The B-noirs of the 1940s often had a complicated relation to misogyny and femininity. On the one hand, these films produced spectacle by devising ever more ingenious and disingenuous femme fatales – women who would stop at nothing to have their way with unsuspecting or unscrupulous men. Yet the very fact of the femme fatale trope also gave these films license to experiment with female subjectivity more than mainstream releases, producing a canon of idiosyncratic female characters whose evil was a thinly veiled pretext for their autonomy. So it is with Too Late for Tears, which like so many of these B-pictures transformed the femme fatale from the essentially reactionary figure of classical noir to the central protagonist, building a vivid vision of the social factors constraining female independence in the process.
The woman in this case is Jane Palmer, played by Lizabeth Scott, who becomes the epicentre of a typically complicated and convoluted noir narrative. We first meet Jane with her husband Alan, played by Arthur Kennedy, when they are driving through the Hollywood Hills, on their way to a party. Out of sorts, Jane demands that they return home, and at the very moment that she grabs the wheel, a stranger throws a bag of money into their car, mistaking it for another vehicle. They’ve clearly intercepted a cash drop, since the stranger now pursues them, but they manage to elude him, and Jane convinces Arthur to hold onto the money for a couple of days, which he grudgingly agrees to do, concealing it in a locker at Union Station.
Jane then gets a knock on her door from Danny Fuller, played by Dan Duryea, who initially pretends to be a policeman, only to reveal that he was the person chasing her and Arthur in the Hollywood Hills. He reveals that the money came from an insurance scam, and demands it back, but Jane convinces him to go into business with her, before she kills her husband on the MacArthur Park Lake. Enter Arthur’s sister, Kathy, played by Kristine Miller, who lives across the hall from her brother and sister-in-law, and starts to become suspicious when her brother disappears (Jane weighs his body down and drops it to the bottom of the lake). Her suspicions are confirmed with the arrival of Don Blake, Arthur’s wartime buddy, played by Don DeFore, who immediately intuits that something is not right, and starts to scrutinise Jane.
As that complexity might suggest, Too Late for Tears is full of interlocking narrative threads and escalating patterns of suspicion, often recalling Hitchcock as the characters scrutinise each other, trying to make out their agendas – or if they have agendas. At one point, director Byron Haskin explicitly quotes Hitchcock’s Suspicion, when Jane kills Danny by putting poison in his milk, which Haskin shoots with the same brilliant luminosity as in Hitchcock’s film. You could say that Too Late for Tears finds a common denominator between Hitchcock and B-noir in their shared fascination with strong female characters – characters who deform normative Hollywood relationships into sightlines that fragment, distort and confound the viewer’s gaze.
In that sense, Too Late for Tears, like so many B-noirs, almost plays as a deconstruction of the noir impuse – a demonstration of what it would take for women to achieve independence on the big screen, and of why the femme fatale trope was ideologically necessary for mainstream Hollywood. First and foremost, Jane is a femme fatale because she yearns to be financially independent – she yearns for upward mobility and middle-class status whether or not she has a man at her side. Roy Huggins’ screenplay takes pains to emphasise that Jane is “white-collar poor,” rather than dirt-poor, which removes any semblance of pity, or martyrdom, and instead paints her as a regular woman who just hasn’t mediated her upward mobility through a man. This doesn’t mean that she can’t or won’t – what’s most heterodox about Jane is that she can go either way, since she’s more than happy to use a man if the opportunity presents itself, but equally capable of devising plans to secure capital and mobility on her own terms.
Jane’s willingness to extemporise around men, rather than totally embrace or reject them, captures the functionality of marriage more acutely than a more overtly reactionary femme fatale character could. This matter-of-fact approach to men causes a gender crisis that ripples out across the screenplay, starting with the first conversation that we see between women. Rather than talking about romance, or domesticity, or beauty, they talk about work, noting the “man-shortage,” but with a wry detachment that recalls James Naremore’s classic formulation of noir – as a sublimated fear of women entering the professional classes in the wake of World War II. For noir, working women are a harbinger of emasculation, and that fear is fulfilled here, as Jane shoots her own husband with his own gun, his most prized possession, and a relic of his service in WWII – the service that has opened up space for Jane’s autonomy.
