Monday, November 21, 2016

Too late For Tears (1949)

“You’re quite a gal, Mrs. Palmer.”

Indeed she is.  This knock-out performance by noir favorite Lizabeth Scott is an artfully executed subversion of American ideals of “the perfect housewife.” When we first meet Jane Palmer (Scott), she projects the image of the most blissfully happy and supportive, loving wife a 1950’s fella could ask for. Arthur Kennedy is a natural fit for the part of Alan, her still-smitten and adoring husband.

We are introduced to them in the opening scene, driving home from a party with friends, cruising down a darkened, isolated stretch of road overlooking the city.  Their happiness is quickly interrupted by a fateful mix-up, when a passing car tosses a satchel full of money into their back seat.  After inspecting it and discovering its contents, a glimmer of something dark and dangerous shines in Jane’s eyes.

When the car that money was intended to be transferred to show up behind them. she takes the wheel, recklessly careening down the curving roadways and into town where she can shake the tail and get to home and safety. The excitement obviously gives her a thrill. This is clearly what she’s always wanted, not a happy, sedentary life as a retiring housewife.

In their apartment they argue over what to do with the ill-gotten windfall.  She wheedles and begs and reasons until her husband is almost convinced to agree to keep the money.  But a sudden scare involving an unexpected visit from his sister Kathy (Kristine Miller), who lives in a neighboring apartment, shakes their resolve and he manages to win an agreement from her to let him hide it someplace safe until they have had time to think their decision through.

While Alan is busy taking the satchel to a train station baggage check for safekeeping, a visitor arrives at their apartment in the person of Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea is one of his most interesting roles).  He claims to be a detective following a tip on their license number for speeding, and asks to take a look around their apartment. Through some clumsy lies on both their parts, each uncovers the other’s subterfuge- Fuller is no detective, and Jane is no innocent housewife.   He is the man the money was meant for, and she is the one who got it and knows where it is.

These two form a violent, uneasy alliance, one marked by frequent double-crosses and mutual distrust.  When she first tries to use her feminine charms to beguile him he responds by slapping her silly and storming out.  Oddly, Jane only becomes more drawn to him, or at least continues to attempt seductive means of persuasion, albeit notably more cautious and calculated.

The changes in her behavior begin to be more marked.  Greed has grown deep roots in her soul.  The next time she meets with Fuller, she’s armed and prepared to bargain, arranging her plans with the kind of careful though that frequently accompanies obsessive, avaricious drives like that which she exhibits.   Fuller see it too, calling her “Tiger,” when addressing her.

When Alan insists at the end of the week that they turn the money over to the police, she is already too invested in the fantasy life she has built on that foundation of stolen wealth, and she makes a fatal decision- rather than give up the money and all her dreams of the high life, she will give up her husband, killing him if necessary to get what she wants.  The prime opportunity to do that comes when, in an effort to re-spark their old romance, he takes he out to reeenact their first date, including a late night row on a lake is a rented boat at a local amusement area.  His pitched woo almost seems to give her second thoughts as she remembers the love they first shared, but when he accidentally finds the gun in her purse, she desperately grabs for it and shoots him down.

Fuller is waiting in the shadows on the remote banks, and together they sink the body into the lake and return to her apartment with Fuller posing as the husband, wearing the dead man’s clothes, which also happen to contain the claim ticket in the lining. Unaware of what he possesses, Fuller leave her there, fretting over whether he will find the claim and take all the money for himself.

But the obstacles for her desires are only multiplying.  Arriving at her door is another mystery man, calling himself Don Blake (Don Defore), and claiming to be an ex-Air Force buddy of Alan’s, just happening to have arrived in town and looking up his friend to catch up on old times.  But is he who he claims?  Is he a detective, or another thief after the money?

After being kindly turned away by Jane,  he makes inquiries with other tenants, specifically Kathy Palmer, and learns enough about Alan’s disappearance from her to give him reason to pursue the matter farther.  Romantic feelings gradually form between these two, and they work together to find Alan, or at least discover what’s happened to him.  Their combined search efforts net them the claim slip and the revelation that Jane is hiding the truth about her husband’s vanishing to make them suspect foul play.

When Jane realizes that her sister-in-law has the ticket to her money, she puts pressure on Fuller to help her get poison to eliminate Kathy. but something unexpected happens - the prospect of this second killing is oddly discomfiting to a man who has until now played to part of a cold, heartless brute.  When he shows up to deliver the poison to her, he is intoxicated and is bitterly resentful toward Jane’s dragging him into her murderous plans again.  “Don’t every change, Tiger,” he growls drunkenly, with a mournfully acidic cynicism. “I don’t think I’d like you with a heart.”

The reasons behind the change are a startling and unusual twist in the plot, and I’ll leave them unspoiled here, except to say that it is a big part of what makes this character so unique after intially seeming like a typical type-cast role for Duryea.

While Fuller’s shell shows cracks, Jane however, only becomes more hardened and twisted.  Violence and murder become easier and more frequent as her desperation for this tantalizing treasure intensifies.  Fuller, his weakness apparent, becomes the next victim of her treacherous trigger finger. Defore is luckier, getting off with a good pistol-whipping as Jane finally succeeds in getting the ticket from his unconscious body and runs away to Mexico with the money, where she seemingly has escaped and is free to enjoy it.

But when Defore surprises her by showing up in her apartment, and he finally reveals his own real identity to her, all her dreams are shattered.  This climactic finale ends with her body being equally shattered by an uunexpected tumble from her hotel balcony into the street below, taking her precious money with her.

How far she has come from the loving wife we saw at the beginning!  and yet, through the course of the story, that scene of domestic bliss is stripped away and it is slowly revealed that she was *never* that saintly bride she appeared to be.  Alan, it seems, was her second marriage, after the first, to a man named Blanchard, was ended by her husband’s suicide.  Nor was Alan completely blind to his wife’s grasping avarice.  When Jane shows up to collect the money at the baggage claim, and asks a stranger to pick it up for her due to the presence of police who are watching for her, a note alerts the man something is wrong.  That note is from Alan, warning that if a woman shows up to collect the bag, to immediately inform the police.  Is it possible he really didn’t even trust her not to go behind his back and take the money without him? The view of the American housewife and domestic life in general taken by the film, it serms, is very dim indeed. There is a nominally happy ending for Defore’s character and Kate, whom he marries, but how will such a dramatic series of events affect their own nuptial gaity?

Directed by Byron Haskin, the film is based upon a screenplay by Roy Huggins, taken from his serially published story.  Director of Photograpy William Mellor captures this pitch black vision of post-war american disillusionment in all its deadly shades of murderous nighttime horror.  A picture produced outside the main studio’s confines, one senses the liberation the artists felt, unrestrained from painting the tale in the bleakest of tones.  The result is an outstanding sample of vintage film noir.

**** out of 5

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