Friday, February 6, 2015

Lizabeth Scott: The Sad-Eyed Queen of Film Noir

(top: Liz Scott as sex siren in a publicity shot for Dead Reckoning; bottom: as the girl next door in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers)

Lizabeth Scott, the Queen of Film Noir, has died in Los Angeles at the age of 92.

As long as there are movie geeks, there will be a debate over who most deserves the title of Queen of Noir. Barbara Stanwyck is most often given the crown, followed by Marie Windsor, and occasionally Clare Trevor. I mean no disrespect when I say that as great as those women are, they are not the Queen. Neither is Audrey Totter, Ava Gardner, or Anne Savage. Each of these actors is invaluable. They are movie goddesses who will, in all likelihood, live on for years and years as silvery dreams projected in the dark. But there is only one Queen: Lizabeth Scott.

Why is she the Queen? Well, first of all, she starred in more noirs than nearly anyone. It depends on what you choose to label noir, but by my count Scott made at least twelve certifiable noirs. There are a handful of other films you might add to that count. Anyway you slice it, that’s a lot of time to spend in the City of Perpetual Darkness. Consider, too, the list of noir icons she worked with: Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Barbara Stanwyck, Edmond O'Brien, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Dick Powell, Raymond Burr, Van Heflin, Mary Astor, Jane Greer, Dennis O'Keeffe, and on and on. It seems like everyone who passed through Noirville stayed a night at Liz's house.

More important than the quantity of her work, however, is the quality of it. She could do everything--and did. Achingly lovely and unbelievably husky-voiced, most of the time there’s something wounded and likable about her. In her first noir (only her second film) THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS
 she’s the good girl to Stanwyck’s psycho femme fatale. She played the nice gal role well, and in films like DARK CITY and I WALK ALONE she soldiered on as sweet, brokenhearted nightclub singers. Occasionally, she was cast as a conniving vixen, as she was opposite Bogart in the awful DEAD RECKONING, but her best performances are marked by ambiguity. You can see this in STOLEN FACE where she gets to have it both ways, playing both the good girl and the bad girl.

To even better demonstrate this split, consider her two best films, both noir masterpieces: In TOO LATE FOR TEARS she plays a deeply human and deeply scary femme fatale who will stop at nothing to keep a bag full of money. In PITFALL she plays a good woman who gets involved with the wrong man and pays a heavy price.

The thing these roles had in common was Liz's weary humanity. Fragile, a little sad, and completely indestructible. That's Liz. That's the Queen.

Essential Queen Liz:
Too Late For Tears

Best of the Rest:
Stolen Face
Dark City
I Walk Alone
The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers

Other Scott Noirs:
Dead Reckoning
Two Of A Kind
The Racket
The Company She Keeps
Desert Fury
The Weapon


Laurie Powers said...

I wasn't familiar with her, Jake, believe it or not. I'm a babe in the woods when it comes to noir. Can't wait to read your other posts on her.

Jake Hinkson said...

Laurie, Liz is criminally underrated. The upside is that you have a bunch of great movies to discover!

Debra Levine said...

Lizabeth Scott fans will like to read my brief commentary on her June 28, 2010 (rare) public appearance at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences: