Last week, I recommended I Walk Alone, a 1948 gangster melodrama directed by Byron Haskin with Lizabeth Scott and Kristen Miller in supporting parts and Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in the leads. The following year, the first three of those talented people re-teamed to make this week’s recommendation: Too Late for Tears. This time around, men move to the back of the room to make space for the women characters, the noir elements are much more pronounced, and the script offers a more tightly constructed and cleverly plotted story. The result is an even better movie, indeed a treasure of the film noir canon.
The plot has so many surprises that it’s hard to summarize without spoliers, so I will confine myself to the set up. The Palmers are driving down a lonely, winding canyon road. Alan Palmer is a straightforward, true blue type who loves and trusts his wife (or so it seems…). Jane Palmer has been married before to a man who committed suicide (apparently…) and complains that she is tired of not having enough money. But she is so happy to have Arthur as her husband that she doesn’t mind that he isn’t rich (or so she says…). And then, a miracle. Another car throws a suitcase full of kale into their back seat and then drives away without explanation. Clearly some mistake has been made and they ought to go to the police, but it’s so so tempting to keep so so much money. And then they see another car pursuing them: Is it driven by the person who was supposed to receive the payoff that has landed in their lap?
To reveal more would be an injustice. Roy Huggins, who later went on to TV Hall of Famedom for The Rockford Files and The Fugitive, deserves roses for his ingeniously plotted script. It keeps the viewer guessing (usually, wrong) and ties up all the loose ends in a satisfying conclusion.
Kristine Miller, as the sister-in-law who has never really trusted Jane Palmer, has some wonderful scenes with Scott where they are pleasant on the surface but clearly jousting underneath. I find it strange that the alluring and talented Miller never became a star, but she said in late life that in the end Producer Hal Wallis “didn’t know what to do with her”. That’s a shame, because with the right vehicle she could have captured the public’s imagination in way she ultimately did not in the 1940s and 1950s.
The male supporting players, Arthur Kennedy as Alan Palmer, Dan Duryea as a slimy grifter and Don DeFore as a man with mysterious motives, turn in solid performances. And Haskins, in contrast to I Walk Alone, seems in full command from the director’s chair, partly no doubt due to experience and partly because he has a stronger storyline this around.
But this movie is first and foremost dominated by Lizabeth Scott, in a knockout performance. She had an unusual life in film. She looks and sounds like a cross between Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall, and indeed was packaged as a Bacall-type by Hal Wallis. She spent almost her entire career making crime melodramas and film noirs in the 1940s (the fine picture Dead Reckoning with Humphrey Bogart being the mostly widely remembered). And then in the 1950s her career swooned, perhaps because the tabloid press reported that she was a lesbian (Ms. Scott, who turns 90 tomorrow, has shunned publicity for over a half-century, so her view of what happened remains unknown).
I criticized her somewhat stilted performance in I Walk Alone, but I can do nothing but praise her tour-de-force in Too Late for Tears. She owns the screen, in one of a handful of movies made right after the war that was willing to put a tough woman at the center of the story (for another, see my review of Strange Impersonation). In her words, expressions and physical movements, Scott brings alive a femme fatale of hidden motives, craftiness and tough-as-nails pursuit of money. She’s a nasty, manipulative piece of work such that when a tough male actor like Dan Duryea is clearly shocked and repulsed about how much more brutal she is than he ever could be, the audience nods along, mouth agape.
Comparing this film to I Walk Alone is a good way to learn about the nature of film noir. Although I Walk Alone is often mentioned in books about the genre and Too Late for Tears is not, the latter is a much more fully realized example of the style. Look for example at the washed out set design in the Palmers’ apartment and the lighting and camerawork in Scott’s scenes with Duryea. The bleak view of human nature and the number of characters trapped by irresistible, bad impulses are also defining features of what is probably the most completely developed style of American film (Even though, of course, its precursors are European). Why Too Late for Tears isn’t mentioned in the same breath with other noir classics is a mystery to me, because it ranks with the very best of the genre.