Friday, May 24, 2019

Lizabeth Scott: “La tigresse” in Too Late for Tears (1949)

August 13, 1949, release date
Directed by Byron Haskin
Screenplay by Roy Huggins
Based on a serial for Saturday Evening Post by Roy Huggins
Music by R. Dale Butts
Edited by Harry Keller
Cinematography by William C. Mellor

Lizabeth Scott as Jane Palmer
Don DeFore as Don Blake
Dan Duryea as Danny Fuller
Arthur Kennedy as Alan Palmer
Kristine Miller as Kathy Palmer
Barry Kelley as Lt. Breach

Distributed by United Artists, Peter Rodgers Organization
Released by Astor Pictures Corp.

Lizabeth Scott is Jane Palmer, a seemingly normal housewife in postwar California. She and Alan Palmer, played by Arthur Kennedy, in fact seem to be a normal married couple. On the surface. Briefly.

When Too Late for Tears opens, Jane and Alan Palmer are on their way to a friend’s home. Viewers don’t see Jane and Alan right away; what they see is a dark car and its headlights, off in the distance, driving on a lonely road at night, which is itself a small clue that the film is noir and that trouble lies ahead. Even if viewers miss that hint, the opening dialogue and interaction between Jane and Alan reveal something troublesome about Jane right away:
Alan: “You’re quiet tonight, Janey.”
Jane: “I’m thinking of the right way to ask you to turn around and go back.”
Alan: “On this road? No, can’t do it, sweetie.”
Jane: “I mean it, Alan. I’d like you to turn around, please.”
Alan: “What’s the matter, Jane?”
Jane: “I tried to tell you before we left home. I just don’t like being patronized, that’s all. I don’t think I could take another evening of it.”
Alan: “Patronized? Oh, sweetheart, Ralph is one of the nicest guys—”
Jane: “You know it isn’t Ralph. It’s his diamond-studded wife. Looking down her nose at me like a big ugly house up there looks down on Hollywood. Please. I’m just not going. Slow down and find a place to turn.”
Alan: “Oh, Jane, you’re crazy. Alice likes you. She—”
Jane: “Please, Alan. I mean it. I’m just not going.” [grabs the keys in the ignition in a close-up; causes the car to swerve, which viewers see from the same distance shot that opened the film]
Alan: [Alan and Jane now in a medium shot as they continue in their car] “What are you trying to do? Send us off the edge? All right. We’ll turn around. We told them we’d be there, but we’ll turn around.”

Now they are met by the almost-blinding headlights of an oncoming car, whose driver passes dangerously close to them and throws a bag into their backseat. They stop their own car to get their bearings and discover the bag in the backseat. Alan is a little hesitant about opening the bag, but Jane can’t wait to see what’s inside. When Alan opens it and Jane sees the money in the bag, her face lights up. Another car approaches them, and Jane takes charge. She orders her husband back into the car. He barely has time to flop into the backseat before Jane takes off, with the second mysterious car in hot pursuit. She succeeds in eluding the car in a dangerous chase, and she looks like she is having the time of her life through the entire sequence.

Alan Palmer’s biggest mistake is thinking, and continuing to think, that his wife Jane is a normal postwar housewife. Being stuck in the backseat while Jane maneuvers their car expertly during a dangerous car chase, pursued by an angry criminal, seems like the perfect metaphor for Alan: He is always left behind by Jane’s blinding ambition. He does care about her, in a rather patronizing way. He calls her Janey and treats more like a child than an adult.

The criminal in the car chasing the Palmers doesn’t make the same mistake of treating Jane like a child. Danny Fuller is that criminal, and he wants his money. He tracks down the Palmers’ address and pays them a visit during the day, when it is likely Jane will be home alone. He thinks he won’t have much trouble getting the money, but Jane is very evasive about returning the money, which isn’t really his and certainly isn’t hers. But Danny is persistent, persistent enough that he has time to invent a nickname for Jane. He calls her Tiger. He knows her better than her husband does.

Tiger: It’s a great nickname for Jane Palmer. In France, the film is known as La tigresse, which is perfect for this film. La tigresse—in French—would work just as well in the United States. It’s my favorite out of all the titles that the film goes by. La tigresse is much more appropriate for a film noir, and it’s perfect for Jane Palmer. She is a femme fatale, and she is at the center of the story. The film should be named for her. In the United States, Too Late for Tears also goes by the name Killer Bait. Neither one does the film justice, but Too Late for Tears is better than Killer Bait.

Alan Palmer doesn’t notice Jane’s treachery until it’s too late, and Danny Fuller is not prepared for it. The men in Jane’s life are no match for her. The first time that I saw Too Late for Tears, I wasn’t prepared for Jane’s treachery either. The film has one delicious noir surprise after another, and I feel like it’s giving too much away just pointing out that Jane Palmer is the “Great Villain” in this story.

Too Late for TearsLa tigresse—is one of my favorite films noir. I may be imagining it today, but I would bet an ice cream cone that I saw this on television one school day afternoon instead of doing my homework many years ago. I have seen the film several times, and I have already written about it once before for my blog. I was more than happy to see it one more time and write about it again for The Great Villain Blogathon 2019.

Too Late for Tears is in the public domain, and you can watch it online at the Internet Archive by clicking here. Click here for my first blog post about Too Late for Tears.

Although Too Late for Tears is in the public domain and you can watch it online, it’s worth obtaining a copy of the DVD with the following two features included: “Lizabeth Scott: Femme Fatale” and “Dan Duryea: Lady Killer.” Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation hosts both features, and he provides a lot of great background information about each star, both of whom were mainstays of the film noir genre.

This blog post is my first for the annual event called The Great Villain Blogathon 2019; click here to see all the entries. The blogathon is sponsored by Classic Movie Blog Association members Ruth of Silver Screenings, Karen of Shadows and Satin, and Kristina of Speakeasy.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Behind Locked Doors (1948)

September 3, 1948, release date
Directed by Oscar (“Budd”) Boeticher
Screenplay by Eugene Ling, Malvin Wald
Based on a story by Malvin Wald
Music by Irving Friedman
Edited by Norman Colbert
Cinematography by Guy Roe

Lucille Bremer as Kathy Lawrence
Richard Carlson as Ross Stewart
Douglas Fowley as Larson
Ralf Harolde as Fred Hopps
Thomas Browne Henry as Dr. Clifford Porter
Herbert Heyes as Judge Finlay Drake
Gwen Donovan as Madge Bennett
Tor Johnson as Butcher Blackmer, the Champ, a patient
John Holland as Dr. J. R. Ball
Wally Vernon as the sign painter

Distributed by Eagle-Lion Films
Produced by Arc Productions Inc.

I had never heard of Behind Locked Doors. I can’t even remember how I came across it. I was already familiar with Eagle-Lion Films, so I decided to take a chance, and I’m glad I did. Behind Locked Doors is a low-budget film that looks a bit more polished than its Poverty Row roots would suggest. And it is not just a simple film noir: It has romance, social commentary, and a bit of humor, too.

For more information about Eagle-Lion Films and the other so-called Poverty Row studios, click on each list item below:

The opening credits appear over a shot of a barred window in the top half of a steel-bolted door. The lighting outside the door casts shadows from the bars into the interior of a room, which gives viewers the perspective of being inside a locked room. The film then starts with a shot of a car at night moving toward the camera and parking at the curb on a tree-lined street. The driver who gets out of the car is a woman wearing a mink coat. Viewers learn later that she is Madge Bennett. Another car pulls up behind the first and parks there. A second woman, later identified as Kathy Lawrence, gets out of the second car and follows the woman in the mink coat. The woman in the mink coat turns at the street corner and heads to an entrance for La Siesta Sanitarium. So viewers know from the start that the film’s title doesn’t refer to a prison.

The film cuts to a daytime street view, with the camera looking up at the façade of an office building, then to a shot of an office door with lettering that reads: “Ross Stewart / Private Investigator.” Stewart doesn’t have the money to pay the man who has just finished the lettering. When Stewart pulls some bills out of his wallet, the man grabs one of them. Like other detectives in film noir and B films in general, Stewart is down on his luck and in need of a paying job. The humorous banter between Stewart and the worker makes Stewart’s need for work clear. Kathy Lawrence appears at Stewart’s front door just at this opportune moment. She is a reporter at the San Francisco Tribune, and she has a job for Stewart: his first client.

The scene between Stewart and the man lettering his office door provides some humor, and the first scene between Lawrence and Stewart provides a bit more. Being short of cash isn’t the only reason Stewart is interested—at first—in Lawrence’s assignment. He is also attracted to her, as the following bit of dialogue shows:
Stewart: [leaning toward Lawrence] “I’m your man. I shadow, investigate, prove and disprove suspicion. And dance divinely. All at reasonable rates.”
Lawrence: “I can’t pay you a fee.”
Stewart: [sitting back] “This changes the picture.”

