The Blonde Lady of Film Noir

If I’m not mistaken Lizabeth Scott was the last of the leading ladies of classic film noir. Her later life was sufficiently reclusive that I thought she had passed away years ago. In her heyday Scott’s forte was playing rough-edged but sincere heroines. Her slightly chiseled good looks and distinctive voice made her eminently believable playing a variety of world-weary chanteuses who made been in one town too many and experienced one lifetime’s worth of hard luck. Her debut film, Lewis Milestone’s “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” started her on this path early. She didn’t play Martha–that plum role went to Barbara Stanwyck. Scott played Toni Maracek, just out of women’s prison and already being bum-rushed out of Iverstown by the minions of Martha’s law-and-order D.A. husband. Her luck seemed bound to change. Well, in her next at-bat, the Bogart vehicle “Dead Reckoning,” she was certainly living in plusher digs than her Iverstown boarding house–and she had a career. She was Coral Chandler, lead singer at local gang-boss Martinelli’s casino. How could a newly-returned vet like Bogart not fall for her? Well, the fact that she’s secretly married to Martinelli, and set up Bogie’s paratrooper buddy for a murder wrap may have helped. Of course she does somewhat redeem herself by shooting Martinelli, but then she turns the gun on Bogie as well. As Coral said, it was a sad, blue world, and somebody was always pushing her.

In “Desert Fury” she played younger than her years as Mary Astor’s headstrong, confused daughter. Mom runs the local gambling hell, so Paula doesn’t have to sing for her supper in this one. She does however make the mistake of falling for out-of-town hood Eddie Bendix, played by a mustachioed John Hodiak. Eddie seems so lonely and haunted–a real desert Rochester–how could a healthy, strong-willed girl just expelled from finishing school resist him. Sadly for Paula, Eddie’s moroseness stems from his being a psychopath who has already murdered one Mrs. Bendix. Fortunately for Paula, the local law, a young Burt Lancaster, has his eyes on her as well–and he knows a psycho when he sees one. Scott was able to return the favor in “I Walk Alone,” when, as the star attraction at Noll Turner’s fabulous Regents Club, she saves Burt from the manipulations of his suave former partner Noll, played by Kirk Douglas in the pair’s first on-screen teaming.

Two of Scott’s best noir roles followed. Re-united with director Byron Haskin, who had directed her in “I Walk Alone,” she played L.A. housewife Jane Palmer in “Too Late for Tears.” Jane is just your basic bored, dissatisfied homemaker, until she and her accountant husband literally have a fortune tossed into the back seat of their convertible. Trouble is, it wasn’t meant for them. It was meant for Dan Duryea’s crooked private detective as part of a political pay-off. But the newly-wealthy Jane is determined to keep her loot. When her straight-laced husband insists on turning it in to the police, Jane arranges an accident for him. When Duryea’s Danny tracks her down, she undergoes the traditional Duryea tough-love treatment. But Jane is no wilting flower, before long she has Duryea completely in her power and, when he proves inconvenient, forces him to consume a fatal highball. In Andre De Toth’s “Pitfall,” she seems poised to play yet another bad ‘un leading straight-laced insurance investigator Dick Powell to his doom. But here she proves to be as much victim as victimizer. Powell neglects to inform her that he has a wife and son at home, and she herself falls prey to the unwelcome attentions of Raymond Burr’s MacDonald, another investigator with even less scruples than Powell. She concluded the decade playing fading football star Victor Mature’s money-hungry, and unfaithful, wife in Jacques Tourneur’s “Easy Living.”

By 1950 the noir cycle was beginning to lose steam, and Scott’s roles became less interesting. In “Dark City” she was back to singing in a nightclub and trying to save her boyfriend, Charlton Heston’s disillusioned gambler, from himself. But mid-way through the film her role is supplanted by Viveca Lindfors, playing the widow of a man who hung himself after Heston and his cronies cheated him out of company funds in a rigged poker game. In “The Racket” she was still singing in nightclubs, and dating top-hood Robert Ryan’s spoiled younger brother. When the brother screws up, and is facing serious jail time, Ryan pressures witness Scott to clam up, at the same time that Robert Mitchum’s righteous cop is pressing her to tell all. And Coral Chandler though she was being pushed! Of course being stuck in the middle of an acting tug-of-war between Mitchum and Ryan would probably make Sarah Berhnardt look pale, so it hardly surprising that Scott didn’t make much of an impression in this one–one of her last film noir appearances. “Two of a Kind” gave her a better opportunity playing opposite Edmond O’Brien as the distaff half of con-artist team promoting a phony heir to an unclaimed fortune. In 1954 Allan Dwan directed her in “Silver Lode,” a curious semi-noir western in which John Payne’s wedding to Scott is disrupted by the arrival in town of Dan Duryea’s federal marshal, who claims to have a warrant for Payne’s arrest. This being a western, there wasn’t much for Scott to do aside from looking distressed at Duryea’s increasingly over-the-top tactics.

Scott moved to England and did better with a role as a surgically-altered convict in “Stolen Faces” and in one of her last appearances, as the anguished mother of a child on the run after accidentally shooting a playmate in “The Weapon.” In the 1970s Mike Hodges brought Scott out of retirement to play the mysterious widow of a mob kingpin in the dramedy “Pulp,” which failed to make the same impression as an earlier Mike Hodges/Michael Caine teaming in a little item called “Get Carter.”

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