However, the femme fatale here is not merely a woman who yearns for financial mobility, but for a more literal kind of spatial mobility. Watching a B-noir like Too Late for Tears makes you realise how rarely you see women, in films of this era, outside – let alone women acting by themselves, or taking on the role of the dominant party, when they’re outside. From the very start of Too Late for Tears, Haskin presents Jane as a flaneuse, adept at navigating Los Angeles by both car and foot. She possesses an intimacy with the city that can only come from extensive driving, and she coordinates the scenes that take place outside – most critically the scene in Westlake, where she kills her husband, and makes Danny complicit with her scheme.
Being a femme fatale thus means being a confident female driver – being prepared to take the wheel at a moment’s notice. The story only starts because Jane takes control of her husband’s car in the opening scene, while this is quickly followed with a second scene that reiterates the hierarchy of drivers within the American consciousness at this time. Upon returning home, Arthur chastises Jane for driving the car, only for their doorman, Pete, to speak deferentially to her about the garage, from a subservient low-angle position, when they exit their allocated parking berth. Pete is African-American, played by Smoki Whitfield, who isn’t even credited, and so these opening scenes reiterate that the stratification of American society is embedded in its automobile culture as well – white men are drivers, white women are passengers, black men are mechanics, and black women all but unthinkable in car culture.
While a white woman driver might not be the most radical possibility, it’s still sufficiently disruptive to open up precarious cusps between worlds that are typically compartmentalised, or excluded altogether, in Hollywood films of this era. As the script proceeds, this female mobility, or automobility, leads to increasingly vertiginous trajectories, and more liminal spaces – starting with the very first scene. Jane doesn’t just take over the wheel from Arthur, but careens crazily through the Hollywood Hills, almost crashing a couple of times, although this is paradoxically what makes her the best driver to contend with the chase after the cash drop. It’s her driving that gets them both into the bind, but it’s also her driving that has the best shot of getting them out of it, even if she eventually discards Arthur along the roadside.
No surprise, then, that Jane’s driving gets both crazier and more controlled as the film proceeds – a study in finely-tuned chaos. Midway through, she tries to lure Danny to his death by claiming she has discarded the cash in Coldwater Canyon, and he only realises the trap at the very last minute, leaping out of the car as she grinds to a chaotic halt in the middle of an intersection. Later on, she disposes of Arthur’s car by way of an all-night trip down the Californian coastline, eventually leaving it just south of San Diego, above the Mexican border, on a precipitous headland jutting out over the Pacific Ocean. As this scene suggests, Jane’s fluid automechanics increasingly split the difference between land and sea travel, melting surface streets into the Los Angeles highways that would emerge over the following decade. All her driving converges on Westlake, the cipher for these fluid highways, where she commands the oars as dexterously as the wheel, when she kills her husband out on the water.
Female automobility thus opens up another city – not just a city of nascent highways, but a city comprised of incipient simulations, a proto-postmodern city that defies modernist divsions of time and space. We learn, from Danny, that the money came from a scheme that involved taking out successive insurance policies on Los Angeles infrastructure so old that it was beyond any risk of collapse or decay. The scheme took the infrastructure of the city, and erected a second fantasmatic city upon it – a city comprised of capital and images, an economy of simulation, rather than the concrete coordinates maintained by the automotive hierarchies hinted at in the opening scenes of the film. Jane’s trajectory thereby becomes an exercise in what Fredric Jameson described as cognitive mapping – trying to negotiate a postmodern circulation of images as it intrudes upon more traditional conceptions of space.
It’s no coincidence that Jane leaves the money in the baggage claim at Union Station – the hub of Los Angeles’ public transit network, as well as the easiest line of flight from the city. Arthur leaves the ticket for the locker in his coat, and Danny ends up with the coat, meaning that Jane spends a significant amount of the film trying to track down the ticket and coat – trying to make her way back to Union Station via the enormous infrastructural and transportational sprawl that it anchors and assuages. At times, the film seems to be questioning whether Union Station can even function symbolically, as a hearth of the city, in the same way as (for example) Grand Central Station. Certainly, it’s the putative destination of the film, but it grows more dispersed and distended with each step that we take toward it.
