Too Late for Tears (1949)

Lizabeth Scott triumphs in an underrated noir classic!

vt Killer Bait
US / 100 minutes / bw / Hunt Stromberg, UA Dir: Byron Haskin Pr: Hunt Stromberg Scr: Roy Huggins Story: Too Late for Tears (1947, originally serialized in Saturday Evening Post) by Roy Huggins Cine: William Mellor Cast: Lizabeth Scott, Don DeFore, Dan Duryea, Arthur Kennedy, Kristine Miller, Barry Kelley, Smoki Whitfield, David Clarke, Billy Halop.

Too Late for Tears - 0 opener

If there was any single movie or actor that set me off on the long and winding course toward writing A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir, Too Late for Tears was that movie and Lizabeth Scott was that actor.

I first watched the movie sometime in the early 2000s. Before that I’d written quite extensively on animation—in fact, I’d not so very long before seen publication of my book Masters of Animation—and on fantasy movies, for The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, edited by John Clute and myself. I’d been playing around with various ideas for more books on animation and/or the cinema of the fantastic, but then, for some reason—perhaps just because it came on TCM while I was sitting on the couch, who knows?—I found myself watching Too Late for Tears for the first time.

And it felt like coming home.

Of course, I’d watched countless films noirs before then, and liked them a lot—The BLUE DAHLIA (1946) was a particular favorite (have I ever mentioned my longtime crush on Veronica Lake?)—but Too Late for Tears really jolted me: it was my gateway into a new passion. In the first place, it was an impeccably told tale that moved with pace and vigor. Second, there’s only a single really likeable character in the movie, and she’s one of the secondary cast; as someone who’s often written antiheroes myself, I couldn’t help but be captivated by this.

And third, and most particularly—pace Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffat in OUT OF THE PAST (1947), Bette Davis’s Leslie Crosbie in The LETTER (1940), Linda Fiorentino’s Bridget Gregory in The LAST SEDUCTION (1994) and all the other usual suspects—the movie had what I regard as the most splendid femme fatale in all of film noir: Lizabeth Scott’s Jane Palmer.

Jane Palmer is a woman entirely consumed by greed. She’s a murderess. She uses her sex if she has to in order to get what she wants. She seems to have no conception of the warmer human emotions like love and affection; the death of her husband affects her little if at all. And yet, thanks to Scott’s portrayal of her, she projects a considerable allure. By the end of the movie, despite all the dreadful crimes and betrayals we know she’s committed, there’s still a part of us that’s on her side.

So that’s when my viewing tastes began their very radical shift—one that didn’t thrill my wife too much, to be honest. An expert on animation art, she’d become devoted also to fantasy and sf movies because of my enthusiasm for them, and now here I was suddenly deserting her, as it were, for all kinds of depressing old black-and-white outings, often in murky prints.

One of the drawbacks of running Noirish is that I’m so busy watching stuff that for the right or wrong reasons didn’t get into A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir that I rarely get the opportunity to revisit old noir favorites. When the folks at Flicker Alley approached me to tell me they were planning the release of a new restoration of this movie (and of WOMAN ON THE RUN [1950], another noir movie that I rate highly) and asked me to take part in their associated blogathon, I leapt at the excuse to watch Too Late for Tears again for the first time in some years.

Jane Palmer (Scott) and husband Alan (Kennedy) live in Hollywood. One night they’re out driving through the canyons when someone hurls a bag containing $60,000 into the back of their car. When they get home, Alan’s insistent they should turn the money over to the cops; Jane’s equally insistent they should accept it as a lucky windfall. Eventually they compromise and deposit it in Union Station’s baggage department with the aim of fetching it out again in a week’s time, by when they’ll have decided what to do.

Too Late for Tears - 1 Alan and Jane argue about the money

Alan (Arthur Kennedy) and Jane (Lizabeth Scott) argue about the money.

Jane has, of course, already made that decision—we knew that by the expression on her face when she and Alan first opened the bag and discovered its contents.

