sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2016-01-02 03:21 am
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You're quite a gal, Mrs. Palmer

Technically my first review of 2016 belongs to the last movie of 2015, because this really was the kind of year a person sees out with film noir. I watched it on New Year's Eve, partly because I had missed it this summer when the restored version screened for the first time on TCM. [personal profile] skygiants, I've found our third housewife noir, or whatever we want to call the genre formerly theorized from the existence of Black Angel (1946) and The Reckless Moment (1949). It's called Too Late for Tears (1949), it stars Lizabeth Scott, and it's a doozy. Right up until the inevitable moral payback, it's rather like the origin story of a femme fatale.

Meet Jane Palmer, played by Scott in what is now considered her career-defining role—TCM ran it in memoriam of her death in January 2015. I'd never seen her before. I should like to see her again. The actress has a look of Lauren Bacall, but harder cut, with prominent cheekbones and a heavy mouth; the character keeps her eyes always a little narrowed, disdainful, difficult to see into. She can put on the persuasion with her husky voice, but it sounds truest when she's issuing flat, cold directives like "People saw me come onto this boat with my husband and they'll see me get off with him" to a man who isn't her husband and is just now beginning to realize where that leaves him, alone at night with a woman who stands no higher than his shoulder and holds a pistol with a lot more steel. He will nickname her "Tiger," hardly joking at all. "I didn't know they made them as beautiful as you are," he marvels, "and as smart—or as hard." But we don't meet her from his perspective, as usually happens with beautiful, deadly women and outclassed men. We open the movie with Jane herself, the night her bland suburban life is sideswiped by the underworld, more or less literally when a stranger in a passing car suddenly hurls a suitcase containing $100,000 in unmarked bills into the back seat of the Palmers' convertible. Very obviously, these are not kosher C-notes. So what would you do if someone else's payoff landed in your lap? For Jane, it's the once-in-a-lifetime windfall that answers all of their prayers, or hers at least. All her life, she's been striving to afford the lifestyle she never had the chance to get accustomed to: "We were white-collar poor, middle-class poor, the kind of people who can't keep up with the Joneses and die a little every day because they can't." For her husband Alan (Arthur Kennedy), who's reconciled himself to the fact that "there'll always be Joneses with a little more," the money is nothing but "a blind alley with a big barred gate at the end." He's right, of course, with the title there like cautionary neon from the start, but what's impressive is the run the movie gives Jane first.

As she's only the second instance of an unequivocal femme fatale I've seen in the wild,1 it's difficult for me to gauge whether Jane behaves entirely according to the rules of her archetype, but I found it striking that while she does use her sexuality to get what she needs from men, she also uses—quite effectively—violence. The first killing really looks like an accident, but she doesn't hesitate to turn it to her advantage. The second is no mistake. Two other attempts are averted by the vagaries of the plot, not by the intervention of conscience or feminine weakness. The latter makes an excellent ruse, though, and it almost never fails. Men are always ready to help out or take advantage, or think they're doing one or the other of these things. In this department the film benefits cleverly from its casting of Dan Duryea. His first appearance in Too Late for Tears feels deliberately reminiscent of his star-making entrance in Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window (1944). There he was a crooked ex-cop turned blackmailer, searching Joan Bennett's rooms with insouciant creepiness, as if he were frisking her body instead of her liquor cabinet, her perfume table, her dresser drawers; the sense of menace he offers is lazy rather than volatile, a lanky figure in a straw boater and a double-breasted dark suit who talks extortion with such a drawling smile that the careless quickness with which he hits Bennett in the face is actually shocking, snake-strike nasty.2 As Danny Fuller, supposed P.I. in search of the missing cash, he investigates the Palmers' apartment with similarly invasive efficiency; he even offers Jane a few sharp smacks when she disclaims the whereabouts of his "dough." The familiar half-smirk is in place, as is the malicious air of knowing the game and amusing himself watching an amateur try to play it. But Danny's an opportunistic crook, not a stone killer, and therefore he's boxing out of his class trying to intimidate a woman who isn't even surprised to discover her cold-blooded gift for murder and manipulation. They meet in public parks, dark street corners, his own dingy apartment; he takes her in his arms with cynical coercion, exacting the heavy's traditional fee: "I think probably someday you will kill me. And I wouldn't want that to happen unless we were good friends." Not so many scenes later, he's wrecked by his own complicity in her crimes, staring at her with unsteady, appalled awe: "Don't ever change, Tiger. I don't think I'd like you with a heart." In the dark cities of film noir, a woman who can go through Dan Duryea like Kleenex is a force to be reckoned with.

