Even if it does nothing else, Too Late for Tears makes us consider why it is that we often feel such sympathy towards unapologetically dark characters. And I’m not talking about anti-heroes – I’m talking about cold-blooded, ruthless murderers. Why is it that though none of us would ever want to cross paths with (let alone stand in the way of) Jane Palmer (Lizabeth Scott), we still root for her? I found my heart leaping in anxiety as she was on the brink of being apprehended by the police, feeling more worried for her than her own face indicates. The film jumps into the story without preamble; a married couple, Jane and Alan Palmer are driving to a party given by their snobby rich friends when someone from a passing car tosses a bag full of money into their car by mistake. Alan rightly suspects that it is a blackmail case and wants to turn the money in to the police, but Jane coaxes him into keeping it. At dizzying speed, a non-stop thriller unfolds. Jane starts spending the money, gets involved with the man to whom it belongs, kills her husband, and falls deeper and deeper into crime. Lizabeth Scott gives a powerful performance, progressing from nervous and uncertain to cool and deadly confident. The first time she meets Danny (the man to whom the money was supposed to be paid), he threatens her and slaps her. She is visibly nervous, loses her composure, and lies badly. The last time she sees him, though, it is he who is afraid of her – despite the gun he has pointed at her – and asks her to just leave with the money. She coolly manipulates him into telling her whether or not the money is marked, then poisons him. Cruel, calculating, and cold, she nevertheless makes a believable and unnervingly sympathetic heroine, as the fear that can be glimpsed in her eyes assures the viewer that she is only human, and not as different from us as we would like.
One of the things that make Jane Palmer such a powerful femme fatale is not only her completely unapologetic cruelty (she does not even have the final moments of regret of Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon or Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity), but also the fact that she is a normal, middle-class housewife and ostensibly happily married. At the time when the middle class was just emerging and was supposed to be the symbol of family harmony, fertility, and moderate wealth, Jane Palmer offers a frightening commentary on the newly emerging class. A contemporary New York Times review said, “If proof be needed at this point that money is the root of all evil… then Too Late for Tears…is proof positive.” This, however, is an extremely shallow look at the film. When Alan tells Jane that the money is tearing them apart and changing them, she responds, “I haven’t changed, it’s the way I am.” Jane is profoundly dissatisfied with her lot in life. She laments their mortgages and down payments, and says “we weren’t hungry poor…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.” While Alan spends his time moralizing (“the money won’t buy you happiness, it’ll only make you miserable and unhappy”), it is hard to not share in Jane’s frustrations. How many times have we heard that line and not been able to believe it?
The relationship between Jane and Alan (and later Jane and Danny) displays a reversal of the traditional male/female onscreen relationship. Jane looks ahead and coolly plots what to do with the money, while Alan begs her to let him turn it over to the police. When they are driving away from a car chasing them, Jane takes the wheel and drives with lightning speed and precision until they eventually lose their pursuer, whereas, earlier in the evening, Alan could not control the car properly. In one scene, Alan even makes the typically female excuse of having “just a headache.” Although initially it seems that Danny is more than Jane’s match, using physical violence against her, she again assumes control in their relationship. Ironically, Danny says, “That’s just to remind you you’re in a tough racket now,” after he slaps her, not realizing that he is the one in the tough racket. Jane’s seduction of him is a business transaction; she is using her body to control him and eventually manipulate him to his doom. In the scene that I found most disturbing, Danny threatens to rape her and the typical romantic musical strain plays in the background as she kisses him. By the end, Danny is terrified of her because he realizes that she is capable of much worse than he is.
Jane fails in her role as the ideal housewife from the outset: she is dissatisfied with her husband, has no children, and has been previously married to a man who killed himself…because of her! In contrast to Jane is Alan’s sister, Katherine, who helps a supposed friend of Alan’s uncover Jane’s plot and walks off with him at the end to continue their blissful conjugal existence off-screen. The wholesome Katherine, the woman the viewer should conventionally be rooting for and the ideal of American womanhood, is unbearably boring and annoying compared to Jane. Katherine represents all that Jane undermines: happiness, femininity, yielding to a male character, and being utterly uninteresting. Too Late for Tears masterfully appeals to our dissatisfactions and frustrations, making us hope for the heartless femme fatale’s success rather than for the triumph of bland, traditional ideals.