She starts buying herself some pricey frivolities, hiding them in a cabinet beside the kitchen sink. (Husbands never have reason to look inside kitchen cabinets, do they?) That’s where they’re found by blackmailer Danny Fuller (Duryea) when—having traced the Palmers through their car’s license plate—he comes barging into the apartment demanding the payoff loot that was intended for him. As soon as he sees Jane’s covert luxuries he knows for certain she’s been lying about the money.

Too Late for Tears - 2 Soon Danny arrives on the scene

Soon Danny (Dan Duryea) arrives on the scene.

Jane reckons the only thing to do is play along for time.

Danny: “Stalling, honey?”
Jane: “What do I call you besides Stupid?”

Too Late for Tears - 3 Jane reckons she knows how to deal with Danny - for now

 Jane (Lizabeth Scott) has a hunch she knows how to deal with Danny (Dan Duryea) — for now.

Meanwhile Alan, too, discovers about her spending—the canceled checks from the bank are a bit of a giveaway—and is a tad on the miffed side:

Alan: “Jane, Jane, what’s happening to us? What’s happening? The money sits down there in an old leather bag and yet it’s tearing us apart. It’s poison, Jane. It’s changing you. It’s changing both of us.”
Jane: “I wish it were that simple, Alan. But I haven’t changed. It’s the way I am.”

Jane filches Alan’s old service revolver and sets off with him for a rendezvous with Danny, her plan being to murder Alan and rope in Danny to help dispose of the body. On the way, she has second thoughts and tries to back out, but then Alan discovers the gun, they struggle, the gun goes off and, in traditional noirish fashion, Alan’s a goner.

As per plan, Jane enlists Danny as her accomplice in getting rid of the body and covering up what’s happened. She thereby completely ensnares him in her web.

Jane sets up a clumsy charade to try to persuade Alan’s unwed sister Kathy (Miller), who lives in the apartment across the hall, that Alan may have absconded, perhaps with another woman—and even phones the cops to report him missing. But Kathy, who idolizes her brother and instinctively distrusts Jane, is having none of it. When Jane’s out, she searches the apartment; she finds Alan’s service gun missing and also notices the Union Station claim ticket.

Too Late for Tears - 4a

Too Late for Tears - 4b The conspirators advance their scheme

The conspirators (Lizabeth Scott, Dan Duryea) advance their scheme.

Just to add to Jane’s problems, a newcomer arrives on the scene, saying he’s a wartime Air Force buddy of Alan’s, Don Blake (DeFore), who thought he’d use part of his ten-day furlough in town to look up his pal and chew the fat about the good old days. DeFore plays the role as one of those people whose outer persona is that of a friend to all the world, one of the really good, open-hearted guys, but who’s actually a complete shit. So, just as Kathy is instinctively distrusting Jane, we’re instinctively distrusting Don, who seems quite obviously a phony in some way.

Too Late for Tears - 7a Don interrogates Jane . . .

 Don (Don DeFore) interrogates Jane (Lizabeth Scott) . . .

Too Late for Tears - 7b . . . and gets smoochy with Kathy

 . . . and gets smoochy with Kathy (Kristine Miller).

Meantime Kathy, ignoring what we see, starts falling in love with him—and doesn’t lose faith in him even after Jane hauls in a genuine old USAF comrade of Alan’s, Jack Sharber (Clarke), to prove Don never served alongside Alan . . .

Too Late for Tears - 9 Jack Sharber exposes Don's pretense

 Jack Sharber (David Clarke) exposes Don’s pretense.

Too Late for Tears - 5 Lt Breach is immediately suspicious

Lt. Breach (Barry Kelley) is immediately suspicious.

There are plenty of further revelations along the way to the movie’s high-powered finale. Don is really Don Blanchard, brother of Jane’s first husband; he suspects his brother didn’t kill himself, as the official story has it, and is here to do some digging. Alan, we discover, distrusted Jane as much as Kathy does, and took measures to make sure she couldn’t check the money out at Union Station. Even so, in the end Jane does get away with the dough, but that’s far from the end of the story.

Too Late for Tears - 10a

Too Late for Tears - 10b The note on the bag has two readings

Alan’s note on the bag at Union Station has two possible readings.

