Dan Duryea: Heel with a Heart

Classic Hollywood films have their fair share of heroes as well as villains. In the case of actor Dan Duryea, villainous roles were the usual way that movie-going audiences got to know his work. While typified as a more sinister on-screen character, Duryea’s screen image was quite different from the way he conducted his life off-screen.

Thanks to Mike Peros and the University Press of Mississippi, Duryea’s life is well examined in this biography. Part of the publisher’s Hollywood Legends Series, Dan Duryea: Heel with a Heart takes readers through Duryea’s life and career, thoughtfully portraying Duryea’s professional output and personal achievements.

To fans of film noir, Duryea’s name may evoke images from noir films such as Scarlet Street (1945), Criss Cross (1949), or The Woman in the Window (1944), to name a few. In these films, Duryea’s characters reflect the pessimistic tone of noir, featuring him as a conniving or brutal character, propelled with superficial charm and poise. Though he is arguably best remembered for his work in film noir, Duryea’s career would also lead him to appear in a wide range of film genres, including westerns, dramas, and even comedies.

Of course, Duryea the person was quite different from the “heel” characters he brought to life on screen. In reality, Duryea had a wonderful sense of humor, was deeply dedicated to his family, and contrasted heavily with his film persona. Duryea prioritized his marriage and aimed to be very present in the lives of his children while working in the demanding and bustling film industry.

Peros offers an especially intriguing portrait of Duryea, as he was able to secure input from one of Duryea’s sons–Richard–in crafting this biography. While exploring the tensions between Duryea’s personal and professional life, Peros offers a complex albeit honest portrayal of Duryea’s experiences as an actor typically appearing in villainous roles. As a family man and individual eager to give back to the community, coverage about Duryea working in the interest of his family and community affected the public’s impression of him. Audiences considered Duryea within the confines of his roles, sometimes reacting negatively to publicity that painted Duryea as the very opposite of a villain.

As a result, this biography is a fascinating read and well worth enjoying in terms of learning about the balance of a personal and professional life as a villainous on-screen persona. I definitely recommend this biography to fans of film noir and fans of the “bad boys and girls” of the screen. There are many film characters we love to hate, but learning more about the real lives of the individuals who brought these characters to the screen is well worth the read.

Dan Duryea: Heel with a Heart is available for purchase on the University of Mississippi website.

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