Too Late for Tears

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Misleading title, Too Late for Tears, suggesting there was a time for tears at all. By the time this 1949 film noir is done, the story of a woman rotten to the core, it’s clear that the time for tears – from her, or for her – might well be never.

It’s Lizabeth Scott’s chance to chew the scenery, the furniture and her co-stars, playing a woman with a crushing sense of social inferiority who is transformed instantly when a big bag of cash suddenly lands on the back seat of the convertible she and her husband are powering towards a dreaded dinner party in the Hollywood hills.

The car it came from is instantly gone but one glimpse of what’s in the bag and Jane Palmer (Scott) has a gleam in her eye (and Scott is suddenly wearing a darker shade of lipstick – probably not a continuity error). This is Jane’s ticket out of the burbs and the life with her loving but staid husband, Alan (Arthur Kennedy), who of course wants to take the money to the police, since it’s undoubtedly hot. He instead manages to talk Jane into putting the loot in a left-luggage box at the train station. They’ll not touch it until the heat’s died down.

Jane, though, has itchy fingers, itchy everything, and she has soon caught the attention of the bag’s “rightful” owner – Danny (Dan Duryea), a blackmailer who’s missed out on his payday and is not happy about it.

Dan Duryea and the shadow of Lizabeth Scott with a gun
Tough guy Danny out-toughed

Too Late for Tears asks the question: what is Jane prepared to do to keep that money. And the answer is: everything. By the time this story has wound to its tragic conclusion, everyone who has stood in Jane’s way is dead or is heading in that direction.

There is a little more to it than that, largely in the shape of Don Blake, an old army buddy of Alan’s (he says) and avuncular deus ex machina figure introduced around halfway through. Don (played with half a wink by Don DeFore) adds to the byzantine plotting but also muddies the narrative water. Jane is bad enough to be her own worst enemy and needs no help from outside, enjoyable though DeFore’s playing of Don is. There is also a cop, Lt. Breach (Barry Kelley) fulfilling almost the same function – poking around and seeing which bit of the hornet’s nest makes the loudest buzz. Neither really sheds any more light on Jane’s character and both threaten to dilute the fun, which comes from watching the undeniably smart and almost psychotically driven Jane getting into tight corners and then talking her way convincingly out of them, always on-the-hoof.

If Scott was the gal who just couldn’t help it in the previous year’s Pitfall, with Dick Powell, here she’s the gal who very much can. In Pitfall her femme fatale was the sort that religious fundamentalists go a bundle on – the female as the distaff sex, whose innate disruptive sexuality probably means she should be swathed head to toe lest men cop a corrupting eyeful. Here she’s actively, wilfully, personally bad – it’s a moral choice.

This becomes abundantly clear when even the film’s bad guy – Duryea’s Danny – starts having qualms about who he’s trying to put the squeeze on in his attempt to get his money back. Mantis-like, Jane knows how to deal with Danny.

In a melodrama, people’s characters change according to the demands of the plot and there are plenty of moments in Too Late for Tears when you’ll be pointing at the screen, then at another part of the screen, and then the word “why?” will start to form on your lips. Why on earth would she/he do that? Who would say such a thing when XYZ has just happened? And so on.

And writer Roy Huggins plays cute with his revelations. Jane had a husband before Alan, it turns out. Why is that important? All is eventually revealed in the sort of plotting that Scooby Doo would relish. Those pesky dead husbands.

For these reasons it’s minor noir, but Scott’s dislocated performance matches the disjointed, unfair storytelling and her often bizarre line readings (“pastiche” acting, Pauline Kael called it) slot right in to the whole overwound mechanism.

Too Late for Tears – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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