Especially because she dominates the film, then, it interests me that Jane is not the only woman onscreen. Starting in the second act, the film devotes a secondary plot to the parallel relationship developing between Alan's skeptical sister Kathy (Kristine Miller) and the genial stranger who calls himself Don Blake (Don DeFore) and claims to have flown with Alan during the war. He's eventually crucial to the denouement, but her role is less clear-cut. She's the good girl of the story, reassuring the male portion of the audience that not all women will shoot their way out of the patriarchy if given half a chance,3 but she's also an active investigator of her sister-in-law's stories and suspicious movements, so strongly refusing to go along with Jane's narrative that she risks her own life. At their first meeting, she pulls Don brusquely into her apartment to keep him out of earshot of Jane. He's the first character who does not dismiss her concerns as some kind of natural feminine jealousy. I am a little sorry that she plays no direct role in the climax, but I find I am glad that she exists at all. She contributes to the plot rather than just decorating it, which is more than can be said for some women in movies.

You could tell the story from her point of view, of course. It would be a sort of domestic detective story, piecing together the truth of her brother's disappearance and the existence of the money and the man who wants it back in the face of official indifference and blossoming romance. With a little withholding of information, you could tell it from Don's perspective, and from Danny's it would be the most stereotypical noir plot of all, the man whose criminal impulses lead to his downfall at the hands of a woman even worse than he is. It's much more interesting following Jane. She's a hard protagonist to get close to. The film doesn't care. She's not glamorous, she doesn't scheme with style; she's chilly and quick-thinking, improvising from crime to crime with unemphatic ruthlessness. We watch her graduate from theft to manslaughter to premeditated murder—greased with plenty of fibs and misdirection—finding at every stage that she can get away with it and so seeing no reason to stop. The script offers no hint of prior misbehavior, but her lack of conscience seems to disturb her as little as a hitherto unknown capacity for perfect pitch or calculating digits of pi. And the money is important in itself, but after a certain point it's holding on to the money that matters more than whatever she does with it. It's a symbol, like her husband's Colt M1911A1, and she knows it; it's power and she has no reason to give it up.

For about forty-five seconds after the climax of Too Late for Tears, I was annoyed with the movie, because like Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) it had come up with a great final image—a woman dead in a courtyard in the swirls of her elegant dress, the Colt jarred loose from her empty hand and hundred-dollar bills still drifting down from the balcony above her, falling just beyond her lifeless fingers—and then kept going in favor of closing the picture on a positive note, future wedding bells and all that jazz. And then some genius in the editing room resurrected it under the end titles! We're left with the dark, hungry, futile end of this story, not the cheerful one. That never happens and I was delighted. If the renegade woman has to lose to society, at least let her be the film's last memory.

So, basically, I celebrated the turn of the year in a benevolent frame of mind, reassured of the essential decency of my fellow human beings. Really, I watched the ball drop in Times Square with [ profile] derspatchel after making our traditional New Year's Eve fondue. It's hard to get less cynical than that. This resolution brought to you by my festive backers at Patreon.

1. I disqualify Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944) for the reasons detailed here and my memories of Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) suggest a folie à deux rather than cold-blooded exploitation. Joan Bennett in Scarlet Street (1945), scornfully stringing along a lovelorn Edward G. Robinson for money he doesn't actually have, seems much closer to the classical description. I'll report further when I've seen Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Gilda (1946), and Out of the Past (1947).

