Lizabeth Scott: She Had What It Took for Film Noir

Lizabeth Scott in Dead Reckoning

Lizabeth Scott and Humphrey Bogart in “Dead Reckoning”, 1947


As the clocks turn back and the weather turns cold, I turn back to my favourite genre,
film noir, transforming “Noirvember” into one of my favourite months.

Humphrey Bogart was resentful when obliged to perform with whom he considered an inferior Bacall-look-alike, Lizabeth Scott, in the 1947 Dead Reckoning. He had made two films with Lauren and their pairing in their first film together, To Have and Have Not, is still hard to match – at the tender age of 19, Bacall could crack wise with Bogie, measured up to his personality and was even “a little more insolent than he was”, as Howard Hawks, the film director, said. In fact, little was my surprise when I found out that Lizabeth Scott was originally molded by studio executive Hal B. Wallis to be the new Lauren Bacall, but eventually had to settle for B pictures, the way noir films were usually categorised. But the truth was that she had what it took for a first rate film noir femme fatale and then some.

With sparkling, luminous eyes, shimmering blonde locks, sculpted cheekbones, slinky figure and husky voice (“Cinderella with a husky voice,” Bogart’s character describes her when he first meets her), Lizabeth Scott exuded irresistible allure, but the kind of feline allure that belies danger and a maelstrom of scheming, deceit and betrayal. On screen, she came off as beautiful in an otherworldly kind of way (Lizabeth herself didn’t think of her as beautiful, but interesting) – she seemed she was always thinking elsewhere, always dreaming up a different kind of life, which plays up only too well for a noir character. Her on-screen image however was in fact contrasting with her real life. Lizabeth Scott was very down to earth, never interested in the material side, never believed in spending too much money on clothes, and choosing to invest her money wisely, which allowed her to live a comfortable life in Hollywood her entire life, while vigorously protecting her privacy, even if she retired from the movies very early on.

Scott had made her debut with You Came Along in 1945, then she made The Strange Love of Martha Ivers in 1946, costarring Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas and Van Heflin, but Dead Reckoning was her breakthrough. She did pretty well, too, because, right until the end of the film, you are not quite sure which side of the fence she is playing. Bogart’s Captain Rip Murdock put it this way: “I didn’t like the feeling I had upon her, the way I wanted to put my hands around her arm, the way I kept smelling that jasmine in her hair, the way I kept hearing that song she’d sung. Yeah. I was walking into something alright.” Dusty is the type that listens, waits and disappears until nighttime (she’s got the name to prove it, too), in the classic noir tradition of a femme fatale, who lives by night and is not afraid to walk alone down the empty streets under dimly lit lamps, nor to meet him in nightclubs and the darkest alleys, in pursuit of security, comfort and furs. She is also the type that brings the ultimate demise to the guy who falls for her. Only the game she’s playing might prove too dangerous for her as well.

Film noir suited Scott well because it touched, she observed, on “the psychological, emotional things that people feel and people do. It was a new realm, and it was very exciting, because suddenly you were coming closer and closer to reality. What you call film noir I call psychological drama. It showed all these facets of human experience and conflict – that these women could be involved with their heart and yet could think with their minds.”

Here are the ensuing roles that earned her a well deserved place in the pantheon of classic film noir.

Mary Astor and Lizabeth Scott in “Desert Fury”, 1947

Directed by Lewis Allen, Desert Fury, 1947, was one of the few noir films shot in glorious Technicolor, following up on John M. Stahl’s great Leave Her to Heaven with Gene Tierney in an extraordinarily layered and unsettling role, from 1945. Mary Astor is Fritzi, the owner of the biggest local casino in Chukawalla, Nevada, anticipating the roles of Marlene Dietrich’s in Fritz Lang’s 1952 Rancho Notorious and Joan Crawford’s in Johnny Guitar, 1954, directed by Nicholas Ray. Fritzi was one of Astor’s few occasions of playing scheming characters, much to her disappointment. Lizabeth Scott is her rebellious daughter, Paula. She is the good girl gone bad gone good again. She is not afraid to stand up to her powerful mother. She wouldn’t hesitate to side with the bad guys if there was no other way for her to break loose from her mother. It’s clear that she has a dark side, something that in fact exists in every human being. It’s just that she is more likely to let it out, if triggered, than most. Another femme fatale trait.

