An Actor Lost in the Background

By Andrew FedorovAugust 9, 2019

An Actor Lost in the Background
WHAT WE CAN SAY now about Robert G. Haines is that he was born on September 16, 1894, in England, that his mother’s maiden name was Sleight, and that he died April 18, 1961, in Los Angeles, 66 in the end. That’s where the documented certainty ends, pulled entirely from his Social Security Death Index record. Robert G. Haines seems to have led a quiet life, a lot like the roles he played, the kind of life that doesn’t make the papers. There are no obituaries for Robert G. Haines in the major L.A. papers, but there were moments, brief and accidental, when Robert G. Haines was an extra at the center of the screen, at the center of the world.

We have snapshots from every year in the latter part of his life. Probably most of us have seen some of them. His image is engraved in the canon as a seemingly limitless parade: Citizen Kane, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Holiday Inn, Gilda, The Killers, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Strangers on a Train, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Singin’ in the Rain, The Bad and the Beautiful, the 1954 A Star Is Born, The Seven Year Itch, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, Around the World in 80 Days, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Man of a Thousand Faces, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. He rounded out his career with runs in Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. It’s a remarkable number of great films to have been involved with. He appears in at least six entries in the Criterion Collection, more than either Michael Curtiz, director of Casablanca, or Fritz Lang, director of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and such well-known nightmares as Metropolis and M.

Of course, Haines didn’t shape films to the same extent as Curtiz or Lang. He was likely on those sets for no more than a day or two. We can rule out Haines having played any major, unforgotten, role in early Hollywood. After noting the presence of a former comic star as an extra in Singin’ in the Rain, Anthony Slide, one of the few historians of extras, wrote, “[The film] does not boast any other prominent players of the silent era.” Despite the smallness of his contribution, the films Robert Haines appears in wouldn’t have worked without the labor of people like him. Steady-working extras were skilled, at the very least, at disappearing in the background, forming the fabric of the universe. Extras like Haines went further. The characters he played created the mood of the world through which the stars walked. They implied a zeitgeist. More than we’d realize while watching the films for the first time, they changed our experience. Cecil B. DeMille, who was notoriously brutal with his crowds, confirmed this when he told an interviewer, in 1934, “You may not believe it, and most audiences never notice it, but some of my finest actors are extras.”

I first noticed Haines as the fidgety, nervous bus driver in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. He’s on screen for no more than 45 seconds. He can be seen in exactly three shots, but he’s at the center of the first. His bus pulls right into the spot at which Bruno Antony, one of the titular strangers, has been staring. His anxious stare has forced the viewer to anticipate the arrival of the bus. The bus driver is middle-aged, in a sweater and a cap. There’s something shocking about the way he stares back at Antony, through the passenger door, ignoring the commotion on the other side of his bus.

Antony waits for the real object of his attention, the other titular stranger, Guy Haines, to board the bus. The driver hardly looks at him and his loud friends, though one of them shouts, “Driver! Driver!” But when Antony gets on the bus, the bus driver’s head moves to follow him. He fidgets a little when he accepts Antony’s fare and raises his hands to the massive wheel to go on with his work. There’s something about the way his shoulders slump that’s striking. Maybe it’s a feeling of frustration with the job, or maybe it’s resignation to the drudgery. By the next shot, when the bus pulls into frame in front of a carnival, the bus driver has lost our attention. A crowd pours out, and we can hardly see him. He’s become just another extra again.

Haines shares a surname with the protagonist. His middle initial could also conceivably stand for “Guy.” Robert Guy Haines — it could work. Was he chosen as a comment on Antony’s focus of attention? Was his casting a private joke on the part of a casting director? Or on the part of Hitchcock, who would use this extra again and again afterward, in Vertigo, North by Northwest, and numerous episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents? Or was it a coincidence? Haines’s brief appearance raises dozens of questions like these, and others too. What was his life beyond the frame? We only know what happened on screen.

Haines made his first, tentative entrance in 1932, in Mack Sennett’s Hypnotized. He played a trapeze artist, which might give us a tantalizing hint of the shape of his life before his first appearance. It wasn’t unusual for casting agents to go to the circus looking for strongmen, for their tough guy extras. Why shouldn’t they have gone to the circus for their trapeze artists? He didn’t appear in a movie again for another three years. Maybe the circus carried him away.