2. Audiences who liked to see Duryea raise a hand to his leading ladies didn't even have to wait in Scarlet Street—he's introduced beating Bennett on a street corner in what looks like an unambiguous instance of pimp-on-prostitute violence and is only half-satisfactorily retconned by the script as a tawdry, sex-driven bad romance. That said, it is a knockout of the species. The sleaze quotient in the atmosphere triples whenever the film returns to Duryea's Johnny and Bennett's Kitty in their natural habitat, a well-rumpled bed in a messy apartment, the floor strewn with a progression of discarded clothes leading to Johnny faceplanted in the pillows—shoes still on, suspenders half off, slick hair mussed to hell and gone—while Kitty in her slip with her housecoat falling open freshens her powder in the other room. They're terrible people. She's an indolent chiseler who's mistaken great sex for true love while he's a flashy good-for-nothing who slaps his girlfriend around, encourages her to make nice to rich men and then rifles her purse for the take, and draws fine moral distinctions like "It's only blackmail, baby, when you're dumb enough to get caught." Their sexual chemistry is the most appealing thing about them, because it's real and mutual, the kind where they can't keep their hands off each other; when Edward G. Robinson's Chris torments himself with thoughts of their ghosts locked forever in an endless sexual loop, it's hard to argue he'd be wrong. As far as I can tell, Lang dodged the Code on this movie by making sure to observe the suitably crime-deterrent downer ending and then flat-out ignoring the rest. I did not expect to come out mourning that Duryea and Bennett were never cast in a production of The Threepenny Opera. They'd have done Brecht's "Tango-Ballad" proud.

3. In one respect, however, she's more subversive than Jane. Prior to the advent of Danny's ill-gotten gains, Jane's only financial leverage has come through the men in her life, her first husband whom she explicitly married for his money, well-meaning Alan whom she laments gave her "a dozen down payments and installments for the rest of our lives!" Kathy has a job. "How are things at the office?" Jane asks in their first scene together. "Well, they gave my boss a promotion the other day," Kathy sighs. "Maybe they'll get around to giving me a raise later." Jane raises an eyebrow: "You sound as though you're going to make a life's work of it." I suppose we are meant to assume she'll cut out all that independent stuff when she marries Don after all, but in the meantime it gives her, legitimately, a degree of the same freedom that Jane can obtain only through theft and violence. I do not think it is an accident that after a certain point in her criminal career, Jane reverts to her maiden name.
skygiants: Lauren Bacall on a red couch (lauren bacall says o rly)

[personal profile] skygiants 2016-01-03 11:48 pm (UTC)(link)
I am so glad we now have an official subgenre! \o/

[identity profile] 2016-01-02 08:50 am (UTC)(link)
I just watched the Thin Man movies they ran in order for New Years..

[identity profile] 2016-01-02 08:21 pm (UTC)(link)
in a series like this one, the way they kept the characters consistent, but progressed the years... such as the son. The drinking and smoking and the stereotypes were in a lighthearted fashion, but still .... his drinking and gambling werent treated as flaws like they would be in todays films. They dont make comedies like this anymore.

[identity profile] 2016-01-02 10:05 am (UTC)(link)
You know, the text on your comment link says "tell me a story," so I will take you at your word and tell you a tale which goes off on a bit of tangent, inspired by you talking about noir here. (But I think you'll enjoy it.)

So you may know there's a kind of role-playing game called a LARP, a live-action game. It's more like improv theatre than it is like anything else familiar to the layperson (though if you happen to have read Victor Turner's From Ritual to Theatre, it actually fits the definition of ritual pretty well). Some years back, I was playing in a one-shot Changeling game which aimed to be the magical side of '40s Hollywood: all of the changeling characters were costumed in black and white, with only the three chimerical characters (entities composed entirely of magic) in color, those being Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein's monster.

Before the game started, we were informed that unless we were told otherwise, none of us could see, hear, touch, or in any fashion sense Mike's character. This was completely nonsensical: why was he even there, if (as it seemed) the vast majority of us couldn't interact with him? But okay, whatever.

