Enterprising Women and the Femme Fatale of Film Noir
'Too Late for Tears' and 'Woman on the Run' remind us that today's financial and gender anxieties have long histories.
Too Late for TearsDirector: Byron Haskin
Cast: Lizabeth Scott, Arthur Kennedy, Don DeFore, and Dan Duryea
Distributor: Flicker Alley
US Release Date: 2016-05-10
Woman on the RunDirector: Norman Foster
Cast: Ann Sheridan, Dennis O’Keefe, and Robert Keith
Distributor: Flicker Alley
US Release Date: 2016-05-10
For roughly the past ten years there has been something of a renaissance in film noir with the yearly arrival of major box sets initiated by Warner’s Film Noir Classic Collection in 2004. Gems like Gun Crazy (1949), Out of the Past (1947), Crossfire (1947), Clash by Night (1952), and Kiss Me Deadly (1955) have slid out of the shadows into newly restored versions brimming with crisp imagery and deepened chiaroscuro lighting.
After the release of the canonical films, a whole host of more obscure film noirs -- like Decoy (1946), The Sniper (1952), Crime in the Street (1956), and Murder by Contract (1958) -- have followed where threadbare budgets, recycled plots, and bit actors attempting to resuscitate their careers predominated. The films’ minimalist titles sensationalize in the most economic manner their pulp appeal. In many ways, these are the more representative noirs that were churned out by poverty row studios by the dozens in a desperate bid to strike gold with a surprise hit, thereby resuscitating its production company for at least another year and warding off the big sleep. They also offer a fuller account of the variations of themes and styles -- identified by film critics and film scholars -- that wove themselves throughout the more well-known noirs.
The UCLA Film & Television Archive recently teamed-up with The Film Noir Foundation and Flicker Alley to restore and distribute what were considered two lost film noirs: Too Late for Tears and Woman on the Run. Sadly, like the fate of many B-made noirs, opaque ownership rights and lost prints made them difficult, if not impossible, to screen. But due to the dedicated sleuthing and perseverance of those involved with the Film Noir Foundation and the UCLA Archive, the prints were miraculously reconstructed from various 16 mm, 35 mm, and videotaped prints.
Not surprisingly, since gender anxiety runs deep throughout much of film noir, women play central roles in each film. Its films often refract male unease over women’s newly independent role as breadwinner during World War II and the changing conditions of the American family that followed. “The institution of the family,” film scholar Sylvia Harvey observes, “serves as the vehicle of expression of frustration” (“Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir”, in Movies and Mass Culture, 172).
Too Late for Tears starts with a marital spat in a car careening down a winding dark road as Jane Palmer (Lizabeth Scott) demands that her husband, Alan (Arthur Kennedy), turn the car around since she doesn’t want to be patronized by the wife of the couple they are going to visit. Woman on the Run orbits around the deteriorating marriage of Eleanor and Frank Johnson (Ann Sheridan and Ross Elliott). Frank goes missing relatively early in the pic. Although part of his motivation to flee centers around his fear of having to testify over a gangland murder he witnessed, another strongly implied reason is that he simply seeks freedom from his wife’s constant harping and chilly demeanor.
Too Late for Tears offers the more brutal and politically reactionary plot that portrays Jane Palmer as greed incarnate, the insane ends of when a depressed housewife takes her struggle of “keeping up with the Joneses” to an extreme. As Jane explains to her husband after randomly coming across $60k, “You can’t let me get rid of that money... I’ve been waiting for it, dreaming of it all my life, even when I was a kid, and it wasn’t because we were poor, not hungry poor, at least. I suppose in a way it was worse. 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.” When Alan retorts that he has tried to make her happy, she dismisses his attempts as economically feeble, nothing more than “life on the installment plan”.
The film uniquely draws to the forefront the linked gender and economic anxieties that plagued post-war white, middle-class families when women had proven themselves capable of working and earning a living during their men’s absence. Who exactly was the breadwinner now?
The film stresses the general malaise that surrounded a life entombed within the home for women. It's largely shot indoors with extremely sparse interiors so that the Palmer’s home looks unlived in, lacking the clutter and mess that accompanies daily life. It has the anonymity of a hotel room, of two people passing rather than sharing a space and a life.
The minimal camera movements throughout the film further punctuate the stasis and claustrophobia that defines the Palmer’s life together. Jane’s disaffected way of speaking further gives her the appearance of constantly being doped up on Quaaludes to deal with the daily misery and boredom that defines her life. She needs to escape, and she will do so by any means necessary.
Dan Druyea reprises his stock role as resident scumbag that he had perfected in earlier films like Scarlet Street (1945) and Manhandled (1949) with the character of Danny Fuller, a two-bit crook who is searching for his missing $60k. His slick-backed hair, smarmy tone, and penchant to slap women all suggest a pathetic loser attempting to get revenge on a world that he believes has wronged him from the start.
Yet when Danny encounters Jane, he realizes that he has finally met his match. His mere thieving and conniving skills are no contest against Jane’s cold-blooded instincts to eliminate all who obstruct her path to freedom. Yet despite his self-awareness of the danger Jane represents to him, he cannot help but be drawn to her, attracted to her very vileness that far exceeds his own until she finally poisons him by mixing him a drink at film’s end.
Danny’s death is probably the best acting Druyea had ever delivered, since counter to expectations, one feels some sympathy for him. Jane comes across him drunk, unshaven, and disheveled in his apartment with a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray. His conscience has actually gotten the best of him for assisting Jane obtain poison to kill Alan’s sister. Although he remains wary of Jane, he nonetheless can’t help but being drawn to her again. She is the unobtainable score -- the beautiful, ice cold blonde always just outside of his grasp, not unlike the $60k he heisted.