There are all sorts of clever little plotting tricks, too. When Alan has first deposited the money at Union Station, there’s some play made with the fact that the claim ticket has gone through the hole in his coat pocket into the lining. It doesn’t seem important at the time, but it’ll later give Jane a nasty surprise—and us an enjoyable one. There’s a bit of business with Alan’s gun that really should have persuaded Kathy of Jane’s integrity but in fact persuades her of exactly the opposite. There are so many of these little moments of intrigue in the plot that we learn never to take anything about the movie for granted.

Scott’s clearly the unchallenged star of Too Late for Tears, but she’s ably backed up by Duryea, who here plays precisely the sort of sleazebag that he almost patented during this period of film noir. Even so, soon after meeting Jane, Danny, sleazebag or no, realizes he’s out of his depth when it comes to corruption of the soul. He habitually calls her Tiger, initially in a rather patronizing way but soon with a definite sense of wariness.

The other striking performance comes from Miller as Alan’s sister Kathy. Miller shared some history with Scott. Both of them went to Warner Bros in 1944 for screen tests, and both of them were given the thumbs-down by Jack Warner. However, producer Hal Wallis thought otherwise, and when he moved to Paramount he contracted the two actresses. Miller’s screen debut came in 1945 with You Came Along, in which she had a bit part (under her real name, Jacqueleen Eskeson) while Scott, also debuting, headlined with Robert Cummings. (Next on the cast list was Don DeFore, similarly placed in Too Late for Tears.) Although Miller didn’t become the noir icon that Scott did, they appeared together in several noir or noirish movies: DESERT FURY (1947), I WALK ALONE (1948) and Paid in Full (1950). (As indicated by the capitals, the two former are in the encyclopedia; I’m hoping to discuss Paid in Full on Noirish in the not too distant future.)

Scripter Roy Huggins, who based Too Late for Tears on his own serial novel of the same title, was one of those who radically altered the landscape for screen writers. He first entered the movies when contracted by Columbia to adapt his novel The Double Take (1946) for the screen as I LOVE TROUBLE (1948). He worked as a scripter at Columbia for a while before moving in 1955 to Warner Bros’s TV division. There he created such legendary shows as Maverick (1957–62) and 77 Sunset Strip (1958–64). But Jack Warner used devious means to swindle Huggins out of the creator rights and residuals in those shows, with the result that Huggins left Warner and became far tougher about his rights. When United Artists bought The Fugitive (1963–7), Huggins was paid not just creator residuals but also a full producer’s fee, even though UA gave the production to Quinn Martin. Such an arrangement was written into all Huggins’s further contracts, and other creators began successfuly to emulate his aggressive approach. Later he co-created (with Stephen J. Cannell) The Rockford Files (1974–80), a PI show that shared James Garner as its star with the movie MARLOWE (1969); it’s been commonly observed that Jim Rockford is very much like Garner’s portrayal of Raymond Chandler’s rumpled hero PHILIP MARLOWE.

Scott’s performance in Too Late for Tears is really quite spectacular, as you’ll have gathered. There’s often been a tendency to dismiss her as a sort of cut-rate Lauren Bacall but here she demonstrates that, while Bacall most undoubtedly had her own unique screen fascination, Scott was arguably the stronger of the two actresses. Her contribution to noir can be gauged by the movies she made in the genre:

  • The STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946) dir Lewis Milestone
  • DEAD RECKONING (1947) dir John Cromwell
  • DESERT FURY (1947) dir Lewis Allen
  • I WALK ALONE (1948) dir Byron Haskin
  • PITFALL (1948) dir André De Toth
  • DARK CITY (1950) dir William Dieterle
  • The COMPANY SHE KEEPS (1951) dir John Cromwell
  • The RACKET (1951) dir John Cromwell
  • TWO OF A KIND (1951) dir Henry Levin
  • STOLEN FACE (1952) dir Terence Fisher
  • The WEAPON (1956) dir Val Guest

It’s an impressive collection. I recently rewatched the last of these, the London-set The Weapon, on the grounds that I hadn’t hugely enjoyed it the first time around. I completely reappraised my opinion on the second viewing. Scott plays the widowed mother of a small boy, Eric (Jon Whiteley), who, after accidentally shooting a friend with a gun he’s found while playing on an old bombsite, goes on the run. A Scotland Yard detective (Herbert Marshall) and a tightass US military cop (Steve Cochran) join the hunt for the boy because the gun in question was used in a murder eight years ago. A smooth-talking stranger (George Cole) moves in on Scott’s character, ostensibly to help her find her son and romance her but in fact (this isn’t kept a secret from the audience) to recover the gun because, yes, he was that long-ago murderer.

