Saturday, May 28, 2011

Too Late for Tears (Hunt Stromberg/United Artists, 1949, reissued 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I picked out a film that turned out to be unexpectedly good: Too Late for Tears, a 1949 film noir from Hunt Stromberg Productions, released through United Artists but likely shot at Republic studios, since their special effects experts, brothers Howard and Theodore Lydecker, were credited and the optical work was done at Consolidated Film Laboratories, Republic’s parent company. The film was directed by Byron Haskin, best known for the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds and other science-fiction credits (though he said his best movie, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, was sunk at the box-office by the stupid title his distributor insisted on), but it’s more a Schreiber than an auteur movie and the Schreiber is Roy Huggins, best known today as the creator of the classic TV series The Fugitive. I had downloaded this off along with another Huggins-scripted noir, I Love Trouble (1948), but this one turned out to be several cuts above its predecessor, and not only because the download was in considerably better shape — the picture quality was excellent, though the sound had an annoying crackle as if we were listening to it on 78’s, and the actors’ voices and their lip movements remained in near-perfect synch throughout.

Huggins based Too Late for Tears on a serial he published in the Saturday Evening Post, and its serial origins are revealed in the number of reversals he inserted into his story — but unlike Tony Gilroy, whose maddening penchant for barely motivated and frankly unbelievable reversals sank Duplicity, Huggins’s reversals are credible and serve the purpose of peeling back layers of the characters, like onions, and revealing who they really are underneath the veneer of civilization. The story begins on a winding road in the hills, with seemingly happily married couple Alan and Jane Palmer (Arthur Kennedy and top-billed Lizabeth Scott) having an argument — he’s driving them to a dinner party hosted by one of his bosses at work and she’s worried that they’ll look down on her and wants him to turn around and drive them back home. He does so, only as they’re stalled out on the side of the road another car passes and its driver flings a satchel out of his car. It lands inside the passenger compartment of the Palmers’ car (it’s a convertible and they had the top down) and the Palmers open it and find it contains tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of currency, in old mixed-up bills with nonconsecutive serial numbers and wrapped with bands.

They get into another argument, with Jane wanting to keep the money — it will instantly solve all the financial problems that are dogging them, and then some — while Alan pleads with her that keeping the money would be like stealing it and they need to report it and turn it in to the police. Nonetheless, he’s weak enough to yield to her blandishments that they keep the money for a week or so until someone claims it, and he stashes the satchel in a locker at Union Station. Then Jane is visited by a sinister character, Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea at his oiliest, or close to it), who lies his way into her apartment by saying he’s from the “Detective Bureau” and plays cat-and-mouse with her, claiming that not only does she have the money but that it’s rightfully his. At this point we’re not permitted to know where the money came from or what, if any, Danny’s claim to it is, but the existence of a rival claimant to the money — and one who’s threatening Jane with either grievous bodily harm or out-and-out rape if she doesn’t fork it over, at that — just heats up the already grim level of tension between her and her husband. On a date that’s supposed to be a warm, nostalgic occasion — they’re going to rent a boat and ride on the lake, duplicating what they did on their first date — he catches her with a gun, they struggle over it (Maurine Watkins, call your plagiarism attorney again!) and she kills him.

She’d previously arranged for Danny to meet her there and when he shows up, she tells him to put on her husband’s coat and hat and impersonate him so no one will suspect he’s dead, while she disposes of the body in the water, presumably weighting it down so it doesn’t float to the surface (though just when she found the time to do this, and where she found the materials to do it with, remain loose ends in Huggins’ otherwise admirably well-constructed plot) — and it helps that Dan Duryea and Arthur Kennedy look enough like each other that it makes sense for one to pretend to be the other. The plot thickens with the arrival of Don Blake (Don DeFore), another man who seems to have an interest in the money, though he also seems to be a decent sort and he starts dating Alan’s sister Kathy (Kristine Miller), who lives in the same building with Jane Palmer and has been hanging around the action all movie. The film is marvelously understated and ambiguous, but ambiguous in a way that adds to the drama instead of just annoying the viewer; at first we see the money seemingly transforming Jane from a normal, decent woman into a femme fatale, but later on we learn that she was married to someone else before Alan and her first husband committed suicide — though she may have killed him, and even if she didn’t do so directly, she may have driven him to suicide. So, as with Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Double Indemnity, we learn that she’s been unscrupulous and evil from the get-go and the guys she’s entrapped don’t know just how “bad” she really is.

There’s a marvelous cat-and-mouse game between her and Danny, who at one point is struck when she makes a big deal out of what he did with Alan’s coat — Alan inserted the claim ticket for the suitcase with the money into the lining of his coat, but when they open it and look for it, they find a blank piece of cardboard: obviously Alan, not trusting his wife, had taken it out and placed it somewhere else. But where? Nice girl Kathy (just about the only person in this movie who isn’t hiding or trying to live down a dark past!) actually finds the claim check before Jane does, in a drawer that also contains a gun Alan brought back from World War II, though it’s missing the first time Kathy checks the door and then suddenly reappears (Jane must have replaced it there after killing her husband and threatening Danny with it), and the climax reveals Jane getting the claim check, getting the satchel (she gives a man in the station $5 to fetch it for her, and later it turns out that Alan put a note on the handle, “If a woman claims this, notify the police”) and getting away to Mexico after having offed Danny with a poisoned drink, only she’s chased there by Don, who isn’t a police agent or a private detective — and the money isn’t the result of a bank heist, as we might have imagined; instead it was a blackmail payoff — and Don turns out to be the brother of Jane’s first husband, anxious to get back at her for his brother’s death.

The final confrontation — a climax in which Jane takes a header off a hotel balcony, falling to her death on the ground below — is a bit clunky, but despite that Too Late for Tears is a first-rate noir, less visually spectacular than some of the earlier ones in the cycle but full of the moral ambiguities that made the genre so delicious and appealing, and Huggins turns out to be as adept at writing an innocent-seeming woman who’s really guilty as he was about a guilty-seeming man who was really innocent in The Fugitive. The acting is also first-rate, despite a rather unstellar cast, and director Haskin manages to make Lizabeth Scott’s limitations as an actress work for her: the hesitations in her voice and gawkiness in her movements come across as legitimate guilts and uncertainties as she slips out of her guise as nice, normal housewife and the evil bitch within comes through. (Even Danny says he’s never met anyone as cold as Jane.) Haskin also deserves credit for the severity of his style — even though a lot of this movie takes place outdoors in full light and we get very few of the chiaroscuro visuals that are usually the hallmark of film noir, there’s no room for doubt about what genre it belongs to — and especially for his very sparing use of R. Dale Butts’ original music. Long sequences in the film, including some of the big suspense highlights, are kept unscored, crediting our intelligence in being able to figure out what is supposed to be going on and how we’re expected to respond to it rather than having a big, thundering orchestra sitting right in our eardrums telegraphing the key points and making it obvious how we’re supposed to feel about the characters. Too Late for Tears is a surprising discovery, a well-made movie from a time, place and producer for whom we don’t expect greatness and are therefore very gratified and amazed when he delivers it, as he does here.