Lizabeth Scott and Raymond Burr in “Pitfall”, 1948

In Pitfall, 1948, directed by André De Toth, Dick Powell, in an excellent role, is a cynical insurance man, John Forbes (married to a beautiful and resourceful wife, Jane Wyatt, and father of a little boy), who is having a life crisis and meets another woman at the wrong time. The film explores the darker side of the American dream. The setting is not the large, dark, looming city, but the seemingly idyllic suburbia populated by everyman and everywoman, which makes this noir film unusually relatable – it is this same contradiction between the strong sense of family life depicted and the dark underlay, something very unusual for noir, that makes Shadow of a Doubt my favourite Hitchcock film (taking turns with Rear Window) and one of my favourite noir films. I used the words “another” woman and not the “wrong” woman above for describing the character of Mona Stevens, played by Lizabeth Scott in one of her best performances, because, despite being the lure that attracts Forbes and drives him away from the safety of his bourgeois home, she is not a femme fatale in the classic noir sense, but rather a doomed innocent, a woman who happens to fall for the wrong guy time and again (her ex-boyfriend is a jailed crook and when she becomes involved with Forbes, she does not know he is married and ends it immediately after she finds out). She is not the one who leads any of the men who fall for her to their doom, it is quite the contrary (the individual gets sacrificed for the bigger “good”, to save the society patterns of respectability and “happy” American family), and therein lies another particularity that makes this noir stand apart in the film noir canon, and a particularity among Lizabeth Scott’s noir roles, too.
Lizabeth Scott in Too Late for Tears

Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy in “Too Late for Tears”, 1949

Byron Haskin’s Too Late for Tears is a different type of noir, too, but from entirely different reasons. It is a femme fatale noir. Sure, the femme fatale character is present in most movies of the genre, but rarely do we see and live the story from their point of view. And the lack of any trace of sentimentality here (“too late for tears”) is one of the reasons why this one is such a good, although highly under-appreciated, noir. Because a genuine noir does not force or does not mislead you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending. Another different thing about this noir is that the femme fatale is a housewife. And not just any housewife, but the middle class American housewife. And she turns out to be a cold blooded murderer. Lizabeth Scott gives a riveting performance as Jane Palmer, a housewife whose dreams seem will never come true. Her obsession with money is so powerful – the true relationship she has is not with any of the men she gets involved with, but her relationship with money – that she finds self-justification for greed, for any wrong doing, for murder. And she is what she is without apologizing. She’s even got you thinking: “That’s how badly she wants something to change in her life”. It’s just incredible how easily Lizabeth Scott pulled off this devious, psychopathic role.

Lizabeth Scott and Robert Mitchum in “The Racket”, 1951

‘Do you like nightclubs?,” is what a decent guy who has a crush on her asks Irene Hayes (Lizabeth Scott), a nightclub singer, in The Racket. “No, I don’t,” she answers. “But I like to eat. Three times a day.” In this 1951 noir, directed by John Cromwell, Robert Ryan, at his volcanic best, is a racketeer, and Robert Mitchum is the incorruptible cop who is determined to bring the mobster to justice. Lizabeth Scott is predictably involved in the rackets and that job of hers that she mentions is meant to be only temporary. Because she has a bigger goal in life, which is finding the man who will get her everything she wants, and that everything has very little to do with love. Only when the crooked world she’s surrounded with comes crumbling down, is she willing to take a chance with that decent man. “If honesty is the style around here, I’d better play along,” she says. But I don’t see her future settled, this could rather be the beginning of the story in Too Late for Tears.
Related reading: Gloria Grahame in Films Noir / Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven / The Femme Fatale Is Wearing White

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