In fact, Union Station only properly ramifies as a conceptual hub in the other subplot of the film, which sees Don Blake, Arthur’s wartime friend, take on the role of private investigator, as he tries to restore Arthur’s last movements with the help of Kathy, Arthur’s sister. The middle part of the film becomes a race between Jane and Don to get to the bag of cash at Union Station – a race for spatial control and command of the city. While Jane gets there first, Don also wins, in a way, since he’s able to broker this renewed masculine agency into the only normative romance in the film. He first kisses Kathy when he’s in the driver’s seat, one hand resting authoritatively on the wheel, momentarily restoring urban mapping as a male domain.
These assumptions about money and space as male domains also drive the investigative narrative that blooms in the second act of the film. While there are witnesses to the near-crash in Coldwater Canyon, the police all assume that it was Arthur in the car with another woman, since it’s inconceivable that Jane herself could have been driving so far from home. Even once they know Jane is the culprit, they can’t conceive she drove Arthur’s car to San Diego herself – they assume to the end that it was Danny – while their suspicions are first aroused after learning that Jane paid for the boat ride at Westlake, rather than her husband. Jane also uses these assumptions for her own advantage, imploring Danny to accompany her to Mexico, in the third act, because “a woman travelling alone would attract too much attention.” Her plea works, he lets his guard down, and she poisons him the very next second.
Since Jane’s automobility takes us into spaces that are off-grid, both spatially and ideologically, Haskin suffuses his tableaux with an additional murkiness whenever she takes control. We see this darkness, more than night, on the highway at the start, in the depths of Coldwater Canyon, on Braidwood when she meets Danny to drive him to Coldwater, and in the gloom that settles on Westlake when she takes her husband for that fatal boat ride. Yet Haskin also evokes a series of murky spaces beyond the visual purview of the film – spaces that are described, but never visualised, and perhaps not capable of being visualised, since they represent the outermost limit to this cognitive mapping project. Kathy first registers her distrust of Jane by describing a “darkness at the end of the hall” of their apartment complex – a darkness we never see. Similarly, we never really see the Pacific Ocean, when Jane dumps the car. Instead we sense it, intuit it, as a tactile darkness that the camera can’t fully process.
Of course, the darkest space in the film is the bottom of MacArthur Park Lake, where Arthur’s body remains submerged. So pervasive is this unseen space that it becomes synonymous with this extra-diegetic murk more generally, which in terms crystallises into three final set pieces. The first occurs en route to Mexico and is, paradoxically, the brightest scene so far. In a standalone encounter, Jane is pulled over on the side of the road by a police officer, who starts to scrutinise her license. At the same time, a cowboy pulls up, offering to provide her with an escort, but in an intrusive and eerie way. Everything is out in the open here, in a scene so thoroughly lit that it temporarily tips noir into soleil, and yet that just hints at something unspoken, a Lynchian hyperreality that turns this cowboy and police officer into a mere pair of film tropes, emissaries from a Los Angeles image economy that Jane has almost escaped.
This leads us to the second piece of murk – Mexico itself, which we register in the same way as the Pacific Ocean, as a tactile darkness (but even more so) outside Jane’s hotel. Finally, the bottom of MacArthur Park Lake returns again, but in an intensified way, as we learn that the lake will never be drained. Apparently, the police did once decide to drain it, years ago, but it was so prohibitively expensive that they vowed never to do it again, meaning that Arthur’s body is destined to rest there in perpetuity. However the film ends, and however much pressure Haskin might feel to “resolve” it, this murk will always remain haunted, unfinished.
As a result, there’s a dramatic dissonance between style and story at the end of the film. On the one hand Don, who claimed to be Arthur’s wartime friend, turns up in Mexico, and reveals that he is actually the brother of Jane’s former husband, who also died in mysterious circumstances. We see a neat reassertion of the traditional order, as Don, Jane’s former brother-in-law, ends up with Kathy, her former sister-in-law, effectively correcting the gender panic of the film and restoring marital equilibrium as Hollywood demanded it. Yet this ending is oddly hollow, weirdly token, in contrast to those murky spaces that resonate beyond the film’s immediate (or ostensible) purview – spaces that demand to be mapped, if only incompletely and inchoately, in ways that Haskin can only glimpse in the murkiest distance.