Bombast: Lizabeth Scott
Of course the women who were involved in that loosely defined phenomenon we call film noir would outlive their leading men. Women live longer, and they were younger to begin with—that was part of the setup, the Venus flytrap baited with something sweet. Jean Simmons, who wasn’t especially associated with noir but gained a measure of immortality in Angel Face when she backed off a cliff with Robert Mitchum in the car, went in 2010. Last December we lost Audrey Totter, who wielded bosoms like artillery at a cowering Richard Basehart in Tension (49), at the ripe age of 95. And now, some days after the event itself, news arrives that Lizabeth Scott, aged 92, has died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Having to turn to the obituary mode, if it isn’t your specific job description, can feel like a failure. Whenever possible it’s better to talk about people in the present tense; you ought to have gotten there already. I meant to, at least, for Lizabeth Scott is an actress who always made an impression on me, through the fact of her existential presence if nothing else. Scott was a blonde. Not usually a platinum blonde, though she photographed that way, for her time in pictures was a great time—maybe the great time—for brunettes. She had a heavy sculptural brow, wide-set eyes, almost impossibly symmetrical features, a broad mouth that turned down ever so slightly at the corners, and, her calling card, a deep, damask-plush burr of a voice. Even when playing light comedy, Scott betrayed a close acquaintance with dolor. Commenting on the characters in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (46), one of them played by Scott, a young Manny Farber wrote that they “act as if there were no evil that hadn’t been imposed on them.” This quality makes Scott all the more touching when she succumbs, however momentarily, to giddiness, as in Andre de Toth’s Pitfall (48): an employee of the Olympic Insurance Company, John Forbes (Dick Powell), comes to the home of one Mona Stevens (Scott) to collect the gifts that her now-incarcerated boyfriend bought for her with embezzled funds; Forbes decides to let her take one last joyride on the speedboat she keeps in Santa Monica Bay and, as they get out into open water, she fleetingly forgets herself, flashing an enormous smile. It’s a strange smile, but everything about Scott is strange—the girlish self-consciousness combined with a voice that speaks of ancient experience, the unheard-of name (“Lizabeth”?) that she cooked up for herself. Despite this strangeness, she went largely uncommented on by the better critics of her day, and of later days—in vain one searches glossaries between George C., Randolph, and, God forbid, Ridley. So I would like to say a few words for her here.
The woman who would become Lizabeth Scott was born Emma Matzo, in 1922, to parents of ambiguous Eastern European extraction—Ukrainian? Russian? Slovakian? Rusyn?—in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The city is not known for evoking glamorous associations. It’s given as the home of down-and-out Roy Munson in Kingpin (96), while other native-born contributors to motion-picture arts are director Cy Endfield, who was run out of the U.S. in Blacklist times, like many who’d been involved with the noir cycle, and Jason Miller, The Exorcist’s Father Damien, who died of a heart attack in 2001, over lunch at the city’s since-closed Farley’s Pub and Eatery. At the time when Scott was being raised in the Pinebrook neighborhood, northeast of downtown, the Electric City would’ve still been at the height of its boomtown years, a rail hub and center for the anthracite coal industry, textiles, and gramophone pressing.
I Walk Alone
Emma’s shopkeeper father, who ran his store from the ground floor of their house, did well enough in his business to afford her elocution and piano lessons, which started her on her way to New York City and the stage. It was while living in the Upper East Side and studying at the Alviene School of the Theatre that Matzo devised her new name, “Elizabeth Scott,” inspired by Maxwell Anderson’s Mary, Queen of Scots—curiously, the Catholic Emma opted to identify with Elizabeth I instead of her papist sister. This piece of information comes from the Wikipedia entry on Scott, which is more gruelingly researched and annotated than that on the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, citing such varied and multiple sources as The Scranton Republican, Karen Burroughs Hannsberry’s Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film, Burt Prelutsky’s Sixty Seven Conservatives You Should Meet Before You Die, and Bernard F. Dick’s Hal Wallis: Producer to the Stars. As I cannot hope to better the comprehensiveness of this piece of work, which will have to stand in the stead of an official biography until one arrives, I will try to limit myself to the most salient details of her career.
