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 novel.
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 work.
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 help it.
Cotten's other credits include The Farmer's Daughter, Two Flags West, September Affair, Peking Express, The Last Sunset, Tora! Tora! Tora! and Soylent Green.
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