Categories
Mystery/Noir

Too Late for Tears

I’ve recommended I Walk Alone, a 1948 gangster melodrama directed by Byron Haskin with Lizabeth Scott and Kristen Miller in supporting parts and Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in the leads. The following year, the first three of those talented people re-teamed to make Too Late for Tears. This time around, men move to the back of the room to make space for the women characters, the noir elements are much more pronounced, and the script offers a more tightly constructed and cleverly plotted story. The result is an even better movie, indeed a treasure of the film noir canon.

The plot has so many surprises that it’s hard to summarize without spoliers, so I will confine myself to the set up. The Palmers are driving down a lonely, winding canyon road. Alan Palmer is a straightforward, true blue type who loves and trusts his wife (or so it seems…). Jane Palmer has been married before to a man who committed suicide (apparently…) and complains that she is tired of not having enough money. But she is so happy to have Arthur as her husband that she doesn’t mind that he isn’t rich (or so she says…). And then, a miracle. Another car throws a suitcase full of kale into their back seat and then drives away without explanation. Clearly some mistake has been made and they ought to go to the police, but it’s so so tempting to keep so so much money. And then they see another car pursuing them: Is it driven by the person who was supposed to receive the payoff that has landed in their lap?

To reveal more would be an injustice. Roy Huggins, who later went on to TV Hall of Famedom for The Rockford Files and The Fugitive, deserves roses for his ingeniously plotted script. It keeps the viewer guessing (usually, wrong) and ties up all the loose ends in a satisfying conclusion.

Kristine Miller, as the sister-in-law who has never really trusted Jane Palmer, has some wonderful scenes with Scott where they are pleasant on the surface but clearly jousting underneath. I find it strange that the alluring and talented Miller never became a star, but she said in late life that in the end Producer Hal Wallis “didn’t know what to do with her”. That’s a shame, because with the right vehicle she could have captured the public’s imagination in way she ultimately did not in the 1940s and 1950s.

The male supporting players, Arthur Kennedy as Alan Palmer, Dan Duryea as a slimy grifter and Don DeFore as a man with mysterious motives, turn in solid performances. And Haskins, in contrast to I Walk Alone, seems in full command from the director’s chair, partly no doubt due to experience and partly because he has a stronger storyline this around.

But this movie is first and foremost dominated by Lizabeth Scott, in a knockout performance. She had an unusual life in film. She looks and sounds like a cross between Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall, and indeed was packaged as a Bacall-type by Hal Wallis. She spent almost her entire career making crime melodramas and film noirs in the 1940s (the fine picture Dead Reckoning with Humphrey Bogart being the mostly widely remembered). And then in the 1950s her career swooned, perhaps because the tabloid press reported that she was a lesbian (Ms. Scott, who lived until 2015, shunned publicity for over a half-century, so her view of what happened remains unknown).

I criticized her somewhat stilted performance in I Walk Alone, but I can do nothing but praise her tour-de-force in Too Late for Tears. She owns the screen, in one of a handful of movies made right after the war that was willing to put a tough woman at the center of the story (for another, see my review of Strange Impersonation). In her words, expressions and physical movements, Scott brings alive a femme fatale of hidden motives, craftiness and tough-as-nails pursuit of money. She’s a nasty, manipulative piece of work such that when a tough male actor like Dan Duryea is clearly shocked and repulsed about how much more brutal she is than he ever could be, the audience nods along, mouth agape.

Comparing this film to I Walk Alone is a good way to learn about the nature of film noir. Although I Walk Alone is often mentioned in books about the genre and Too Late for Tears is not, the latter is a much more fully realized example of the style. Look for example at the washed out set design in the Palmers’ apartment and the lighting and camerawork in Scott’s scenes with Duryea. The bleak view of human nature and the number of characters trapped by irresistible, bad impulses are also defining features of what is probably the most completely developed style of American film (Even though, of course, its precursors are European). Why Too Late for Tears isn’t mentioned in the same breath with other noir classics is a mystery to me, because it ranks with the very best of the genre.

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

I Walk Alone

4 Movies Starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas had remarkably parallel careers. They both made their first film in 1946, quickly became huge international stars, and maintained their cinematic dominance for decades. Both were handsome, athletic men who were also intelligent enough to play parts with nuance and depth. Both ultimately broke away from the studio system to become independent producers. And last but not least, they made seven films together, the first of which is the 1948 crime melodrama I Walk Alone.