Scott’s first professional gig began in 1940 when she was hired onto one of the many touring companies performing Hellzapoppin’, sans originators “Ole” Olsen and “Chic” Johnson. Subsequently, producer Michael Myerberg hired Scott as an understudy to Tallulah Bankhead in the original Elia Kazan–directed Broadway production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. Bankhead was originating the role of Lilly Sabina, housemaid in the home of the play’s protagonists, George and Maggie Antrobus, and a sultry, distracting, disruptive presence. The whole of human history—right down to and beyond the then-present moment of international crisis—is compressed and conflated into the three acts of Wilder’s play, while the Antrobuses and Sabina are all archetypes: the eternal Patriarch, Matriarch, and Other Woman. Unlike most other literati, Wilder seemed to be able to handle himself in Hollywood, where they also tended to work in archetypes, and while The Skin of Our Teeth’s run continued, his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, Shadow of a Doubt, appeared in theaters in 1943, bringing with it a corrosive new nihilism.
Scott had been hired onto The Skin of Our Teeth as insurance and as a threat to “keep [Bankhead] in her corner, so she’d not get too obstreperous,” as Scott recalled in a 1996 interview. It wasn’t the last time that the young actress would be employed as a counter-move, a stand-in, or a replacement. When producer Hal Wallis, who’d recently joined Paramount after leaving Warner Bros. in a huff, signed Scott to a contract in late 1944, the scuttlebutt was that he was looking for a counterpunch to Lauren Bacall, then being primed for stardom at Warners, and Scott would be haunted by belittling comparisons to Bacall throughout her career. (In fact Scott never had Bacall’s protective veneer of sophistication, and was best when she didn’t try to.) At any rate, Scott did eventually get to play Sabina in Boston, dropping the “E” from her name for the occasion, and apparently retained the memory of the opening monologue until the very end of her life: “The whole world’s at sixes and sevens, and why the house hasn’t fallen down about our ears long ago is a miracle to me… Don’t forget that it wasn’t that many years ago we came through the credit crisis by the skin of our teeth! One more tight squeeze like that and where will we be?”
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
Scott made her screen debut in the summer of 1945, when the world’s latest tight squeeze was almost through. The picture was You Came Along, a service dramedy produced by Wallis, directed by John Farrow, and written by that ever-lovin’ cutup, Ayn Rand. (Along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, among Scott’s favorite authors.) It wasn’t until Scott’s sophomore role, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, directed from Lewis Milestone from a script by Robert Rossen, that she started in on the sort of films that would define her career. It was one of the movies that would retroactively be labeled film noir, which as far as anyone has been able to figure out has something to do with German expressionism brought over by a swelling émigré artist community in Hollywood, the psychic trauma of the war which the United States had just scraped through by the skin of its teeth, a jaundiced view of humanity of the sort evident in Shadow of a Doubt, and the eternal Other Woman, who was now traveling under the name of femme fatale.
Scott isn’t a femme fatale in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers: her Antonia “Toni” Marachek is a girl on a run of bad luck trying to get out of a factory town called Iverstown, which might be the Scranton of Emma Matzo’s girlhood. She’s introduced putting a rather aggressive pickup on Sam Masterson (Van Heflin), a local boy who’s come back home after 18 years to get himself tangled up with some old acquaintances—Martha O’Neil (Barbara Stanwyck), formerly Ivers, who married the third wheel of their childhood days, Walter (Kirk Douglas, another Wallis discovery, debuting here), and manipulated him through law school and right into the seat of District Attorney. A dry-dick drunk with a jealous streak, Walter’s a bad enemy; using Toni’s past trouble with the law as a means of control, he strong-arms her into setting up Masterson for a warning beat-down by some of his enforcers, and the stakes keep going up from there. While everyone else in this setup has an angle, whipped-by-the-world Toni is more acted-upon than actor—though to hear Walter O’Neil tell it moments before a double suicide, this is a universal, or at least national, condition: “It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just the way things are.” (Rossen would soon be temporarily put out of work by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which is just the way things were.)