In 1935, he made his first recorded, but uncredited, appearance as a non-skilled extra, playing a bystander in a nightclub. The next year he played a court reporter. In 1937, his career really took off. From that point on, it was rare that he’d make less than three or four recorded screen appearances a year, which is to say nothing of the appearances that went unrecorded by the casting bureaucracy. His roles tended toward party guests, reporters, clerks, and an amazing number of trial spectators. He probably possessed the petty bourgeois costume necessary to be a slightly higher paid costume extra. The number of times he appeared in Cagney movies might imply that he sided with the Screen Actors Guild in the dispute over who would represent the extras. It seems unlikely that Cagney, president of the Guild, would have allowed one of the “troublemaker” extras on his set. Most of the time Haines went uncredited.

You can spot him at the Inquirer party in Citizen Kane. He sits next to Bernstein, and he’s more than a decade younger than he was in Strangers on a Train. His hair is unambiguously dark. He looks a bit like Joseph Cotten, then playing Mr. Leland, and he looks even more like the older Joseph Cotten in makeup, later in the film. They’re symmetrically reflected on either side of Bernstein. Like Cotten, he sits, twirling a cigar. When Bernstein announces, “There’s a lot of statues in Europe you haven’t bought yet,” they smile at the same instant and their heads swivel toward Kane in unison.

There’s a slight continuity error in the shot after Kane whistles for the music to start. Haines has shifted down a man. When the line stands up from the table, for a moment he disappears. But only for a moment. He’s the first to plant a foot on the table and stand above the other extras, with the cigar still jutting out from his mouth. Leland, in fresh contrast, stays seated. When Kane walks up to Leland and says, “Are we going to declare war on Spain, or are we not?” Leland remains seated, while his former symmetrical partner leans in from on top of the table. The broken symmetry emphasizes Leland’s shift of mood.

When Charlie Kane gets up to dance, the extras are lost in a singing crowd. Haines was a man who knew how to disappear when necessary. While the music goes on, the camera focuses in on Leland and Bernstein. In the spot where Haines once sat, like a jolly reflection of Leland, there’s now only an empty hat, and all the happiness and certainty has drained from Leland. Bernstein has put on a hat that’s not his own and doesn’t quite suit him, perhaps having absorbed a lopsided shadow. Leland refuses to. Even in Haines’s absence, there’s an effective residue of his presence.

In The Killers, Haines is at the Green Cat Cafe at the moment when Kitty leaves Reardon, thinking he’ll be killed. Haines stands up just as she walks past his table. His hair is slicked back, still dark. He grabs his hat, and as the ladies who were sitting with him get up to go, he pushes in their chairs. It’s an extra action that might endanger his life. He walks toward the exit, just as the killers walk in. He graciously moves aside for the larger man to pass. The score plays the killers’ theme from the beginning, just as Haines slips out the door.

Why the hasty exit when Kitty walks out? Certainly not because Haines’s character knew what was going to happen. If that was the case, he wouldn’t have taken the time to push those chairs in. But his movements are carefully timed and choreographed. He’s not like the other café patrons, faking chatting, ordering a drink. And he’s not like the man who hobbles through the background with a cane. He’s not just providing some atmospheric unease — his actions stand out in their abruptness and quickness. He passes right past the featured players and has half an interaction with one. Haines’s exit, walking out in the nick of time, is a gesture toward the realistic consequences of public violence. His lucky escape just before the score triggers a panic is a reminder of where a stray bullet can land.

In Vertigo, Haines plays a stenographer. His suit is a sensible blue, deeper and in some ways less distinctive than those of the men to the right of him in the frame. It’s the exact same blue and has the exact same smooth visual texture as Jimmy Stewart’s suit. His hair has finally turned white. He hardly appears in the scene, and yet he’s always present. The noise of his typewriter underlays the whole thing. Occasionally, it interferes with the immediate comprehension of what’s said, and, the whole time, it plays on the nerves of both the audience and Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie.

At the peak of the tension, Hitchcock cuts to a shot that foregrounds the typewriter, as if to emphasize the clatter and distraction. One of the jurors in that shot turns toward Haines’s offscreen head with a furrowed brow just before the cut. When, a minute and a half later, Hitchcock cuts back from the judge to a similar shot with a foregrounded typewriter, the same juror is staring at Haines’s typewriter. All of the other jurors have their eyes closed.

The typewriter sound only cuts out when one of the jurors steps forward and says, “We’ve reached a verdict.” The judge’s words, which, before, had formed a semi-incomprehensible drone, cut through clearly now. “The jury finds that Madeleine Elster committed suicide while of unsound mind,” the judge says as the camera blinks to Scottie’s nervous face. Scottie hears it clear.