Scott’s magnificient as the harried mother—a long way away from her femme fatale roles—and the movie’s distinguished also by the presence of young Jon Whiteley; here he has a part not unlike the one he had in the tremendous Dirk Bogarde vehicle HUNTED (1952; vt The Stranger in Between), but is unfortunately given rather less to do beyond a lot of very determined-looking running away. This highly talented child actor appeared in just five movies plus an episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood before his mother insisted he end his cinema career to focus on his education. For his performance in The Kidnappers (1953; vt The Little Kidnappers) he shared with costar Vincent Winter a Junior Academy Award. In later life he became an art historian, working at the Ashmolean, Oxford, and publishing several books.

At the time she made The Weapon, Scott was essentially in flight from Hollywood.

With the help of an ex-Communist, now staunchly McCarthist, editor called Howard Rushmore, the publisher Robert Harrison issued a monthly scandal sheet called Confidential (launched 1952). The m.o. of Confidential was to send the prominent people involved in any new story, true or invented, a copy of that story plus an offer to let the individual “buy back” the story—in other words, the operation was a hairsbreadth away, if that, from being an extortion racket. When in 1955 Rushmore prepared a story to the effect that Scott was a highly promiscuous near-call girl and “baritone babe”—i.e., lesbian—and sent it to her, she refused to cough up but instead had the guts to very publicly sue the rag. Thanks to the incompetence of the US judicial system, the suit eventually, in 1957, collapsed. (Hollywood struck back with the movie SLANDER [1957] dir Roy Rowland, in which muckraker Steve Cochran persecutes TV puppeteer Van Johnson with eventually fatal results.)

The year 1957 saw Scott costar in an Elvis Presley movie, Loving You dir Hal Kanter (her singing voice was dubbed), but the rumors about her sexuality refused to die and she effectively ended her involvement with the cinema, focusing instead on a brief career as a singer; her jazz-oriented album Lizabeth (1958) can be found today on YouTube, and, while hardly a worldshaker, is well worth a listen.

As an actress, she made fewer than a handful of TV appearances in the 1960s before being lured back to the big screen for one final time in Mike Hodges’s determinedly unfunny comedy Pulp (1972), a Michael Caine vehicle that clumsily homages noir and hardboiled fiction. Scott can’t save it, and neither can various other noirish stalwarts: Mickey Rooney, Lionel Stander and Al Lettieri.

It’s been theorized that it wasn’t really the Confidential faux-scandal and the subsequent failed lawsuit that doomed Scott’s screen career, that her career was anyway in decline and was dealt its deathblow when all sorts of movie actors returned from service in World War II and, resuming their rightful places in Hollywood’s pantheon, ousted those lesser stars who’d filled in during their absence. I don’t buy this theory. For one thing, I can’t think of a whole lot of female Hollywood stars who were absent on active service during World War II . . .

Too Late for Tears - 8 Jane goes it alone

Lizabeth Scott in Too Late for Tears (1949).

When I read in late January 2015 that Lizabeth Scott had died, I let out a cheer—not because she had died but because, having reached the grand old age of 92, she had outlived small-minded detractors like Howard Rushmore and Robert Harrison and their readers—and all the others who thought her sexual orientation was of any importance or had any relevance to her acting skills. I haven’t the first idea if Scott was bisexual (she certainly had plenty of heterosexual laisons) and frankly I couldn’t care less. The issue seems strangely unimportant when set alongside her screen performances.

For me, the voyage of discovering the great actress Lizabeth Scott began with Two Late for Tears. For you, it may have begun somewhere else. Whatever the case, I can’t imagine your voyage has been a less than rewarding one.

Too Late for Tears - 11 closer

NOTE: The screengrabs here do not reflect (I’m sure!) the quality of the Flicker Alley reissue. They’re from the old Questar fivefer DVD set, which includes the movie as Killer Bait.

15 thoughts on “Too Late for Tears (1949)

  1. Great post John – for me it was DETOUR that truly ruend my head around and made me a NOIR fan for ever and ever. I’ve never actually seen this one (love WOMAN ON THE RUN though) but am very much looking forward to the Blu-rays (in the UK the two Flicker Alley releases are coming out from Arrow). I’m a big fan of Huggins’ work on TV (not read any of his fiction yet), thugh knowledge of his naming names during the McCarthy period did somewhat dent my admiration

    • Many thanks, Sergio, for the kind words. Too Late for Tears is a real goody: I’m quite jealous of you that you’ll be having all the fun of watching it for the first time!

      his naming names during the McCarthy period did somewhat dent my admiration

      Same here, although it’s always carefully noted that the names he named had already been, er, named by others. He may have been playing a clever game. It’s anyway difficult to judge people who were placed in that position: we all know how we should behave, but whether we’d actually do so under those pressures is less certain. Really it’s the loathsome politicians involved who should be getting our brickbats.

      • Oh certainly – I reserve my admiration for the likes of Losey, Trumbo and especially Gene Kelly, who is a bit of an unsung hero of the period who not only never turned his back on his friends or his ethics but found a way to weather the storm by working in Europe.

  2. A great review and great screen grabs. Must watch it again.
    First time I saw Too Late For Tears, I was amazed to see Dan Duryea , at his slimiest , being outfoxed and scared!
    Possible Scott’s best role, though she’s also at her baddest in Dead Reckoning.
    A pity Roy Huggins didn’t do more films (. But what a TV career he had). He wrote and directed one of my top ten westerns, Hangman’s Knot.

    • Hi Vienna: Thanks for dropping by.

      I really ought to watch Dead Reckoning again — someone else mentioned it and, even though I went and looked up my description of it in the book, I realized my memories remained hazy. Oh, boy, an opportunity to rediscover a classic Scott role!

      I’m keen to explore a few more noirish Westerns (it seems a fertile but neglected field of study), so I’ll keep an eye out for Hangman’s Knot.

      If you can find it, you might enjoy The Weapon too. Scott in a very different role, with a good supporting cast.

  3. I’m not a real fan of Lizabeth Scott. In nearly everything I’ve seen her in she’s playing moods, but never shows any real vulnerability (she always looks mopey to me) or range of genuine emotion. For me, this is her best performance and I think she must owe a lot to her director. She’s amazing in this and outdoes both Gloria Grahame and Marie Windsor, who are my favorite bad girls of Noir Cinema. Probably my second favorite performance from her is in the very strange DESERT FURY in which Wendell Corey (another underrated actor) steals the movie in every scene he’s in. However, I’ve only seen five of her movies in the list you made above and really these two are the only ones in which I think she shows real acting. Watching TWO OF A KIND with Edmond O’Brien as her co-star was interesting and almost convinced me she was an actress who grew based on her experience of making TOO LATE FOR TEARS, but in the end too much of what she does in that movie is artificial Hollywood acting and I was bothered by her yet again. TOO LATE FOR TEARS is real never fake. Overall, I think TOO LATE FOR TEARS is a masterpiece so rightly belonging in the Noir Hall of Fame yet always overshadowed by other lesser movies. The very smart script helps a lot. Roy Huggins was so damn good. Among one of my favorite Huggins scripts is HANGMAN’S KNOT (1952). One of my favorite westerns, almost a noir western.

    Kazan named names, too, but that doesn’t mean he’s any less of a great moviemaker. I find it easy to separate the men themselves from their work and refuse to let their personality flaws affect my enjoyment of a damn good movie.

    • I’m sorry Scott’s performances don’t speak to you the way they speak to me. To be fair, I’ve only ever seen her (that I can remember) in noirish roles . . . apart from the godawful Pulp; she’s not good in it, but none of the other cast can make anything of their roles except Mickey Rooney and Lionel Stander — the former offers a rendition of such spectacular ghastliness that all I could do was lean back and applaud.

