Sunday, December 02, 2007

Too Late for Tears (AKA Killer Bait 1949)

Editor's note: This week's article is penned by the creator of one of the best movie review pages I've seen, Phoenix Cinema. When you're done reading about this fantastic Liz Scott film click over to Phoenix Cinema. Some people just have excellent taste in films.

Too Late for Tears: A study of the pathological housewife

Too Late for Tears has all the elements of my favorite type of film noir: a vicious woman--so crafty and so evil she fools, manipulates and destroys the men in her life, a once-in a lifetime opportunity to get rich (so what if it involves a few corpses), the double cross when you least expect it, and a fast trip all the way down that slippery moral slope to film noir purgatory. Directed by Byron Haskin (I Walk Alone and The Naked Jungle) and based on a novel by Roy Huggins, Too Late for Tears showcases former fashion model, gravel-voiced Lizabeth Scott in one of the two major roles she played in Hollywood. Although Scott was slated for stardom, her career fizzled, and she was never given the roles that could have catapulted her to the top. In 1955, she sued Confidential magazine for libel, but the case was thrown out on a technicality. In 1957, amidst rumors that she was blacklisted, Lizabeth Scott retired from the screen, bringing her all-too-short film noir career to an end. To see her play the main role of pathological housewife Jane Palmer in this 1949 film is nothing less than pure pleasure. Too Late for Tears is currently only commercially available as a very problematic Alpha DVD, but let’s be grateful for what we can get.

Too Late for Tears is a very tight film with no wasted scenes and no fluff--the very first scene takes us right into the action, and right into the marriage of Jane (Lizabeth Scott) and Alan Palmer (Arthur Kennedy). It’s nighttime, and the Palmers are in their convertible enroute to a friend’s home when someone in a passing car tosses a bag that lands in the back seat. Alan pulls over, and Jane grabs the bag. Inside the bag is money--lots of money. When another car appears, Jane doesn’t hesitate; she grabs the wheel, orders Alan into the car and leaves the scene, careening in a high-speed chase along the dark, lonely road. Back home, the Palmers debate what to do with the loot. Squeaky-clean Alan wants to do the right thing and hand the money over to the police, but Jane resists. When Alan insists that the money is a “bag of dynamite,” Jane turns on the charm and wheedles a short grace period from Alan with the excuse that holding the money for a few days can’t hurt.

The next thing you know, while Alan is off working for that measly paycheck, Jane is hitting all the swanky department stores in L.A., returning home with boxes stuffed with furs. Committed to keeping the money, with or without Alan’s agreement, she hides the boxes under the kitchen sink. Just how much planning is going on in Jane’s conniving little head is uncertain, but it’s clear that she considers the money hers.

A great scene occurs when Alan uncovers Jane’s new lavish spending habits. Once again, he wants to turn the money over to the police, but once again Jane wheedles him into keeping it. This time, she agrees to let Alan stash the money at a local station. But the interesting element to this scene is that Jane reveals a side of herself she’s so far managed to keep under wraps. While Alan tries to explain to Jane that the money will bring them nothing good, Jane reveals a deep-rooted avarice that stems back to her childhood:

“We were white collar poor. Middle class poor. The kind of people who can’t quite keep up with the Joneses and die a little every day because they can’t.”

There’s a hunger in Jane for the finer things in life, and the bag of money has started to feed that hunger. Positively orgasmic when she fondles those wads of stolen cash, she’s not about to give up her one shot for big-time wealth, and woe betide anyone who stands in her way. Unfortunately Alan doesn’t listen to Jane’s revelations that she’s always lusted for wealth, and her slippery ability to switch her submissive behavior on and off deceives him.

Fate steps into the Palmers’ lives in the form of Danny Fuller (another great favorite of mine, Dan Duryea), a cheap hood who shows up looking for the money. Jane immediately turns on the charm, crossing those long legs just enough to catch Danny’s eye, and while he has her number, he can’t resist the invitation. Danny is the bad guy in the film, and when he makes his appearance, he does the traditional bad guy stuff, threatens Jane, shoves her around a bit, and even gives her the occasional whack. It’s interesting to see Jane respond, and her responses should give Danny a clue what he’s up against. His threat of violence doesn’t subdue Jane, she simply regroups and waits like a coiled snake. Even though Jane needs Danny’s brawn (she’s the one with the brains), within a short time, Danny’s relationship with Jane leaves him a quivering mess, operating under her orders in a whining, alcoholic haze.