In North by Northwest, Haines’s role is less showy. He plays one of the many distinguished gentlemen standing around chatting in the background at the United Nations. He’s wearing a baggy gray suit, and his hair is, as it will be consistently from now on, still white. He stands talking in a small group and occasionally turns around and, with a drinking bird toy motion, dips down toward a lady sitting on a couch. He repeats this motion — talk, turn, dip, turn, talk, turn, dip, turn, talk, turn, dip, turn — until things start to go wrong. The regularity of this motion indicates that despite the scattered arrangement of people, Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill walked into a functioning space. Haines blurs out of focus when the real Townsend, the man he’d come to see, though not the man who claimed to be Townsend before, approaches Thornhill, upsetting Thornhill’s sense of reality. Haines stands there, talking on, between the two of them, as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened. When the scene shifts across the room, Haines disappears. His orderly, regular movements have no place in what happens next. The extra that sets the tone for that sequence, instead, is the man with the flashbulb camera, who didn’t seem to be present when Thornhill walked in.

It would be unsurprising if Hitchcock, of all directors, developed a particular affinity for and paid special attention to his extras. He famously acted as one in every one of his films and was well aware of the effect he could produce on those in the know. As a fellow Englishman, and only a couple years older, perhaps Hitchcock saw Haines as an extension of that principle — if the extras in Hitchcock’s films shared some of his characteristics, maybe Hitchcock himself could blend in a little better.

In the same year as North by Northwest, Haines appeared in The Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last.” In his single shot, he looks a little more haggard than usual. His suit is loose and just a shade darker than Burgess Meredith’s, who plays Bemis, the episode’s uncontested protagonist. They’re both wearing glasses. Haines doesn’t sport that ridiculous moustache, though his upper lip has always puffed out slightly.

Haines stands hunched over a counter at the center of the shot just after Rod Serling starts narrating. He’s filling out some sort of paperwork and is the only one that stays still, facing the camera. We’re looking down on him. “Witness Mr. Henry Bemis,” Serling says, just a split second before we see Haines, “a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers, a bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president, and a wife, and a world full of tongue clackers, and the unrelenting hands of a clock.” As this monologue unspools, the camera follows Haines slow walk over to the tellers. Everybody else in that moment walks about a half pace faster than he does. When he gets to the tellers, the camera drifts on, to find its real object in Meredith. Haines is on screen for less than 10 seconds, but his role is clear. He is the visual echo of Meredith’s Bemis, a living, breathing, slow-moving brother in that fraternity of dreamers.

In his last film, Hands of a Stranger, a cheap-looking horror flick with stripped-down sets released in 1962, there are hardly any scenes that call for extras, but he’s in the one that does. It’s a carnival. There are rides and games. He’s at the center of the action, a little old man with his white hair looking neat, in a tidy suit, with a bit of square-folded fabric peeking out from his breast pocket. His wife, a stout woman in what may be a tiny leopard-print pattern, seems to stand about a foot taller than he. She’s played by Gertrude Astor, a silent star who became a prolific extra and bit player and had always been noted for her height. Haines reels back and throws a ball at a small clown head, and he smiles a massive, beautiful smile. He never had that public history in the film industry.

“A beautiful throw, beautiful throw,” the carnie tells him and reaches for a doll that’s the prize. Haines seems to mutter something, but the microphones don’t pick it up. Maybe an English accent would have seemed out of place. He’s left without lines, an extra to the end. But he swivels with extreme expressiveness, to present the prize to his glowering wife. “You take that thing home,” she says, “and you’re gonna be the one that has to dust it.” He says nothing. The smile drops from his face, he puts his arm on her shoulder, and they walk away. It’s unclear who’s leading whom. The stars walk up to the carnie as Haines and Astor exit the screen.

Hands of a Stranger was released a year after Haines’s death. That seems to be the last major fact about his life. There are legends about the afterlives of other extras. In Hollywood Unknowns, for instance, Anthony Slide tells the story of one elderly woman who died during the filming of a movie in 1916. “Her distraught husband would nightly visit the theatre where the film was being shown in the hope of seeing his wife on screen,” Slide writes. “He had no photograph of his loved one.” There are no such legends about Haines — no mourners haunting theaters, no obituaries placed by mysterious loved ones. We don’t know whether Haines’s life was lonely or full of unrecorded encounters, whether he was disappointed by how it turned out or proud in the end, whether he was mourned or immediately forgotten. What we know is that his movies remain ubiquitous. We know that at almost any time — probably now — he might be inadvertently revived by some viewer. Haines and hundreds of other extras flicker on the screen and are simultaneously lost in a bristling background. They move with murmured intentions. They’re the last of the silent actors, each expressing, in some small way, more than any audience will pick up in a lifetime.


Andrew Fedorov is a writer often found in New York and sometimes found walking across countries. Follow him on Twitter @andrewfed.

LARB Contributor

Andrew Fedorov is a writer often found in New York and sometimes found walking across countries. He’s temporarily based in New Delhi. Follow him on twitter @andrewfed.


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