      I find it easy to separate the men themselves from their work and refuse to let their personality flaws affect my enjoyment of a damn good movie.

      In the instances of other Hollywoodites who were for the McCarthyist witch hunts and the black list I can usually do this, but in the case of Kazan I for some reason can’t. My opinion of him is also colored by having read one of his novels, long before I knew of his McCarthyist fervor, and found it quite dreadful. I did very much enjoy Blues in the Night (1941) despite his presence.

  4. Oh my goodness, what a tremendous piece, John! I have never seen this film, but will aim to remedy this fairly soon (especially given the imminent release from Arrow – out on 13th June, so only another month to wait). Double Indemnity was the gateway movie for me, and it remains one of my all-time faves.

  5. Pingback: o/t: my essay on Too Late for Tears crossposted | Noirish

  6. Belated kudos for some very heartfelt words about Ms. Scott, John. The controversy about her sexuality continued to follow her into retirement and probably cost us many additional insights into her career and her life–the Film Noir Foundation honchos (sp.?) were never able to convince her or her very protective friends that she would not be subjected to on-stage innuendo, so she did not make any appearances with them. A shame.

    And the interviewer at the Motion Picture Academy in 2010 inexplicably tossed away a golden opportunity to have a lengthy, revealing conversation with Scott after a screening of “Martha Ivers”–those in the audience could tell that La Liz was in an expansive mood and ready to hold forth. Instead, the interview was abruptly curtailed after less than 15 minutes.

    I think Scott was at her best in PITFALL, where she was allowed to get beyond glamor and allure, showcasing the dilemma of the beautiful woman never sure if any man will care about her for herself and not her looks. Much more of real life rings true here than in most of the other noirs she made, even TOO LATE FOR TEARS (though we are all ecstatic to have a restored version of it at last). I think it’s also clear she had much more fun playing the dual role in STOLEN FACE than she did playing Jane Palmer–in several of her interviews, she said that she had to invent psychology to play femme fatale roles because she found their behavior to be so alien. (In her essay about La Liz for NOIR CITY, Anastasia Lin pointed out something interesting: Hal Wallis never cast Liz as a femme fatale in any of her Paramount films–all of those parts occurred in loan-outs.)

  7. Thanks so much for this truly excellent write-up. I watched the film at the weekend, and it’s gone straight into my list of favourite noirs. I loved Lizabeth Scott in this role. Your description of her in spot-on: a woman entirely consumed by greed – yes! And yet, like you, a little part of me was rooting for her in the end. It’s intriguing isn’t it? The allure of these femme fatale types. I couldn’t help but think of Barbara Stanwyck’s turn in Double Indemnity…

    • I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the movie, Jacqui! As you’ll have guessed, it’s a great favorite of mine, too.

      I’m interested by the parallel you draw with Stanwyck as Phyllis. On the other hand, I’m not sure anyone’s rooting for Phyllis by the end of that movie. I think what may be the difference is that Scott’s cupidity has a sort of childish naivety to it, while Phyllis is just rotten through and through.

  8. In 2003, Scott spoke substantially to Bernard F. Dick about her time in films for his biography of producer Hal Wallis. In the book, the author remarks that during his conversation with Scott in a restaurant, Scott (around 80 or 81) was still able to recite her opening monologue from The Skin of Our Teeth, which she had learned many decades earlier but never had the chance to perform on Broadway as Bankhead’s understudy. This shows what a remarkable talent Lizabeth Scott (Emma Matzo) was. I have always like Lizabeth Scott from the time i became interested in film when I was 15 back in the mid-1970s. I too have seen almost all her films. Even though its not a Noir but has the look and feel of a Noir is Paid In Full. Great Review

    • Many thanks for dropping by, Marc, and for that fascinating tidbit about Scott. She was an astonishingly talented actress, and indeed in a more general sense an astonishingly talented human being. I really curse and spit whenever I think of how much more of her work we’d have seen on screen had it not been for those ghastly, small-minded little toads, may they rot in hell, etc.

      I have Paid in Full on my list for treatment here (the “ish” in the site’s title is so I can cast my net as far and wide as I want to), but who knows when I’ll get to it. Any excuse to watch a Scott movie . . .

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