Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Noir City Chicago 6 and The Altars of Forgotten Women

This weekend Noir City Chicago kicks off at the Music Box Theater with two of my favorite films: TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949) starring Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea, and ROADBLOCK (1950) starring Joan Dixon and Charles McGraw.

I've written about both of these films on this blog (here and here), and I'd like to reprint an essay I posted here a few years ago that celebrates Lizabeth Scott and Joan Dixon.

Here's "The Altars of Forgotten Women":

One of the ironies of film noir is that many of its lasting icons were never stars in their lifetime. More than any other genre, stardom in noir is retroactive. Someone like Ann Savage had only the most fleeting taste of fame in her youth before Hollywood showed her the door. Yet, Savage was one the lucky people who lived to see her fame catch up to her. A cheap little sixty-five minute crime picture called DETOUR—a picture Savage appears in for all of thirty minutes—somehow endured and prospered over the years. Savage was in her sixties and working as a secretary when she discovered that she was at the center of a cult.

Savage’s cult is just a faction of something larger called film noir, which is, among other things, largely a cult of forgotten women. Savage was not alone in finding herself as an object of worship. Within this convocation there are many different sects, sects with passionately devoted followers. Actors like Audrey Totter, Marie Windsor, Evelyn Keyes, and Janis Carter all have legions of admirers. None of them were really stars in their day, but their movies have a life all their own. Long after their careers fizzled out, sometimes after their own deaths, some actors finally became stars. That just about defines the word bittersweet.

Of course, major stars like Audrey Hepburn and Judy Garland experience a similar life after death effect, and a select few even seem to reach beyond mere stardom and become a part of the larger shared consciousness of society. You could argue, at this point in Western culture, that Marilyn Monroe is nearly as iconic as the Virgin Mary.

Yet film noir is a genre born out of B-movie obscurity. Lizabeth Scott will never be as famous as Marilyn Monroe, but she is the ruler of her own dark little corner of Dreamtown because is the woman who most deserves the title of Queen of Noir. She starred in more film noirs than nearly anyone else, and she was also unique in that her filmography consists mostly of noirs. She only made a handful of movies that didn’t involve people betraying each other and ending up gutshot at the end. She played the entire range of characters available to women in the genre, from doe-eyed innocents (THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, THE COMPANY SHE KEEPS) to world-weary lounge singers (DARK CITY, I WALK ALONE) to cold-blooded femme fatales (STOLEN FACE). She starred in one of the genre’s real lowlights, the misogynistic DEAD RECKONING. She starred in what maybe the campiest noir ever made, the hilarious DESERT FURY. Most importantly, she starred in two of the finest noirs we have, Andre De Toth’s 1948 PITFALL and Byron Haskin’s 1949 TOO LATE FOR TEARS.

To understand the appeal of Liz Scott, one only need to look at those last two films. In the first, she plays a woman named Mona Stevens who falls into an affair with a married man played by Dick Powell. Their affair is discovered by a psychotic private detective (played by Raymond Burr) who is obsessed with Mona and proceeds to make life hell for everyone involved. The cast here is superb, and at the center , in a performance of great sympathy, is Queen Liz. She makes Mona a sexy woman (which must have been fairly easy since Scott herself was gorgeous, blonde, and had a voice that was equal parts cigarettes and silk), but she also makes Mona a sad woman. Loneliness is the undercurrent of Scott's voice, the thing that pulls you further down into her trap. Even when she’s happy, you can tell that Scott is afraid of the worst. In PITFALL, she pretty much gets the worst at the hands of thoughtless men.

In TOO LATE FOR TEARS, she gets her revenge. As housewife turned criminal Jane Palmer, Scott creates a portrait of coolheaded evil. Jane and her husband Alan (Arthur Kennedy) are driving home one night when someone tosses a briefcase full of money into their car. Is the money a payment for a ransom? Perhaps a blackmail payoff? Alan doesn’t care, he just wants to turn the money over to the cops. His wife, ah, disagrees. She’s willing to do anything to keep the cash, even after slimy crook Dan Duryea shows up looking for it and slaps her around. Neither the crook nor the husband have any idea who they’re dealing with in Jane Palmer. These guys are toast. With her performance, Scott makes a pretty good grab for the most evil femme fatale on record, yet she also makes Jane Palmer curiously relatable. Again, there’s that sadness, that aching, unfulfilled need at the center of Lizabeth Scott that comes through in her performance. Jane Palmer is evil, yes, but she’s also smart, dogged, and utterly human.

It is, after all, humanity that is the great appeal of the forgotten women of film noir, our sense that we’re seeing a human being alive onscreen. Movies of the forties and fifties were made to be dreamlike, and all these years later they still seem like dreams. The dreams hook us; the humanity makes us obsessives, worshipers at the altar. “Who was this woman?” we ask. Not just Queen Liz (who, happily, is still alive as I write this), but so many others. We watch them laugh and cry and scheme and die and then we watch them do it all over again. It doesn’t take much to hook us.

Take Joan Dixon. In 1951 she starred in a vastly underrated film noir called ROADBLOCK alongside Charles McGraw. She plays Diane, a sexy conwoman who marries a straight-laced insurance investigator name Joe Peters, a marriage that will have disastrous results. Joan Dixon strolls through this movie as if she’s one of the great femme fatales. It’s not just that she’s beautiful, it’s that she projects that essential combination of intoxicating sexual allure and an untouchable, unknowable center. Is Diane bad? It’s tough to say. Dixon might be criticized for giving a performance that's too laid back, but I would argue that very ambiguity is her greatest attribute. She doesn’t set out to ruin Joe Peters, but once she meets him, he’s a goner. It’s an interesting take on the femme fatale. Many femmes are man-eating monsters. Diane is different. She’s a catalyst who opens up all the insecurity and greed buried beneath honest Joe Peters’ upright fa├žade. It takes quite a gal to destroy Charles McGraw. Joan Dixon does it without really trying.

One thing’s for sure: she never had much of a career in Hollywood. She started out at RKO under contract to Howard Hughes (which was not somewhere a fresh-faced twenty-year old from Norfolk, Virginia wanted to find herself). Hughes promised to build her career, but he was too busy running RKO into the ground. Dixon spent most of her time in low budget westerns and ended her acting career in the late fifties doing bit parts on television. By then, she’d become a lounge singer and was mostly notable in the newspapers for a string of quick marriages and messy divorces. She died in Los Angles in 1992.

She was no one’s idea of the queen of anything, yet she lives on in this little-seen masterpiece. Her fame hasn’t happened yet, unlike Ann Savage or Lizabeth Scott. Even in the insular world of film noir, Joan Dixon isn’t an icon—yet. I have faith, however, that her cult is coming. If there’s one thing that you can learn from the history of noir, it’s that there’s always time.

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