The story commences with Frankie Madison (Lancaster) getting out of the joint after a 14 year stretch. He was arrested for bootlegging with Noll “Dink” Taylor (Douglas), but Taylor eluded the cops, never did any hard time and indeed never even bothered to visit Frankie in prison. Frankie’s old friend Dave (Wendell Corey, in a quietly effective performance), who has stayed true to him, is under Dink’s thumb as the bookkeeper of his swanky nightclub. Frankie feels entitled to half of the club, but Dink isn’t feeling generous. Dink sends his moll, a singer in the club (Lizabeth Scott) to sweet-talk Frankie; he’s lost interest in her anyway because he wants to marry a blue blood (a sultry and perfectly bitchy Kristine Miller) who will secure his place among the posh people.

The emotional power of the film comes from the conflict between Frankie and Dink. Lancaster’s Frankie is a pacing, rough cut ex-con who would like nothing better than to slug it out. Douglas’ Dink is all suaveness and reassurance, an oleaginous modern businessman who claims to have left the world of guns and fists. This contrast produces the best scene in the movie, in which Lancaster shows up with some thugs to take over the club by force, and Douglas humiliates him by explaining that because of multiple holding companies and escrow agreements, there is nothing to take over (without a vote of the board and amendment of the by laws of course). As Dink himself says, Frankie is a dinosaur, unable to cope with the realities of the modern world. But Dink still fears him enough to commit a terrible crime and frame his former pal as the culprit.

There are some flaws in this film. It was Byron Haskin’s first directorial outing, and he doesn’t seem in full control of the material. He got much better later, for example in another of my recommendations, Treasure Island. This isn’t Lizabeth Scott’s best work either. She seems one-note off in I Walk Alone, for a reason I cannot guess (Bad direction from Haskin, maybe). Charles Schnee was a great script writer (The Bad and the Beautiful, starring Kirk Douglas, being one of his gems). His script here includes some pungent dialogue but the story drags at times, particularly in the second half. But no matter what slow spots intrude on the viewer’s enjoyment, the film always roars back to life as soon as the two lions of post-war cinema are tussling on the screen again.

As a note on the actors, this was the fourth film for both men and they apparently spent little time with each other off-screen. Their friendship/rivalry was to blossom much later during the making of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. About 10 years ago, I had the good fortune to hear from Douglas’ own lips that the rivalry was largely a studio and trade press invention, when in reality they had always been good friends. But who knows or cares? Whatever their personal relationship was like off screen, they were a terrific duo onscreen.

Categories
Action/Adventure British

Treasure Island

Yarrrrrrrrrr! Movie pirates didn’t have heavy West Country accents before Robert Newton’s famous turn as Long John Silver in the 1950 version of Treasure Island. Disney’s first-ever live action film is aimed squarely at school age boys, but is also pleasant for grown-ups to revisit on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The film’s production values hold up well even 60 odd years on, and, while even older, R. L. Stevenson’s 1883 story (with some amendments) retains its charm and excitement even for modern audiences.

The story opens with young Jim Hawkins tending the bar in his mother’s inn (She herself nor any other significant female character appears in the film, so we are truly in boyland here). In comes Black Dog, a menacing Pirate in search of Captain Billy Bones, who is hiding out at the inn. After Black Dog leaves, Billy Bones gives young Jim a treasure map and tells him to flee before the pirates return. Jim confides in two honorable adults, Squire Trelawny and Dr. Livesy. Our heroes set sail in search of pirate treasure, not realizing that the old sea dog they have hired as the cook is the dread Long John Silver, and most of the crew are his own bloodthirsty band of brigands! Thems that die’ll be the lucky ones, arrrrhh!!! Adventure, thrills and some welcome moments of humor and humanity ensue.

Treasure Island - Is Treasure Island on Netflix - FlixList

The emotional heart of the film are Long John Silver (Robert Newton) and Jim Hawkins (Bobby Driscoll). The good adults led by Squire Trelawny are uniformly noble and brave, the pirates (other than Long John) are uniformly nasty and craven. With that as a flat background, Silver and Hawkins really come to life. Long John is the only adult of complex character in the story, being in some ways cunning and greedy but in other respects moral and kind. And because Jim is the only character who travels between the worlds of the oh-so-good-heroes and the oh-so-evil pirates, he becomes a finely shaded character too, particularly as he learns to appreciate that his sometimes-friend Silver is neither a thoroughgoing villain nor a worthy role model.

Newton’s flavourful acting makes this film hum and is worthy of admiration. A less professional actor would have condescended to only a half-hearted or one-dimensional performance, seeing a “children’s film” as beneath him. But Newton goes all in, bless his cotton socks. He will likely always be cinema’s iconic Long John Silver and Silver will certainly always be his most famous role even though he turned in many strong performances in his career (e.g., as Bill Sykes in David Lean’s fine adaptation of Oliver Twist). Newton never makes Silver so evil that the audience can just hate him outright (as hammier actors have in other adaptations of Stevenson’s novel), but neither does he minimize the cruel aspects of the character that make him scary and thereby provide much of the tension of the story.