It seems, according to Lawrence, that a corrupt judge, Judge Finlay Drake, has disappeared, and someone has placed a reward for the judge’s return to justice. Lawrence wants to split the $10,000 reward with Stewart if he will only find the judge. She tells Stewart that Dr. Clifford Porter, once the state medical officer, runs La Siesta Sanitarium. Madge Bennett is the judge’s girlfriend, and Lawrence thinks Bennett is visiting the judge at the sanitarium.

(This blog post about Behind Locked Doors contains spoilers.)

Lawrence’s plan is to have Stewart pose as her husband so she can have him committed and moved into the sanitarium, and he can start his (their) investigation. Stewart refuses Lawrence’s offer at first. He won’t have himself committed to find the judge. But he changes his mind after tailing Madge Bennett to the sanitarium himself; now he knows that Lawrence has a solid lead for the investigation and the subsequent reward. Stewart can use that information as a basis for Lawrence’s trustworthiness. With his need for some cash and his attraction to Lawrence, Stewart has some additional incentive to pursue the investigation.

Stewart takes the name Harry Horton. He and Lawrence meet with Dr. J. R. Ball, state psychiatrist for the Department of Mental Hygiene. Lawrence describes Stewart’s (faked) symptoms, and Stewart is admitted to La Siesta Sanitarium after a brief interview (and no paperwork, or none that I could see; was this before the health insurance industry became such a goliath?).

Once Stewart is hospitalized, it becomes pretty clear that one of the sanitarium attendants, Larson, is hostile to all his peers and subordinates and to all the sanitarium patients. This is the narrative thread that reveals some social commentary about the conditions in the sanitarium. One of Stewart’s roommates, Purvis, warns Stewart: “. . . He’s [Larson is] the one you gotta watch around here. You came here to be cured? You’re more likely to be killed.”

Stewart begins to suspect that Judge Finlay Drake may be hiding in the locked ward of the sanitarium. When he asks Purvis about the locked ward, Purvis tells him:
A couple of violents are kept there all the time. Under restraint, they call it. Too much trouble to try and cure them with any kind of treatment Have you heard of the isolation room they’ve got there, too? Bare room. Padded walls. They throw you a blanket. You sleep on the floor. Oh, yes, this is a very high-class sanitarium. Fine care and treatment you get here. You pay extra well to be treated like a dog. [raising his voice until now he is shouting] Try to complain about it. Try and protest about anything and what do you get? I’ll tell you what you get. The extra special treatment . . . .
Larson arrives to drag Purvis out of the room—and thus proves Purvis’s point. When Purvis is brought back in the middle of the night, he is badly beaten.

Stewart’s questions and sneaking around don’t go unnoticed. Larson is quick to pick up on his movements. Stewart acknowledges to Lawrence during one of her visits to the sanitarium that confirming his suspicions about the judge’s whereabouts is getting more difficult—and more dangerous. Lawrence starts to worry more about Stewart’s safety than about the reward money and her newspaper story. Thus, the romance thread of the narrative isn’t a loose end after all: It seems that Stewart’s feelings for Lawrence are being reciprocated.

All of these elements—Stewart’s investigation, the hostile and dangerous conditions at the sanitarium (with its chances for social commentary), and the budding romance between Stewart and Lawrence—are vital parts of the plot. Nothing felt like it was added on for good measure. The two lead characters (Lawrence and Stewart) are allowed to develop enough so that they become sympathetic. Viewers find Stewart sympathetic in the way that he treats his fellow inmates at the sanitarium. He shows compassion, especially in contrast to Larson, who is supposed to be taking care of all of them. Kathy Lawrence may not see all of his good deeds in the sanitarium, but she falls for Stewart as she gets to know him better, and she is the one who comes to his aid when he needs help.

I didn’t know what to expect before I started watching Behind Closed Doors. In spite of all the classic films and films noir that I have watched, I didn’t recognize any of the actors’ names until I did an online search, so I had little chance to make any assumptions. It was a great way to see Behind Locked Doors for the first time. The screenplay was well written; I found the story absorbing. The plot has some surprises, too, which I always count as a plus. I enjoyed the film a whole lot more than I thought I would.