Columbia borrowed Scott to star opposite Bogart in John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning (47)—a bald attempt to reproduce the success of the studio’s Gilda of the previous year, replete with big nightclub numbers. Scott’s singing voice was dubbed by Trudy Stevens, as it would be in the Byron Haskin–directed I Walk Alone (48)—another torch singer, another set of intrigues, these noteworthy as a pretext for the first pairing of Douglas and Burt Lancaster. Too Late For Tears (49), also directed by Haskin, gave Scott her first full-fledged femme fatale role, one of her most remarkable. The film begins with Mrs. Jane Palmer (Scott) bickering with her husband (Arthur Kennedy) as they’re on the way to dinner with some mutual acquaintances whose high-hat snobbishness she can’t bear to face. As he prepares to turn around, a passing car flings an overnight bag filled with $60,000 in unmarked bills into their convertible—a botched ransom hand-off. Mr. Palmer wants to return the cash, but Mrs. Palmer still gets chills thinking about having grown up “white-collar poor, middle-class poor,” and so Mr. Palmer winds up at the bottom of the amusement lake where the couple had their first date, while newly single Jane starts working her charms on the shakedown artist, Danny (Dan Duryea), who comes looking for his money. Soon enough Danny’s in thrall to Jane, thanks to what he calls “that trick with [her] eyes”—the glint that, along with the crushed velour voice, was something like Scott’s signature. “That trick” gets quite a workout when Jane slips new partner Danny a cyanide mickey and takes off for Mexico where she intends to embark on a ritzy new life. The brief glimpse we get of Jane living high off her ill-gotten gains shows Scott at her most vivacious—she flashes something like that emancipated smile on the speedboat in Pitfall—and it seems like she’s on the cusp of a new, happy, unattached life, of the sort that Scott herself enjoyed. Jane might take up a pen, become another Rand preaching a doctrine of greed—but of course decency (and Joe Breen) demanded that her transgressions must catch up with her, at which point there’s nothing left for her to do but backflip off the balcony of her luxury hotel.
Too Late for Tears
Jane Palmer is a creature of beyond-good-and-evil glamour and calculation, though Scott’s greatest role was on a life-sized scale. Andre de Toth, many years after the fact, described his casting of Scott opposite Dick Powell in Pitfall: “I did not want a fashionable Hollywood bambola to cheapen the story. For Forbes’s ‘pitfall’ I wanted a warm, sincere, vulnerable human being. She had to have the talent to feel, not to play the part. For me, there was only one on the ‘market’: Lizabeth Scott.”
As in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Scott is playing a good-bad girl, “the poor little waif who gets involved with the wrong element,” as she described this sort of role. When Powell’s Forbes asks Scott’s Mona Stevens how she got herself into such a predicament, she shrugs, “Just lucky, I guess”—and is she ever right. The next guy she falls for is Forbes himself, who forgets to mention the fact that he’s married until after they’ve made it, by which point she’s attracting unwanted attention from MacDonald (Raymond Burr), a PI hired by Forbes’s agency, and her jailbird ex- (Byron Barr), who’s whipped up into a froth of jealousy by MacDonald’s Iago act. There will be grave repercussions for Forbes’s lapse, but before the bullets start to fly, de Toth gives us a movie that is startlingly frank and—even more rare—entirely unhysterical about such little-discussed commonplaces as middle-aged stultification, squelched desire, and the attrition of going day to day with ever-diminishing expectations. Forbes lives a chartered, flatlined middle-class life, while Mona gets by on little modeling jobs which leave her at the constant disposal of men—there is a particularly painful scene where MacDonald comes to bully her on the job and she can do nothing about it, because that is the job. Scott and Powell’s scenes together are without exception extraordinary examples of scaled-in acting, from the first flush of flirtation, when she gives a charming discourse on the pleasures of daytime boozing, to the coming-clean and the breakup. (“I’m sorry, Mona…” “I rather imagine you are.”) Here, for anyone who cared to see it, was evidence of what Scott could do with the right part and the right director.