I was playing a kind of femme fatale, a washed-up actress from the silent era who couldn't hack it in the talkies because her faerie nature made it hard for her to speak above a whisper, but who couldn't quit because the studio quite literally owned her soul. (Selkie-style: they had the equivalent of her seal coat.) Our friend Tony was playing an eshu, which in that system is a changeling who's all about telling stories; his character was a hard-boiled detective. At one point during the game, I wound up in a room with him, Mike, and a corpse on the floor, and I said something to Tony about how I didn't know what had happened, but if I could help him find out, I would.

Into the silence, Mike said in his deepest, gruffest voice: "I knew I couldn't trust the dame. But I didn't have a choice."

He was playing the hard-boiled detective's narration.

I just about lost it. Never mind interacting with Mike: that wasn't what he was there for. Tony's eshu had a magical effect which made it so that he literally had a voice narrating his entire life, interior monologue-style. It's one of the most brilliant uses I've ever seen of the LARP medium -- I just don't think it would be the same in a normal theatre context. And Mike had the style down pat, along with a great voice for the job. It added a whole layer to the game, which was absolutely fabulous.

I suspect you would have loved the hell out of that game. You know the period/genre far better than most of us did, and could have cranked the whole thing up to eleven in the best way possible. After reading all these reviews of yours, I am now determined that if by some freak of chance I have the opportunity to run a '40s Hollywood Changeling LARP somewhere in your vicinity, I am going to do it, and make puppy-dog eyes at you until you promise you'll be one of my players.

[identity profile] 2016-01-03 06:41 am (UTC)(link)
I say that as someone who once went to a costume party as Gene Kelly's umbrella from Singin' in the Rain (1952).

(Nobody got it. I was in third grade.)


I've never been sure that I would be good at LARPing, but I take the compliment as intended! Thank you.

It helps when the subject matter of the LARP is something you've been marinating in for years. :-)

[identity profile] 2016-01-03 05:44 pm (UTC)(link)
I pointed a LARPer friend at this story yesterday and he was utterly delighted.

[identity profile] 2016-01-05 12:22 pm (UTC)(link)
I say that as someone who once went to a costume party as Gene Kelly's umbrella from Singin' in the Rain (1952).

Most creative and unexpected third-grade costume ever.
ext_104661: (Default)

[identity profile] 2016-01-02 11:21 pm (UTC)(link)
Thank you for that story!

On a lesser note, but I am reminded: In an fairly early LARP (pre-iPod existence), a friend of mine was playing a James Bond-type character in a cyberpunk LARP. He wore a white suit with padded shoulders -- concealing speakers wired up to a small tape recorder with the Peter Gunn Theme :-)

[identity profile] 2016-01-03 06:41 am (UTC)(link)
Niiiiiiiiiiice. :-D
gwynnega: (lordpeter mswyrr)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2016-01-03 01:23 am (UTC)(link)
I just watched the film today. Lizabeth Scott does have a remarkable screen presence.

I do think Leave Her to Heaven and Out of the Past feature pretty straight-up examples of femmes fatales. (I haven't seen Gilda.) I look forward to seeing what you think when you watch those films.

[identity profile] 2016-01-05 12:37 pm (UTC)(link)
She contributes to the plot rather than just decorating it, which is more than can be said for some women in movies. Amen!

The business of having parallel plots, with the sanctioned romance or relationship, I find fascinating. Like in Anna Karenina, where you have Kitty and Levin ("this is what you want to aim for, kids") to offset Anna and Vronsky. I wonder if it's a way of allowing people to enjoy the unsanctioned romance, whether it's the beard in the story, so to speak.

her lack of conscience seems to disturb her as little as a hitherto unknown capacity for perfect pitch or calculating digits of pi. This made me smile. I would be so surprised and pleased with either of those abilities (and I kind of like that they're what you picked, and now am wondering what other non-deadly, semi-inconsequential powers you might summon up for examples), and that makes me think, with a kind of amused frisson, of what it would be like to feel that way about a discovery of a lack of conscience.