A couple is driving along a desert highway when a bag loaded full of cash is tossed into the back of their convertible by a passing motorist. They’re a pair of everyday nobodies and yet this single act of fate throws their entire existence into chaos. Of course, it gets a little leg up thanks to Jane Palmer (Lizabeth Scott) as she takes the wheel to get away with the cash, convincing her husband Alan (Arthur Kennedy) that they hold onto the payload for awhile. Finally, he relents and leaves the briefcase in a Union Station locker.
It’s a tad of an unbelievable scenario but that’s what makes it so exhilarating as Lizabeth Scott plays all parties involved using her doe eyes and feminine wiles to great effect like the foremost of femme fatatles that she is. And the fact that she does it both unwittingly and with willful intent is crucial to her turn for the very fact that it creates the seesaw of emotions.
There’s a certain sense of ambiguity because we begin to invest in her story and like her in one sense, while simultaneously distrusting her motives that seem mostly driven by avarice more than anything else. There’s also this extraordinary quality about her where she somehow manages to look young and feel old all at the same time thanks to her memorable baritone. It’s a bit unsettling.
The next important figure is Danny Fuller, Dan Duryea donning one of his sleazeball roles as a drunk who nevertheless has a bit of a sympathetic side at least put up against the acerbic poison of Lizabeth Scott. She’s the epitome of that long-held expression that greed is the root of all evil. If she didn’t write the book on it, she at least tore through its pages voraciously. Initially badgered by Danny for swiping the payoff he believes is rightfully his, she soon has him roped into her plan. It’s almost too much for the cad to bear. He calls her “Tiger” sardonically at first but he doesn’t realize how right he is.
But the most interesting setup in the narrative are the contrasting couples and they might not pair up the way you first expect with Arthur Kennedy getting the short end of the stick. He starts out happily married and winds up out of the picture.
There’s the rapacious Jane matched with Danny boy as they both feed into each other with their distrust and vices. Then you have the ever-present “Good Girl” or guardian angel, Alan’s sister, Kathy (Kristine Miller), a sensible, prepossessing young woman who only begins to distrust Jane as circumstances become more and more strained.
Meanwhile, Alan’s old war buddy (Don DeFore) comes a calling on his old pal and finds himself spending time with the man’s sister instead. But they become our necessary counterpoints to balance out the film’s more corrupt characters.
The final reveal that we’ve been waiting for arrives and it spells the end of Jane’s charade as she’s brought tumbling down. But as noir has a habit of doing, it manages to paint a bit of a happy ending against this dark backdrop with Kathy and Don winding up with each other and a shoulder to lean on. Still, that final image cannot quite downplay all the deceit and murder that has gone down up until now.
Too Late for Tears resonates thanks to a pair of incomparable sordid performances by Scott and Duryea. Miller and DeFore make a lovely couple but it’s the moneygrubbing ones who make this a true noir delight because they represent the incorrigible vices often found in humanity. That’s a lot more fun in the movies.