This post is part of the Classic Movie History Blogathon Project. It’s hosted by the splendid Movies Silently (the silent era), Once Upon a Screen (the golden age) , and Silver Screenings (the modern era). And sponsored by classic movie specialists, Flicker Alley. Click on the host links for links to all the posts!
A sleek blonde with a strong-jaw and sleepy gaze, Lizabeth Scott was one of the queens of the noir genre. A film-nut friend of mine once said that he couldn’t decide if she was absolutely gorgeous or if she looked like a man in drag. I have a similar response. Lots of movie stars are “factually” pretty; but for me, Lizabeth Scott isn’t. Sometimes she’s gorgeous, but a moment later, she’s something else— Masculine? Homely? But you can’t take your eyes off her— pretty or not, she’s got glamor, fragility, sexuality. Like Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis, Lizabeth Scott proves that you don’t need flawlessness to fascinate on film.
Scott was my first noir-heroine. In fact, she might be the whole reason I got hooked on the genre. The summer between 6th and 7th grade, back when PBS used to show old movies, they played “The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers” over and over again. And I watched it. Again and again. I didn’t understand all of what I was watching—I didn’t know why Barbara Stanwyck was so cold or why Kirk Douglas was so weak or what Van Heflin was up to most of the time, but I “got” Lizabeth Scott. Blond, husky-voiced and just out of jail, she’s an outsider, a nobody. Sitting on the porch of a beat-up boarding house with her suitcase, she’s got no money and nowhere to go. When sturdy Van Heflin strolls up, she crosses her legs in tentative invitation. She starts out cool, sultry. She’s been around the block. But by the time Heflin gives her a cigarette, a light, and the time of day, her face is friendly and eager. Like a stray who’s found a friend. She’ll follow him anywhere, if he’ll let her. Scott is by no means the star of the picture, but she packs a whole life story into her performance.
Scott didn’t always play the bruised girl with a heart-of-gold. She played all kinds of noir women— sadistic, controlling, weird. I’ve watched a few Lizabeth Scott movies recently. Dead Reckoning, Too Late for Tears, The Strange Loves and Dark City. And I’m never disappointed. The noir universe wouldn’t be the same without her. She’s a live wire. June Allison with teeth. Lauren Bacall with a cruel twist. She’s a study in contrasts: a husky-voice with a childish warble, a chiseled face with sad wide-set eyes, elegant features that go off-balance and goofy with the slightest change in expression.
Along with her weird-beautiful face, Scott was a fascinating actress, always showing you the contradictions in the characters she played. Ruthless and vulnerable. Childlike and cunning. Even when she plays someone basically deranged, she’s sympathetic. Take Too Late for Tears. It’s a b-picture filmed on drab sets with few cinematic flourishes. But thanks to Scott’s performance, it’s an electric movie. You can’t take your eyes off her. One night, hubby and bored housewife Liz are driving home late from a party and a suitcase flies out of a passing car and into their convertible. Liz opens it, sees all those greenbacks and, right there, she’s overcome. The money is HERS. No one’s gonna take it away from her. Her husband, sensibly, thinks the case should be left alone or turned over to the police, but wifey can’t let it go. She can’t. She’ll do anything. In defense of the suitcase, she goes from kittenish to stiff to reasonable. All the stops. When hubby relents, at least momentarily, relief absolutely floods her face. The way Scott plays it, her motivation isn’t mere greed. It’s need.
When people start dying because Liz won’t let the money go, you almost sympathize with her. Because you really get the size of her desire. Her dangerous little housewife is a great villain because she isn’t bad for the sake of it. She’s bad because she’s got that all-American fever—She wants things; she wants to feel like she’s somebody. And suddenly, thanks to the suitcase, that’s all within her reach. The trick with playing a baddie is that too make them interesting you’ve got to show they’ve got something real and human on their minds, that their drives aren’t so different—they’re just cranked up a few notches. Scott nails it.
Lizabeth Scott plays goodness and vulnerability just as viscerally. In Dark City, she plays a sad-eyed saloon singer sprung on troubled gangster Charlton Heston. He likes her, but he’s a bitter guy and won’t let her in too close. In her very first scene, Scott masterfully establishes her character’s loneliness and sensitivity. Heston drops by the saloon where she works and he gives her a stuffed bunny (It’s Easter-time). The rabbit doesn’t mean much to him, he picked it up as an afterthought. But for Scott, it’s major, “No one’s given me anything like this since junior high.” She embraces the rabbit and rubs it softly across her cheek. This woman is dying for tenderness. No-one’s made her feel like a cherished sweetheart in a long, long time. So the gift makes her happy, but at the same time, it just underscores her loneliness. If she had real intimacy with Heston , she’d hug him. But he’s stiff and distracted, not tender at all. So she touches her own face. It’s a short scene, but Scott packs it with gratitude and yearning. So good.
Noir more than any other genre, is about the tension between the American dream and its reality. No one played these tensions better than Scott. She was too smart, too unique, too sensitive to play the good little housewife or even the plain old ruthless bitch. Her women are always conflicted, stuck between bitter reality and driving desire. Scott was a master. Her characters are never just bad, never just nice. She was so much more than just a pretty face. RIP.