tora! Tora! and Soylent
His soft and resonant voice was often the most memorable
part of his performance. He controlled it to perfection and often
stole scenes because of it, regardless of whether the part called
for him to be soothing and gentle, world weary and cynical, or scheming
and controlling. With his countenance and voice, Cotten never needed
to shout. All he had to do was speak.
Cotten left a rich body of work. Because of his often
low – key performances, it seems unlikely that he will be the subject
of retrospectives. But his work will live on in some of the greatest
films ever made. MM