Too Late for Tears: A study of the pathological housewife by Guy Savage
Too Late for Tears (1949) 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 letís 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). Itís nighttime, and the Palmers are in their convertible enroute to a friendís 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 doesnít 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 ďbag of dynamite,Ē Jane turns on the charm and wheedles a short grace period from Alan with the excuse that holding the money for a few days canít 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 Alanís agreement, she hides the boxes under the kitchen sink. Just how much planning is going on in Janeís conniving little head is uncertain, but itís clear that she considers the money hers.
A great scene occurs when Alan uncovers Janeís 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 sheís 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:
ďWe were white collar poor. Middle class poor. The kind of people who canít quite keep up with the Joneses and die a little every day because they canít.Ē
Thereís 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, sheís not about to give up her one shot for big-time wealth, and woe betide anyone who stands in her way. Unfortunately Alan doesnít listen to Janeís revelations that sheís always lusted for wealth, and her slippery ability to switch her submissive behavior on and off deceives him.
Fate steps into the Palmersí 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 Dannyís eye, and while he has her number, he canít 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. Itís interesting to see Jane respond, and her responses should give Danny a clue what heís up against. His threat of violence doesnít subdue Jane, she simply regroups and waits like a coiled snake. Even though Jane needs Dannyís brawn (sheís the one with the brains), within a short time, Dannyís 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, Alanís sister Kathy (Kristine Miller), a wholesome brunette who accepts Jane as her brotherís wife but doesnít particularly like her. When Alan disappears and a story emerges that heís absconded to Mexico with his mistress, Kathy isnít buying it. At this point, Kathyís 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 Alanís, 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 doesnít respond to Janeís 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 canít 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 Janeís 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 Janeís wiles, so she doesnít waste time on him. Danny, however, is a weak-willed blackmailer who thinks heís hit the big time, and his greed and desire for sex make him putty in Janeís hands. He correctly assesses the dangers of a partnership with Jane: ďdonít ever change, Tiger. I donít think Iíd like you with a heart,Ē and he tells Jane: ďyouíve got me in so deep, I canít get out.Ē Danny, whoís 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, itís doubtful that Jane has any such limits. Even recognizing Jane for what she is doesnít save Danny; heís 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 thereís something evil about Jane, and he canít 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: ďlady, you ought to have some male protectionĒ we realize that heís 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.
Iím a sucker for film noir that includes the vicious dame. I donít care if sheís 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, who murder to break out of their mundane lives. So if you like your women tough, murderous and heartless, they donít come much colder that femme fatale, Jane Palmer, and this is why Too Late for Tears makes my Top Ten Noir list.