Succumbing to Jane’s assurance that she wants to take him to Mexico with her, he drunkenly toasts, “Here’s to crime. It pays and pays.” He smiles at her as he drinks his cocktail until realizing that she has poisoned it. His expression deteriorates into a scowl as he slowly stumbles towards her, each step his seemingly last. It's the expression of a condemned man, someone who has been beaten, not just physically but emotionally. Regardless of whether he lives or dies, Jane has left him the shell of the sleaze he once was.
Woman on the Run (1950)
Woman on the Run is the more sophisticated of the films both in terms of character development and aesthetics. According to one of the DVD extras, Ann Sheridan sunk a good deal of money into the picture to become its co-producer in the hopes of creating better parts for herself that were sorely lacking at her old studio Warner Bros. She paid Warner $35k to get out of her contract in order to help found Fidelity Pictures, the production company of Woman on the Run. The results show in the film.
Unlike most women in film noirs, Eleanor Johnson (Ann Sheridan) has depth. Although she initially seems like a fast-talking, wise-cracking callous wife, we learn that despite her estranged marriage with her husband, Frank (Ross Elliott), she is willing to work at rekindling their relationship. On the surface, Eleanor is simply on the hunt for Frank to get him his heart medication, which he will die without taking. But as her search continues, she learns that the clues Frank leaves her are to remind her about the good times they had together and his desire to reconnect. Contrary to the trajectory of most film noirs where familial life rapidly disintegrates from bad to worse, Woman on the Run suggests the ways in which a marriage might be worth saving.
Furthermore, Sheridan’s acting makes Eleanor a complicated character. Her hard exterior suggests in part a defense mechanism for a woman who has been hurt in her relationship. But rather than having her attitude completely thaw out in a somewhat stereotypical fashion to reveal an effusive and compliant wife underneath as she learns of Frank’s love for her, Eleanor still maintains a certain coolness and acerbic wit about her. Sheridan holds both sides of Eleanor in tension -- her love for her husband and the wit and savvy of the typical femme fatale. Yet rather than trying to kill her husband, in a unique fashion, she is attempting to save him and their marriage in the process.
This complicating of characters extends to the film’s minor ones, like the Chinese-American pair of Sammy (Victor Sen Yung) and Suzie (Reiko Sato). First of all, the film actually has Asian actors playing Asian parts rather than employing yellow face, which was still typical of Hollywood at the time. Furthermore, the characters speak slang English like all of the Anglos in the film, not some orientalist pidgin English. Their language use suggests their assimilation to American values and similarity to the main characters even though they live and work in Chinatown. Sammy and Suzie are not in the film to serve as sidekicks or the butt of the joke, but actually have a genuine relationship with Eleanor. Ultimately, one of Sam’s observations allows the police to identify the killer of the film.
Unlike Too Late for Tears’ claustrophobia and quiescence of being shot indoors with a static camera, Woman on the Run is largely shot on the streets of San Francisco, capturing the distinct flair of the city with a highly mobile camera. The film announces its stylized approach with its opening sequence: a high angle camera shot looks down upon a man walking his dog along a cement stairway that climbs up from dark city streets where car headlights float over rain-slicked streets. A sense of dread summons itself as we watch Frank Johnson unwittingly walking into the maw of unknown danger. The camera spins around him as he approaches the stair’s top to then offer his point-of-view shot of witnessing a murder.
The fluid camerawork is reminiscent of Orson Welles, most notably seen in the opening track shot of his 1958 classic A Touch of Evil. Not surprisingly, director Norman Foster studied under Welles and directed Welles earlier in Journey Into Fear (1943). Working in conjunction with seasoned cinematographer Hal Mohr who had been director of photography on classics like The Jazz Singer (1927), A Midsummer’s Night Dream (1935), and Destry Rides Again (1939), Foster had the technical help to make his unique vision possible.
The film’s ending is nothing less than a visual and audio tour de force. Eleanor remains trapped on a roller coaster as she watches the killer approach her missing husband beneath her. Eleanor’s jolting point-of-view shots through wooden tracks are accompanied by a tracking, close-up of Dan Legget (Denis O’Keefe) stoically walking to execute Frank. This cuts to Frank waiting calmly alone, vulnerable. It's an innovative use of parallel editing to create suspense and excitement.
Yet on top of this, the soundtrack becomes a layered cacophony of carnival music, the shrill laughter of a mechanical woman, the loud rumbling of the roller coaster, and Eleanor’s shouts to warn her husband. It efficiently suggests the internal psychological chaos that consumes Eleanor as she nears witnessing her husband’s death.
Out of the two films, A Woman on the Run is a rare gem that establishes complex characters and an engaging visual choreography in its mere 80-minute running time. Furthermore, it upends much of the sexism that undergirds much film noir by making a multidimensional female character its lead. Although Eleanor might at first seem to share Jane’s superficiality and emotional distance, the film quickly suggests much more is roiling beneath her surface and hints at alternative paths that film noir might have taken during it classic heyday.
Unfortunately, at the time, both films were flops. United Artists, their distributor, tended to neglect its distribution of films not made by it. So Too Late for Tears and Woman on the Run quickly coasted into obscurity for decades. But with the care of The Film Noir Foundation and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, they have been restored and make one wonder what other film noirs might be unearthed in the future. Although the extras are rather scant, the five-minute extra on each DVD accounting for the restoration of the film are informative of the immense efforts taken to bring these films back to life.
If anything, film noirs such as these remind us that the financial and gender anxieties that might seem unique to early 21st century life have much longer histories and suggest that any appeal to an ideal past, particularly the supposed golden age of post-war America, had its attendant horrors always lurking just beneath the surface.