The other female role in the film, and the antidote to Jane, is an equally strong woman, Alan’s sister Kathy (Kristine Miller), a wholesome brunette who accepts Jane as her brother’s wife but doesn’t particularly like her. When Alan disappears and a story emerges that he’s absconded to Mexico with his mistress, Kathy isn’t buying it. At this point, Kathy’s vague uneasiness about Jane surfaces and coalesces in a relationship with a mysterious stranger. This mysterious stranger, Don Blake (Don Defore) claims to be an old WWII buddy of Alan’s, and he appears after Alan disappears without trace. Jane is immediately suspicious of this stranger, and she tries the seductive routine again. Blake is the one man who doesn’t respond to Jane’s brazen flirtations, and so once Jane establishes that Blake is not vulnerable to her sexuality, she rapidly dismisses him, wasting no further time on a man she can’t manipulate.

Of the three main male roles in the film: Alan, Don, and Danny, Danny is the most pliable and therefore the most vulnerable to Jane’s seductive wiles. Alan tries to maintain some standards, and he ends up dead at the bottom of a lake loaded down with concrete. Don is impervious to Jane’s wiles, so she doesn’t waste time on him. Danny, however, is a weak-willed blackmailer who thinks he’s hit the big time, and his greed and desire for sex make him putty in Jane’s hands. He correctly assesses the dangers of a partnership with Jane: “don’t ever change, Tiger. I don’t think I’d like you with a heart,” and he tells Jane: “you’ve got me in so deep, I can’t get out.” Danny, who’s done a lot of illegal things in his lifetime, balks at murder, but he lacks the moral fiber to defy Jane. While he reaches and crosses the moral boundaries of his actions, it’s doubtful that Jane has any such limits. Even recognizing Jane for what she is doesn’t save Danny; he’s eventually seduced into his own death by her erotic power and dominant personality.

There are also two minor male roles in the film worth examining. Jane picks up a wolfish stranger at the train station, but he sniffs there’s something evil about Jane, and he can’t get out of Dodge fast enough. In another scene, Jane stops her car along the side of a deserted road, and a male stops to help. Under normal circumstances, this scene would ring alarm bells for the viewer, and we would sense the potential danger for the female. Not so in Too Late for Tears, and while the male stranger naively tells Jane: “lady, you ought to have some male protection” we realize that he’s the one who needs protection. Even the policeman who stops to see if Jane is all right buys into the myth that this little vulnerable woman needs protection out on the highway.

I’m a sucker for film noir that includes the vicious dame. I don’t care if she’s a debutante, a career woman or a housewife, the meaner the better. But somehow, the fact that Jane seems to be a perfectly normal housewife who morphs into a stone-cold killer makes Too Late for Tears that more interesting. After all, what does this say about middle-class America if the housewives and future mothers are so ready to murder those who get in the way of material gain? The character of Jane Palmer, played here with such delectable and duplicitous precision by Lizabeth Scott stands in the Dark Dame Film Noir Hall of Fame along with the infamous Cora Smith (luscious Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice) and deadly Phyllis Dietrichson (steely Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity). Jane Palmer is a member of this savage sisterhood, women trapped by marriage, boredom, and domesticity, driven to murder to break out of their mundane lives. So if you like your women tough, murderous and heartless, they don’t come much colder that femme fatale, Jane Palmer, and this is why Too Late for Tears makes my Top Ten Noir list.

Written by Guy Savage


  1. I love this film, too - Scott's best role - and movie, IMHO. There is only one acceptable print that is available on DVD(this bargain set also happens to sport the best print of "Detour"). Thanks for the great review!

  2. You seem to let her off the hook when you conclude that she was "driven to murder", when, of course, she does it of her own free will. And what a feeble excuse to speak of "middle class poverty", as if that constitutes legitimate suffering. This is one of the earliest clues that she's no good.

  3. I watched this movie the other night, and loved it!

    If you ever find a moment where you have absolutely nothing else in the world to do, could you please make a list of every film I can see Dan Duryea slapping a woman in?

    Strictly for research purposes, of course. ;)

    I'd just hate to sit through a noir where he's the good guy! Hopefully such a thing doesn't exist... :)

  4. The review says that Scott only had "two major roles in Hollywood." A glance at her filmography shows that she had numerous roles opposite Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston, John Hodiak, etc.

  5. Scott is terrific in this film as one cold-blooded lady. I always enjoy watching Dan Duryea as a heel but I think he's even more interesting in this film than usual. His character is not as tough or ruthless as Scott's. What adds to the film's fascination is seeing Duryea's gradual realization that he's gotten himself tangled with a meaner alley cat than he's ever encountered before, but he's not strong enough to break himself away from her. This is a film in which it's actually possible to feel sorry for Dan Duryea because, small time rat that he is, it's his character, not Scott's, that is vulnerable.