Too Late for Tears (1949)

Too_Late_for_Tears_DVDA 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.

3.5/5 Stars

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

strangelove1“I don’t like anybody pushing me around. I don’t like anybody pushing you around. I don’t like anybody getting pushed around.”  Van Heflin as Sam Masterson

Lewis Milestone never quite eclipsed the heights of All Quiet on the Western Front. Still, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is brimming with some engaging performances. Although it is, at times, more of a  melodrama than noir, there is still merit in Robert Rossen’s script. When it does not falter with didacticism, the film has a certain twisted, deep-seated emotion that runs through it. Barbara Stanwyck is the one at the center of it all, as the title suggests.

The film begins in 1928 with three children. The assumption is that these three individuals will become of greater importance later on. After that fateful evening, one would be left without any family, one would leave for good, and one would be left in the perfect position to rise up the ranks. These opening moments boasts spiraling staircases, thunder, the pounding orchestration of Miklos Rozsa, and a complete gothic set-up.

strangelove317 or 18  years later a full-grown Sam Masterson (Van Heflin) decides to return to his old stomping grounds, Iverstown, on a whim. He’s surprised to learn that the “little scared boy on Sycamore street” is now District Attorney (Kirk Douglas). And he’s now married to Martha Ivers (Stanwyck). She and Sam had something going long ago, but he’s all but forgotten it by now. He’s made a living as a gambler who has a pretty handy dandy coin trick, but really Heflin’s character could be anything.

He meets a sultry, smoky-voiced Lizabeth Scott with the pouting face. For those unfamiliar, I would liken her to a Lauren Bacall-type, although she was less well-known and ultimately got typecast in noir roles. Here Scott’s “Toni” Marachek is an often despondent woman who just got out on probation.

strangelove2We don’t actually see Barbara Stanwyck’s face until 30 minutes into the film, but it doesn’t matter. She as well as Kirk Douglas (in his screen debut), leave an impression right off the bat. They are a married couple alright, but she seems to hold the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. All her power is propping him up as he makes his political rise. Perhaps there’s more going on here, however.

From its outset, Martha Ivers looks to be a tale with two threads that slowly begin to intertwine, bringing together some old pals and acquainting some new ones. When Sam wanders into the lives of Martha and Walter O’Neil, it’s putting it lightly that they’re taken aback. The district attorney is good at putting on a face for an old boyhood chum. His wife, on the other hand, is not about to hide her excitement in seeing her old flame.

However, they both think he has an agenda, misreading the twinkle in his eye as intent to blackmail, for a payoff after what he saw all those years ago. But that’s just it. Only we know that he didn’t see anything. Martha Ivers slips up, caught between love, hate, and a suffocating life. She has so much power and yet so little. So much affection and yet so much bitterness.

strangelove5Honestly, although Stanwyck is our leading lady, it’s quite difficult to decide whose film this really is. Van Heflin and Barbara Stanwyck are at its core, but then again, Scott and Douglas do a fine job trying to upstage them. There’s a polarity in the main players, meaning Stanwyck and Heflin have the power, and the other two are the subservient man and woman respectively. However, the film really becomes a constant tug-of-war. Douglas is not just a spineless alcoholic. There’s an edge to him. Scott seems like a softy and yet there’s an incongruity between her persona and that prison rap that hangs over her. Heflin seems like the one relatively straight arrow because as we find out, Stanwyck is fairly disturbed. She’s no Phyllis Dietrichson and that becomes evident in yet another climatic conflict involving a gun. But she’s still demented, just in a different way.

3.5/5 Stars

Pitfall (1948)

4ac39-pitfall2In Italy Pitfall‘s title was translated to Tragedy in Santa Monica. And that it is, but it plays out as a typical, everyday tragedy. It is far from Shakespearian. John Forbes (Dick Powell) is sorely tired of the monotony of his life: A wheel within a wheel within a wheel so to speak. And he is tired of being the so-called “backbone of the country” employed at Olympic Mutual Insurance Company.

He has a steady job and all, a beautiful, loving wife (Jane Wyatt), and a cute little son Tommy. He’s your prototypical middle-class man from your typical middle-class family. That’s what’s wrong with his life. To put it plainly he’s in a rut and desperately wants to get out.

Pitfall is a  bit of a riff off of Double Indemnity. There is some of the same framework but very different variables and outcomes, so that’s enough comparison.

Things get interesting when Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott) comes into the picture. She is a model with a boyfriend who was just recently put into prison for embezzlement. Now Forbes’ company is charged with getting back some valuables from Stevens and she gives them up willingly. Along the way, a hired private investigator named Mac (Raymond Burr) takes a liking for her, but the feelings are not reciprocated. That’s before she meets Forbes.

When they meet, Forbes is immediately struck by her and she takes a liking to his goodwill. Everything would be great in another world. Except in the real world, Forbes is married and Mac is jealous. After he gets accosted by Mac, Mona finds out about her fling’s home life. Surprisingly she lets him off the hook, but Mac won’t let her off.

Forbes’ overall demeanor changes and he feels reinvigorated, even back at home and in the office. But it’s never that simple, and things begin to get messy as Smiley finally gets his ticket out of the clink. Mac has been his constant visitor, filling the paranoid brute with ideas. He thinks Mona has been unfaithful, and he wants to get the guy she was with.

The ending of Pitfall is far more painful than a multitude of meaningless deaths in a monster movie. The reason being, these characters actually have some importance. There is a sense that human life is sacred and if anyone dies it is a big deal, whether they were “good” or “bad.”

Furthermore, there are hardly words enough to describe the look on Jane Wyatt’s face when she finds out the truth. This is one instance when the father did not know best, and their marriage was shaken to the core. It feels all too real. However, this film’s denouement is not quite as fatalistic as Double Indemnity. There still is a tinge of hope that these two individuals can salvage something out of a very difficult situation.

This is yet another feather in the cap of film-noir. So simple and yet so potently effective. I cannot wait for more with Dick Powell.

3.5/5 Stars