The evening of Friday Feb. 6 was a sad occasion for the Film Noir community with the passing of Lizabeth Scott (she actually died on the 31st of January). Her home studio Paramount intended her as a carbon copy of sorts to Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall (a common practice in the Studio Era to keep their stars in line), but she quickly forged her own personality.
Aided by her smoky contralto voice, slim slinky physique and angular beauty, Scott perfectly fit in with the shadows and grit of Noir. Fans remember her best for her turns as avaricious femme fatales in Dead Reckoning and Too Late for Tears. She gives her best performance in the latter as a housewife who becomes a mercenary murderess when she and her plain, simple husband (soon to be ex) stumble on a bag of major cash intended for a shady character (Dan Duryea).
Scott totally sinks her teeth into a character that has no redeeming features, pulling off the hard feat of making the audience root for an unrelentingly soulless and unscrupulous dame. As she demonstrates in a scene with her character’s antagonist played by Dan Duryea, she has an intriguing way of feigning submission that comes off as a parody of the construct of femininity. (The New York Times, which almost always trashed Scott’s acting, gave her a glowing review.)
While fans remember Scott’s criminal baddie characters, most of the roles she played were essentially good girls heavily seasoned with spice. Scott, who was a very sophisticated 25, could have been a total misfire as a rebellious teenager who falls for a dangerous criminal in the 1947 Technicolor Noir, Desert Fury. Since the film itself is wonderfully oddball, Scott’s “miscasting” is an asset as she adds a rough sexual tension that might not be present from a more typical ingénue. Her relationship with her mother (played by the fabulous Mary Astor) has a striking hard-boiled love-hate quality with a lesbian subtext.
In Dark City, best known as the film debut of Charlton Heston, Scott gives her most underrated performance as a nightclub singer who is both a part of the criminal underworld and a tender and faithful companion to Heston’s good-bad guy.
She is equally credible as the good girl in the melodrama The Company She Keeps. Scott elevates the potentially soggy character, an altruistic parole officer, with a clear-sighted, unsentimental performance. She is able to hold her own against Jane Greer, who has the far meatier role as the bruised parolee who falls for Scott’s fiancé.
The moral ambiguity of Film Noir began phasing out by the 1950s as McCarthy and his hysterical anti-commie posse seized Hollywood with their well organized, but pointless witch-hunt. Quality roles for Scott started dwindling as well. She plays femme fatales with humor and charm in Two of a Kind and Bad for Each Other, but the films themselves are dreadful bores.
Unlike most of her studio-era peers (often under duress from the big boss), Scott never married. In the reactionary regressive cult of suburban domesticity that plagued much of 1950s America, Scott was an easy target for a salacious Confidential article, which alluded that she was a lesbian “prone to indecent, illegal and highly offensive acts in her private and public life.” While this story did not outright destroy her career, it didn’t help it either.
Around the same time Scott developed stage fright (which is not uncommon among seasoned performers) which made acting less appealing to her. Her appearances became increasingly more sporadic until she retired from the biz for good in 1972. She gives a scene-stealing guest starring turn, playfully camping it up as a mysterious, but sexually aggressive widow in a 1963 episode of the TV series Burke’s Law.
Intellectually curious about the world, Scott continued studying literature and philosophy. In interviews, she came across as an intelligent and thoughtful person. Now that Scott is gone, we are nearer to the end of an era of the great femme fatales. Thankfully, their cinematic legacy will live on.