May 10, 2016
After viewing Too Late For Tears (1949), I would advise all couples against accepting cash-stuffed valises of mysterious origin. Sure, it would be nice to be raised up out of your dead-end middle-class marriage, but there is the whole issue of the money’s source, and the pile-up of bodies that keeping the cash may entail. Too Late For Tears is a vicious little film noir with a flinty, sociopathic performance by Lizabeth Scott, but it had been in public domain purgatory for decades, circulating in muddy transfers under its re-release title Killer Bait. The Film Noir Foundation has lobbied for its restoration for years, and with the help of a Hollywood Foreign Press grant, the UCLA Film and Television Archive was able to reconstruct the film from a 35mm nitrate French dupe negative, a 35mm acetate re-issue print, and a 16mm acetate. The result can be seen in a superb new Blu-ray from Flicker Alley, complete with Alan K. Rode audio commentary and a highly informative essay by Brian Light. Too Late For Tears originated in a novel by Roy Huggins, which was first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in April and May of 1947. The rights were snapped up by United States Pictures (who had an output deal with Warner Brothers), but were soon passed on to independent operator Hunt Stromberg, who planned it to be his follow up to his Douglas Sirk thriller Lured, which was opening that September. Stromberg had been one of MGM’s top producers in the 1930s, overseeing The Thin Man series, Best Picture Winner The Great Ziegfeld (1936), and Cukor’s The Women. He started his career in the silents as an independent producer, and he returned to that role in 1943, starting Hunt Stromberg Productions with the Barbara Stanwyck hit Lady in Burlesque. But Lured failed to perform at the box office, and Stromberg struggled to find financing for Too Late For Tears. It took him two years to cobble together an “unusual” deal, per the New York Times, in which Republic Pictures would provide studio facilities and financing for a film that United Artists would distribute. Republic normally distributed their own product, but here would “participate heavily in the profits” instead – though none were in the offing. The desired cast of Joan Crawford and Kirk Douglas failed to materialize, so instead Stromberg brokered yet another deal, borrowing Lizabeth Scott, Don DeFore, and director Byron Haskin from Hal Wallis. Roy Huggins was retained to adapt his book into the screenplay, and according to Brian Light’s essay the film hews closely to the novel. It is about Alan (Arthur Kennedy) and Jane (Lizabeth Scott) Parker, a bickering couple who can’t decide whether to attend a dinner party, so they turn around and go home instead. A blackmail victim mistakenly takes their veering as a signal, and drops a $60,000 payoff bag into their car. Jane is immediately smitten with the valise, her eyes flashing with desire, while buttoned-up Alan wants to turn the cash into the police. With no hesitation Jane starts her manipulations, asking him to keep the money only for a week, just to see if anyone comes looking. Someone does, in the form of Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea), a clumsy, violent chiseler who is determined to shake Jane down for the bag. But Jane plays them both for saps, stringing them along, giving them want they want to hear (and see). She preys on Alan’s insecurities, as in the withering exchange when he says, “I’ve tried to give you everything you wanted, everything I could.” Jane replies, “Yes, you’ve given me a dozen down payments and installments for the rest of our lives.” While she plays the dissatisfied wife with Alan, she is going full hardened femme fatale with Danny, a cold, calculating criminal mind. He is instantly attracted to her, and he responds in the only way he knows how, with misogynistic violence, slapping her around. But Jane paws him away like a lion with its prey, and soon he becomes her errand boy, covering up Jane’s increasingly brazen crimes. She pushes him so hard he breaks, ending in a self-pitying puddle of boozy tears. Dan Duryea is the embodiment of hollow machismo, a fast-talker with no backbone to support it. It is a slangy and loose performance – at his most arrogant he pronounces “tedious” as “tee-jus”, bending words to his will. But few can hold up to Jane’s steely-eyed assault. Lizabeth Scott did not think kindly of Too Late For Tears, telling Alan K. Rode that it was her “least favorite film”, but she is truly terrifying in it. It is a cold, unrelenting, and entirely unsympathetic performance. At no point does she beg for the audience’s understanding, you can see the calculation in her eyes from the start. Once she opens that bag, Alan becomes an inconvenience to her, so every smile becomes a sneer the nanosecond he turns his back. The only guy who can take her down is a doughy interloper who claims to be Alan’s old war buddy. Don (Don DeFore) is in fact a figure from Jane’s past who is seeking revenge for one of her previous trespasses upon the male sex. The supposed hero of the story is also the least interesting, a clean-cut Hardy Boy with no interior life who is present merely to nudge the story along. In the fallen world of the movie, it is jarring to see such a square. One wishes Duryea’s character could have been expanded and become Jane’s main foe – a duel to the death of two dead-enders. But the film was already getting harassed by the censors, so, as ever, we should be grateful for the perversities we are left with.