The one person who might’ve really made a difference didn’t seem to take the hint. Star-maker extraordinaire Wallis, who’d “discovered” Scott, who purportedly carried on an affair with her over the course of over a decade, and who by some reckonings was in love with her until the end of his life, seems to have had no idea what to do with her. There were more chanteuse parts in Dark City (50) and The Racket (51); the latter one of her undistinguished loan-outs, to RKO (Easy Living, 49; The Company She Keeps, 51) and Columbia (Two of a Kind, 51; Bad for Each Other, 53); and a teaming with Dean and Jerry, also Wallis signees, in Scared Stiff (53). From this period, I have a certain fondness for a film which Scott made in the United Kingdom, Stolen Face (52), in which she plays a concert pianist, Alice Brent, who has a passionate flirtation with a brilliant plastic surgeon, Dr. Ritter (Paul Henreid), then abruptly breaks it off to protect him from the knowledge that she’s already engaged. Heartbroken, Dr. Ritter decides to “give” Alice’s face to one of his charity cases, a female criminal who was mutilated in the Blitz. From here on Scott plays a double role, as the “artificial” Alice dubbed in a Cockney accent and carrying on in a fashion which confirms the worst fears of criminal recidivism. A parody of social welfare of the Pygmalion school, Stolen Face has been cited as a precursor for Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as well as a predictor of director Terence Fisher’s future work in the horror genre under the auspices of Hammer Film Productions. (Coincidentally, the gossip pages of 1950 had linked Scott to a prominent plastic surgeon, Dr. Gregory Pollock)
Where Joan Bennett had Fritz Lang and Ella Raines had Robert Siodmak (and vice versa), Scott never found a collaborator who could consistently activate her talents—maybe there wasn’t room for one with Wallis around. She made three films with second-rater John Cromwell, three with William Dieterle (none of them his finest), and two with Haskin, more distinguished as a special-effects innovator than director, though not without a measure of vigor. She worked only once with de Toth, Fisher, and Allan Dwan, a holdover from the D.W. Griffith era who kept steadily working in ever more marginal settings right into the Space Age. The Dwan film, a Western called Silver Lode (54), was Scott’s first after professionally parting ways with Wallis, and the first of several that the director would make with actor John Payne and Benedict Earl Bogeaus, a Chicago-born zipper magnate turned independent producer. Dan Ballard (Payne) is ready to be married to one Rose Evans (Scott) when a certain U.S. Marshal McCarty (Duryea, more unsavory than ever in spurs) rides in from out of nowhere and demands the arrest of Ballard on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations.
Because Silver Lode tells the story of a man who gains power by sowing seeds of distrust, and because this man’s name, McCarty, sounds an awful lot like McCarthy, it has been taken as a parable for the political witch hunts then being led by the Senator from Wisconsin. Silver Lode was released in June of 1954, mere weeks after Joseph N. Welch had gelded the flop-sweat-bathed Senator on national television during the Army-McCarthy hearings. And while McCarthy was done for, the great American tradition of gossip and backbiting lived on. In 1955, a story accusing Scott of lesbian intrigues was on the galleys for Confidential magazine. Written by Howard Rushmore, the scandal sheet’s editor, the piece, titled “Lizabeth Scott in the Call Girls’ Call Book,” stated that Scott traveled in “off-color joints” using the nickname “Scotty,” appeared in “the little Black books kept by Hollywood prostitutes,” and had recently consorted with Parisian nightclub manager Frédérique “Frédé” Baulé, “that city’s most notorious lesbian queen.” (For the record, Colette had died in August 1954, so it’s possible the crown was up for grabs.) Rather than pay out to kill the story, as was usual practice, Scott had her attorneys level a $2.5 million libel suit at the magazine, which ran the story tout de suite. (There is some dispute as to whether the libel charge was over the reporting of same-sex trysts, or the allegation that Scott used call girls.)
With or without the legal fracas, it’s quite possible that Scott’s film career would’ve been on the way out anyways. Her increasing stage fright had taken the savor out of playing star. She patched things up with Wallis, who wrangled her into one last gig opposite his newest cash cow, Elvis Presley, in Loving You (57), then essentially called it a day in the picture business. In 1958 she recorded a 12-song LP for the Vik Records label with Henri René and his orchestra. Those looking for a glimpse into Scott’s psyche should drop the needle on “A Deep Dark Secret,” which speaks of a hush-hush hookup with a gender-neutral someone, and ends with Scott teasing “Well, if you really want to know…” before trailing off. She never married, though she got close—a 1969 engagement to a San Antonio oilman was broken when he dropped dead, followed by a disputation over the will that, it needs be said, has some noir-ish overtones. Through the Sixties she popped in for TV spots here and there, appeared for the museum piece novelty in Mike Hodges’s Pulp (72), and then effectively went into retirement, having apparently invested wisely. She audited university classes whenever time allowed, and the late-in-life interviews which she selectively gave showed she had a marvelous vocabulary to show for it. Her last listed screen credit is for the Michael Jackson: 30th Anniversary Celebration, when she was one of “Over Fifty Legendary Ladies of the Silver Screen” to convene in Madison Square Garden to witness a valedictory performance by the King of Pop and opening acts including Shaggy. Many of these women who sat to witness Mr. Boombastic’s performance of “It Wasn’t Me” were better-known names, but few could claim to have a Pitfall on their resume, and as Mr. Welles once said: “You only need one.”