' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Too Late For Tears (1949)

Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Too Late For Tears (1949)

There is nothing more quintessentially American than a briefcase chock full of cold hard cash. It is because, I imagine, America fancies itself the land of opportunity, the nation that from sea to shining sea believes in new starts and second chances. It is also because, I imagine, America is strictly business, capitalistic through and through, and cash goes hand in hand with new starts and second chances. You can't have one without the other.


It's why the briefcase of money is such a staple of the cinema. It's all you need to set a plot in motion. We didn't need any backstory on Josh Brolin's Llewellyn Moss in "No Country For Old Men" to understand why he goes to such absurd lengths to keep his desperate paws on that cashed-up suitcase. No, a simple "yeah" upon seeing the stacks and stacks of green laid out before him provided all the necessary motivation. Of course, he'd risk his life and wife's life and his mother-in-law's life for it. What choice did he have? IT WAS A BRIEFCASE FULL OF MONEY! We weren't surprised in "A Simple Plan" when Bridget Fonda's Sarah Mitchell responds in the negative to her spouse's supposed hypothetical query of whether she would keep a gym bag of Ben Franklins upon finding it only to pivot in an instant when she actually sees a gym bag of Ben Franklins poured onto the kitchen counter in front of her. After all, it'd buy a ton of groceries.

There is something different about Jane Palmer (Lizabeth Scott, frankly terrifying), however, something more expectant, something more entitled. As "Too Late For Tears" (also known as "Killer Bait") opens she and her husband Alan (Arthur Kennedy) are driving somewhere she doesn't want to go, arguing about it, signaling tension in the marriage, when another car roars by and hurls a briefcase chock full of cold hard cash into their backseat. Seems it's intended for someone else, for Danny (Dan Duryea), who gives chase, but the second that Jane sees what's in that case she gets this smile like Sharon Stone in "Casino" sizing up some millionaire yokel at the craps table and turns into Ryan Gosling in "Drive" and takes the wheel and guns the engine. That's her money now, see, the gods of get-rich having finally answered her many, many prayers.

The story that follows in director Byron Haskin's noir, which was written by Roy Huggins which he adapted from his own serial for the Saturday Evening Post, is as sinister as a noir night is darkly unyielding, the emotional temperature of its protagonist growing positively more frigid with each passing scene. There is a moment tilted toward the beginning when her hubby, struggling to understand her financial cravings, opines that he tried his hardest to give her what she wanted, she scoffs: "All you ever gave me were twelve down payments and intallments for life." Uff da. It suggests the film's yearning to comment on the ancient chasm between the rich and the poor, but "Too Late For Tears" doesn't really have the gumption to explore that angle. Instead it's an arresting, mind-quaking thriller in which Jane is the jarring anti-hero and greed is the femme fatale.


Danny, the ne'er-do-well to whom the case belongs, inevitably comes calling for it, and plays the obligatory part of a 1950's sexist to the hilt, slapping Jane a few times when he doesn't get answers he likes and incessantly calling her "tiger." He means that ironically, of course, but the joke's on him because as the film progresses he's revealed as a paper tiger, a weak-kneed alcoholic who gets out-toughed and out-foxed by the woman he simply assumed assumed was his prey. To balance out the plethora of hard-heartedness, Huggins' screenplay turns Alan's sister, Kathy (Kristine Miller), conveniently living across the hall from his brother and her wife, into the angel-hearted opposition of Jane's cool reign of terror. Her ally becomes a purported old Air Force buddy of Alan, one Don Blake, played by my late Iowa homeboy Don DeFore, with an awesome kind of aweshucks disquisitiveness, his real motives under wraps.

He labels himself a "white knight" which I was suppose makes Jane the black knight, and yet it is still hard not to be reeled into her spectacularly selfish plight, not from empathy but from squeamish self-realization. It's difficult not to think, deep down in those places we only talk about at smoky bars in Acapulco, that if that briefcase full of cold hard cash landed in our backseat that we wouldn't get hyrdogen psychosis and do the same damn thing.

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